Yesterday I started my new work study job in our university’s natural history museum — and it is definitely one of the most intesting part-time jobs I have ever had. My main task is to systematically go through the university’s bird collection (one of the biggest in North America — containing over 250,000 skin, egg, nest, and skeleton specimens) and enter handwritten tag data into the electronic database. Yesterday I started with a drawer of Kentucky Warblers.
A lot of “standard” data on the tags has already been entered — such as species name, location, sex, age, and collector. However, several tags have additional information that has not been entered. This can include information about the cause of death, method of collection, habitat, family, or else.
Different collectors had different ways of recording data about the specimens — drawing the gonads or describing them with arbitrary words (“ovaries the size of a pea”) seemed to be common practice — reminiscent to the problem we still have today with inconsistent data collection methods.
Neither are window strikes — here is a Kentucky Warbler found beneath a window at the University around the same time.
Every once in a while, you’ll come across a study skin that’s been taken from a decorative mount — such as this one from the 1850s, which comes with glass eyes.
In addition to learning about the birds and their stories, I am in the process of learning just how useful these “libraries” of specimens can be for researchers — for example, those seeking to understand how birds have changed (or are changing) over space and time. It is really amazing to see so many specimens in one place… and the variety of characteristics that can exist even in a single species.
Of course, it’s also fascinating to learn some of the”stories” behind the individual specimens — as well as the histories of the collections, too.
Here are some things that the collection has got me thinking about:
- History of “birds” (e.g., conservation, specimen collecting, scientific study, law)
- Bird conservation in the US
- Evolution & Adaptation
- Bird taxonomy (e.g., what distinguishes certain groups of birds from others; how birds are classified)
- Data collection (e.g., how specimens were acquired)
- Database management (e.g., how a database of over 400,000 specimens is managed)
- Citizen science (e.g., non-scientists collecting bird specimens; contributing to collections)
- Research opportunities (how specimens are used)
- Birds across space and time
- Bird ID (being able to look at field marks up close, observe variations, compare different birds in the hand)
I’m sure I’ll be posting about this job again soon. You’ll probably be seeing lots of picture posts more than anything else, since the new semester is starting and I’ll have limited time to write. Connecticut warblers are up next!