What does a bird curator do? Part I

My project FLIGHTLOSS aims to uncover the genomic architecture of convergent loss of flight in rails. But there’s more to research than the research, and there are more career paths than being a university professor. I have the benefit of carrying out my project at the Natural History Museum, which houses one of the (two) largest bird collections in the world (the other one being the American Museum of Natural History). The bird collection is at NHM’s branch in Tring, northwest of London, and comprises a mind-blowing >1,000,000 specimens! I am a member of the Bird Group, which—you guessed it—cares for the ornithological collections. It currently consists of six permanent curatorial staff; all with their own specialty. Because what is in the collection? Stuffed birds, right? Nope, it’s quite a lot more diverse than that. The majority of the specimens in collection, about a quarter million, are indeed skins (“stuffed birds”). But there are also 20,000 skeletons, 20,000 spirit specimens (“pickles”), 300,000 egg clutches, and 4,000 nests!

A Magpie’s gotta get clean somehow.

As a component of the professional training in FLIGHTLOSS, I have the unique opportunity to learn from the best through a bespoke curatorial program. Thus, I will spend at least a day with each curator to do hands-on work in the collections, which will provide me with experience that is hard to get by. First out was spending a day with Senior Curator Hein van Grouw, mainly in the prep lab. While the additions to the skin collection is considerably less extensive compared to historical times, there are still new birds to process. Thus, my friend for the day was a Magpie that had met a sudden death, and spent quite some time in a freezer. Skin prep really is a craft, and it takes many tens (or actually probably hundreds) of birds to become good at it. I have previously had the opportunity to learn the basics with Collections Manager Chris Wood, at the University of Washington Burke Museum, so I’ll throw in a non-Magpie photo of some of my previous achievements too!

All done, only drying left (for a long time) before registration.

Some of my preps from the Burke Museum. Fancier pin work, fancier pins. (Fancier birds?)

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