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Collections


Overview

The Burke Museum's Ornithology Collections exist primarily to inspire discovery: They generate new questions and provide data for testing ideas. The collections include: 41,000 study skins; 26,000 spread wings; 17,700 bird skeletons; 3,100 egg sets; and 26,000 avian tissues.

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History and Holdings

When faculty curators in the natural sciences were first appointed to the Burke Museum in the late 1950s and early 1960s, collections in Biology and Paleontology grew rapidly; they now contain extensive material that is exceptionally well documented.

Ornithologist Frank Richardson served as the first Curator of Zoology from 1957 to 1972. His most important legacy was to have founded the bird skeleton collection, which currently ranks about 12th in the world. When Sievert Rohwer succeeded Richardson in 1973, he concentrated on expanding the Ornithological collections from those of mostly regional focus (consisting of about 8,000 skins, 1,500 skeletons, and 1,500 egg sets) to a more comprehensive collection of skins and skeletons of the birds of North America, providing new opportunities for comparative research.

With this foundation, specific research projects began driving Ornithology collecting programs by the mid-1980s. These special research collections now include: 1) an extensive series of hybrid warblers 2) unsurpassed modern collections from many localities throughout the former Soviet Union and Mongolia, 3) large series of North Pacific seabirds, 4) series of most of the pipits of the world, 5) samples from transects crossing major Australian biogeographic divides, 6) major new bird collections from the Solomon Islands, 7) a superb series of most of the grouse of the world, and 8) late-summer samples of various western North American birds that depend on the Mexican Monsoon for their fall molt.

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left to right: Rock Wren, Great Horned Owl, American Robin. From Burke collections: UWBM 50461, 55135, 40135.
Photo by Sharon Birks

collections
Graduate student Catherine Smith examines a fruit dove from the Solomon Islands.
Photo by Sharon Birks

Curation

The Ornithology collections are housed in a library-like system of specially built cases, with the birds mainly organized by taxonomy (how species are related to each other evolutionarily). Each individual bird skin is considered a single specimen, but may have several associated parts such as a clutch of eggs, a skeleton, a spread wing, and a tissue, which are organized separately as independent collections. The detailed data associated with each bird (e.g., location, date, habitat, breeding information) is entered into a computer database and used to generate tags that accompany each associated specimen part. Different collections are used for different purposes: researchers, students, and artists may study bird specimens on site, or request loans that are sent to universities and museums around the world.


Inspiring Discovery

Training young scientists is the Burke Ornithology Division's highest priority. Students benefit enormously from hands-on work with the bird collections when they discover patterns in nature that demand new theory to explain. New research ideas inspired by the collections are common. For example, Scott Freeman was astounded by the egg color variability he first saw in our collections of weaverbird eggs from Africa (Freeman 1988), and Wendy Jackson later expanded that work into a dissertation on conspecific parasitism (Jackson 1992a&b, 1993). The quality differences in plumage between some juvenile and adult passerines (perching birds) have inspired current student Luke Butler to pursue a dissertation on the functional significance of variation in the texture of their body plumage. Our spread wing collection inspired Sergei Drovetski to explore the functional significance in trailing-edge notches wings of galliform birds (those belonging to the same family as chickens, grouse, and pheasants; Drovetski 1996). A noticeable absence of late-summer and fall specimens of various passerine species in the study skin collection led to the discovery of a molt-migration (in which birds grow new feathers at some point during migration) in numerous western passerines (Rohwer and Manning 1990; Young 1991). Undergraduate Peter Wimberger was intrigued at the frequent mention of greenery on the original data slips accompanying our egg collection, and went on to publish the first comparative data suggesting that raptors (birds of prey) were using this greenery to fumigate their nests against parasites (Wimberger 1984). Collecting eggs from nests parasitized by cowbirds led Carol Spaw to describe and interpret the unusually thick shells of the brood parasitic cowbirds (Spaw and Rohwer 1987, Rohwer and Spaw 1988, Rohwer et al. 1989). These examples document the inspirational value to students of routine collections work; see Research for related bibliography.

Skeletons

The bird skeleton collection numbers over 17,700 specimens from around the world. Skeletons are time-intensive to prepare: Each must be partially prepared by hand, and then exposed to a colony of dermestid beetles that cleans any remaining meat off the bones. Finally, every bone of each skeleton specimen is washed, dried, and individually numbered. Our avian skeletons are used by researchers to study comparative bird morphology, development, and systematics of birds, and to identify birds found in fossil deposits. Many archaeologists also use our skeleton collection to identify bird bones found in archaeological sites.

Study Skins

The Burke Museum has more than 40,000 study skins of birds from around the world. Study skins form the core of our collections. They are prepared in a way to maximize their longevity (hundreds of years) and facilitate efficient storage. Researchers use study skins and their accompanying data to help identify birds, to track bird distributions across seasons and through time and geography, and to study adaptations expressed in morphology such as feather coloring and structure. Artists use study skins to help illustrate field identification guides or to create individual works of art. Study skins also serve as "vouchers" for genetic studies, enabling researchers to verify the identity of the individual bird whose DNA they are studying when genetic data give surprising results.


Wings

With over 26,000 specimens, our collection of extended wings is the largest in the world and has exceptional standards of curation. Each wing is stored in a separate Mylar envelope and has a computer-generated label bearing full specimen data. Researchers use our wing collection to study life-history tradeoffs between molt (the replacement of old feathers) and breeding, and to study the functional morphology of wing shape variation. To facilitate comparisons among wings, we pin and dry them with the primary feather slots open. Our wings are frequently consulted by wildlife artists and artists illustrating field guides.

Eggs

While our collection of avian eggs is small (about 3,000 egg sets), it has inspired many research questions because few ornithology students find enough nests in the wild to see the myriad contrasts among eggs that exist in nature (see "Inspiring discovery," above). Because of its inspirational value, we are eager to expand this collection.

Tissues

The Burke Museum has more than 26,000 avian tissues-one of the largest collections in the world. We save a tissue specimen from every bird that is added to the traditional Ornithology collections. See the Genetic Resources Collection page for more information.

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Detail of shaft color variation in wings of Colaptes auratus (Northern Flicker). From Burke Museum spread wing collection: 51239 and 58625.
Photo by Sharon Birks