The beauty and humility of collecting

October 29, 2015 | Ethan Linck

After spending most of the summer teaching, I was able to join Burke ornithology’s collecting expedition for the final week of the trip. My stint began in the Blue Mountains, a small range spanning northeast Oregon and southeast Washington. At 6,800’ we camped alongside a meandering stream surrounded by low mountains. Each evening, a family of breeding Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) soared low above our camp. A first for me, their presence was a stirring reminder of the wildness at our doorstep.

For people who love birds, nature and animals—as I assure you, everyone who decides to pursue ornithology emphatically does—the idea of collecting is often hard to swallow. How do you justify taking a life for science? Amidst an epidemic of collapsing wildlife populations, how do you justify removing individuals from the breeding pool? Responding to these questions is beyond my pay grade, but it certainly pivots on a belief in the intrinsic value of knowledge, and the power of knowledge of our natural world to inform decisions dedicated to its preservation.

We spent a day hunting along a dry backbone of mountain at the edge of the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness, a 2.4 million-acre mosaic of healthy growth and apocalyptic burns that ominously portend the future of Western forests. It is home to hundreds of wolves and vicious wolf extermination campaigns, pyramidal heights and v-shaped canyons. I gazed into its depths and crossed the border a few times. It was enough to win me over, and promise myself I would come back.

I hunted alone the final morning to the trip, with little success. I was in Nez Perce territory, the steep prairie and ponderosa country east of Hell’s Canyon bordering Highway 95. Not far beyond, the Palouse agricultural belt beckoned, with many hours separating me and home. I lingered for a while at a modest monument marking the site of an ambush in the Nez Perce War.

Science can be monotonous, frustrating and poorly compensated. But after the right kind of week in the field, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else.

How do you justify taking a life for science?
Ethan Linck, Burke Museum & UW Department of Biology graduate student

Ethan Linck is a member of Curator of Birds John Klicka’s lab and a graduate student in the University of Washington Department of Biology. Burke ornithology expeditions contribute to the museum’s collection, which includes more than 150,000 specimens and is one of the most actively used in the world. All specimen collecting is permitted and doesn't target endangered populations/species.

Excerpted from "In Our Own Words," the Burke Museum 2015 Annual Report.