Ornithology

Photo: Rachel Ormiston/Burke Museum
Photo: Rachel Ormiston/Burke Museum

Ornithology at the Burke Museum

The Ornithology Collection at the Burke Museum maintains a comprehensive collection of approximately 157,250 bird 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 total specimens added in the past 30 years, and is used for a variety of purposes, including research, education and art.

Search the Collection

Approximately 100,000 individual records from the collections are accessible through the collections database. Note that most records refer to multiple specimen types from the same individual.

Ornithology Database

Collection Overview

Specimen types include study skins, spread wings, bird skeletons, egg sets, nests and frozen tissue samples.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Third largest collection of bird tissues in the world
a map showing bird diversity

Our Research 

Our involves using DNA sequences to reconstruct phylogenetic hypotheses of bird relationships. Such phylogenies provide a necessary framework for studying the evolution of various avian traits, including behaviors (such as migration), morphological traits (such as size, osteological characters, or plumage coloration), or distributions through time and space (biogeography). The latter is the focus of much of the research done in the Klicka lab, where we begin by identifying the units of biodiversity and then attempt to understand the origin and maintenance of this diversity in an ecological and biogeographic context.

Curator John Klicka’s research revolves around DNA labwork and phylogenetic analyses but it begins with fieldwork. Within the Burke Museum ornithology group, specimen-based research is emphasized. Birds collected and prepared as specimens during field expeditions contribute not only to our own research programs, but they also provide a valuable resource that is available to the general ornithological community.

Klicka Lab

Questions & Answers

We’ve pulled together some common questions and answers related to the Burke Museum Ornithology Collection. Do you have question that isn’t answered in the list below? Contact us

Objects from the Ornithology Collections may be loaned to qualified researchers. For more information, contact us.

The Ornithology Collection is available by appointment only. Please contact us for more information and to schedule an appointment.

Identifying feathers is often surprisingly difficult. Each species has many types, shapes and sometimes colors of feathers, and there are hundreds of species in Washington, so identifying a single feather may take hours even with the resource of our spread wing collection.

We typically cannot accommodate identification requests and recommend the resources below to help you identify your specimen:

  • Field guides, such as the National Geographic Guide to the Birds of North America or the Sibley Guide to Birds, published by the National Audubon Society

  • The Feather Atlas from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service covers flight feathers of North American Birds

Salvaging birds you find dead can make an important contribution to the Ornithology Collection. Salvaged birds are prepared as scientific or teaching specimens used by students and researchers around the world.

Each year the Burke Museum takes in hundreds of birds from wildlife rehabilitation clinics and members of the public. Most were hit by cars, died from hitting windows, were killed by cats, or were victims of natural or man-made disasters. Salvaged birds form an important part of the Burke's extensive research collections, and are the core of the Burke's Teaching Collection—used in both K–12 and University education programs.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act gives federal protection to all but a handful of birds, including some game birds and invasive, introduced species, such as the European Starling Sturnus vulgaris, House Sparrow Passer domesticus, and Rock Dove Columba livia (Pigeon). It is illegal—and a federal crime—to possess or transport most birds (or bird parts) without a permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In practice, however, the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office and the State Department of Fish and Wildlife allow the public to possess birds for the time needed to deliver them to an approved educational institution such as the Burke Museum. Thus, if you call one of these offices having found a dead bird, they will likely refer you to Burke Ornithology.

If you cannot immediately bring the bird to the Burke Museum, you should contact us. You should not keep the material for your own use.

Our Team & Contact

Meet the people within the Burke Museum Ornithology team.

Our Team

Have a general question?

Contact Us

Photo: Andrew Waits
Photo: Andrew Waits

Additional Resources

We've compiled several online resources from outside of the Burke Museum that may also be of interest.

a young man sits with his field tools on his lap and bird specimens next to him

Support Ornithology

Your gift makes it possible! We couldn't do what we do without generous donor support for collections care, research and public outreach. 

Photo: Rachel Ormiston/Burke Museum
Photo: Rachel Ormiston/Burke Museum