Ornithology

Ornithology Collections

The Ornithology Collections at the Burke Museum maintains a comprehensive collection of approximately 157,250 specimens from around the world. Specimen types include study skins, spread wings, bird skeletons, egg sets, nests and frozen tissue samples.

The collection is relatively modern, with more than 90% of the approximately 157,250 total specimens added in the past 30 years, and is used for a variety of purposes, including research, education and art.

Approximately 99,550 individual records from the collections are accessible through the collections database. Note that most records refer to multiple specimen types from the same individual.

Collection Details

Stuffed bird specimens with identification tags lying face up in a row
Photo: Burke Museum
Study Skins

The Burke Museum has more than 70,000 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.

 

Closeup of wings and details of feathers on a white background
Photo: Kenyon Cooke
Spread Wings

Highlight: Largest spread wing collection in the world

With over 40,000 specimens, our collection of spread 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.

 

Three bird skulls arranged in a line with identification tags
Photo: Andrew Waits
Skeletons

The bird skeleton collection numbers over 20,000 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 remove any remaining flesh from 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.

 

Four white eggs with brown speckles sitting in a nest
Photo: Burke Museum
Eggs and Nests

The egg and nest collection holds roughly 6,000 egg sets. The cornerstone of the collection is the Parmalee Collection, a unique series of roughly 3,000 nests collected with their eggs.

 

Interior of a freezer with multiple cases inside it
Photo: Burke Museum
Tissues

Highlight: Third largest collection of bird tissues in the world

The Burke Museum has more than 55,000 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.

 

Collections-Related Services

For more information about specimen loans or visiting the collections, see the Services and Policies page.

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