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Field Trip Report – Behind the Scenes at the L.A. County Natural History Museum

March 24, 2010
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It’s a labyrinthine path one weaves to get to the Ornithology Dept.; fortunately, Collections Manager Kimball Garrett met us at the temporary Museum entrance so we had no problem. Once there, Kimball led us on a several-hour tour throughout his domain.

Specimens lined up like lollipops

The bird skins are housed in a cool room, nestled into numerous 12-ft. high cabinets at least 20 ft. long which rest on tracks. By spinning a crank they slide back and forth, making room to get at their drawers. (Storage space is tight).  Each of the hundreds – or thousands – of drawers are laden with bird skins, most of them stuffed plump with cotton.They look like feathered lollipops as most have a stick poking out their rear end. We looked at some woodpecker skins: Yellow-bellied and Red-naped Sapsuckers, Imperial and Ivory-billed, which is probably the only way anyone will ever see this last bird. Trays filled with painfully identical woodcreepers (a neotropical family of horrifically similar species) reminded me of why I start to panic whenever I see the living birds clambering up tree trunks in the rainforest. The drawers of manakins surprised those who had seen these neotropical lekking males on TV, disco-dancing and moonwalking to attract females; these tiny birds are only 3 to 6 inches long.

Kimball says that they have some some 115,000 specimens representing some

Collections Manager Kimball Garrett

5,000 species which is about 50%  of the world’s bird species. of the world’s bird species.  A specimen may consist of any or all of: skin – either flat or stuffed, skeleton, mounted for display, stomach contents, or pickled in a jar. Everything is cross-referenced and tagged, often with multiple tags. Many skins are over 100 years old and it’s interesting to see how often the scientific name changes over the decades, the results of research and new information forcing changes in taxonomy and nomenclature. Tags gradually become illegible when the ink fades or the tag slowly absorbs oil from the feathers; additional tags are then added to duplicate and – in many cases – update the information. The skins must also periodically be chilled to -30°F. to kill insect larva or eggs which are a continuing problem in all such collections.

Two cases near the entrance contain specimens used for current research. When someone is studying primary feather length or tarsus length in a particular species or cross-section of species, the items are stored here rather than laboriously and repetitively returned to their permanent locations. Among current projects is one the Dept’s curator, Dr. Kenneth Campbell, is doing on wild turkey legs, trying in part to determine whether the turkeys snared in the La Brea Tar Pits is the sane wild turkey species common in the U.S., the Ocellated Turkey of Central America, or yet another, now extinct, species.

Five volunteers, seated around a large table, were busily gutting and skinning birds. Scrape, scrape, scrape, off goes the fat from the inside of the skin. Finely ground corn husk flour is close at hand to soak up the – uh – liquids. Properly preparing a skin can take a couple of days. Nearby are large work/sinks with hoods overhead to capture fumes when specimens are unpickled.

Another storeroom is filled with shelves and boxes of bones. All the bones of any particular specimen go into their own box which can be smaller than a jeweler’s ring box for, say, a hummingbird, or twice the size of a shoe box for a heron. In theory, each bone gets the official specimen number; in practice, many bones are simply too small, and only the skull, sternum and pelvis may be numbered.

Two hours whizzed by: Kimball was lunch-hungry, so he led us back down Ariadne’s string to the entrance. We had seen and learned a lot: much work involved in maintaining a collection of this size, volunteers are integral and important in these days of budget crises, most of any collection’s specimens are never publicly displayed but are intended and used for research, researchers are constantly using the world’s bird collections, without the intentional creation of these collections we would know very little about birds, most of the specimens now coming into the museum are the result of accidental kills discovered by the general public or from deaths at zoos or rehabilitation facilities.

Many thanks to Kimball Garrett and the assorted volunteers at the collection for showing us around and putting up with our questions.

The museum’s website is at: http://www.nhm.org/site/
Phone: (213)-744-3466.
Admission – Adults: $9, Seniors & students: $6.50, Children 5-12: $2, Children under 5: free.
You can sign your group up for a behind-the-scenes tour through the Ornithology Department’s website at:
http://www.nhm.org/site/research-collections/ornithology

If anyone is interested in bird collecting and bird collections historical or recent, I can recommend these two books:
The Bird Collectors by Barbara and Richard Mearns is a history of the great collections and the explorers who did the hard, dirty, dangerous and occasionally fatal work.
A Parrot Without a Name by Don Stap describes a 1980’s collecting trip to the Amazon rainforest. Its chapter on Ted Parker, perhaps the most uniquely talented birder/ornithologist/bird song collector ever, will boggle your mind.

On a final note, the IMAX theater at the museum, next to the Science Center, typically has three concurrent IMAX 3-D movies. Some of us saw Hubble3D, about the 2009 repairs to the telescope by the Space Shuttle team, with some history thrown in. It was excellent and the 3-D was as good or better than Avatar. Seniors get a discount: $6 for one film, $9.75 for two. Information: (213)-744-2012

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