Rogue Birder, ch 10, Dead Birds

Dead Birds

The remaining time at Lava Beds National Monument, besides watching out for fires, went to walking over cranky lava flows or worming through lava tubs to remove the left over detritus of visiting photographers. What? In those days, it was throw away primarily flashbulbs, film containers and sometimes paper remains from Polaroids. People were discarding their photographic wastes faster than tossed beer cans could clank from the hand of drinkers driving a country road. Dedication to any spare time went directly to being hot on the trail of birds, often in the company of Charles Yocom. The handwriting was on the wall. I wanted to study birds and Yocom was another person to remind me that such an idea was possible. Professionals, including Frank Sturgis in the Rogue Valley, Harold Mayfield at the Buffalo Museum of Natural History, Maurice Braun on Hawk Mountain and several people at Smithsonian were giving me professional advice: don‘t try this at home. Perhaps I was going to school not to work for the refuge or park service. Perhaps there was another option. Could I try “this” at a museum?

Charles and I coauthored a short note on some of our bird observations at Lava Beds. That was the first paper I ever coauthored and it was with a real scientist. Our paper appeared in the Murrelet, a journal known as the Northwest Naturalist since the late 1980’s. In 1966, I published two papers in the journal Murrelet chronicling information of several species found in southwestern Oregon. The information challenged the knowledge base of what had so far been in summary in the big blue book, the 5th edition of the AOU Check-list. Most of the information concerned Rogue birds. Possibly some of the local Rogue Birders thought my young whippersnapperish publications should not try to correct the good book, the AOU Check-list, but I never thought of myself as going rogue. What was apparent was that the literature was not up to date, and for that matter, information on something as dynamic as birds would never be up to date.

One of my mid-1960’s revelations was I was beginning to realize that science is a kind of housework. You sweep and mop, wash the dishes, make the bed and maybe in a few days you refine things by polishing furniture, washing windows, it is endless. In a blink, it is time to clean house again. So, how can we know anything about birds? Assuming a bird’s identity is not problematic, most often the starting point is distribution. Once establishing a base line, such as someone recording newfound information, another person may come along, to either confirm or alter the original records, and then more and more investigators gather more and more information, correct old mistakes and wait for another person to add to the story. In early Nineteenth Century Oregon, David Douglas is a good starting person. He discovered new species such as Sooty Grouse and Mountain Quail. Science often first had somewhat of an understanding of some of the larger species, partly because larger birds are easier targets and are potential meals to the investigators. Fast forward, Gabrielson and Jewett, with Nuttall and Townsend, Bendire, Lord, Pope, Newberry, Alex Walker, Eugene Kridler, Harry Nehls and countless others have added to the knowledge of Oregon birds. They have cleaned the house by clearing away some of the dust and cobwebs obscuring the facts. The daring trio of David B. Marshall, Alan L. Contraras, and Mathew G. Hunter, with the help of a large cast of contributors dedicates 110 pages to list the sources cited in the latest 5.2 pound compendium on Oregon birds. Even my little 1966 notes in the journal Murrelet are listed in the literature cited section.

Besides classes and labs, employment kept me busy and provided some much-needed funds. The job was working in the small bird and mammal collection at what is currently Southern Oregon University. Frank Sturgis was responsible for curating the collection, but was fortunately able to defer the task to a hapless student. Luckily, I was so hapless that I got the job. I was also clueless. What does curating mean? Curation required ascertaining that the data from the specimen labels tied to each bird and mammal specimen was correct, that specimens of a given species are located in proximity of one another, that species’ name was on the label of the drawer in which specimens rested and that the label on the museum case that contained those drawers likewise recorded its contents. In other words, arrange the specimens in such a way that anyone could relocate them. Sounds easy, but a poorly curated collection may contain misidentified specimens. Even if the specimen’s identification is correct, the specimen label must be correct and legible.

The whole concept of the care and feeding a collection of birds was new to me. Sure, I had seen a few museum cases and realized they were to keep specimens safe from pesky feather eating moths and flesh-eating beetles. Realization that the tight seals on the case doors were also to keep something inside came when Frank opened a case door. Out came an invisible waft of odor I knew but had not expected. It was chemically similar if not exactly the same as found in urinal cakes, those whitish wafers that at least tone down the smell of spent urine. My 8 a.m. chemistry class had not prepared me, but having stood in more than a few public restrooms, I knew I was getting a strong dose of fumigant. Staggering with watery eyes, I backed up. Frank grinned and told me I would get used to it. I never did.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons learned curating was that a stuffed bird is not a worthy specimen without a label. That label must record at the very least the locality and date of collection. It would be up the person preparing the specimen to determine the sex and the curator to verify the specimen’s identity. Sex, I was later to learn, was determined by examination of the gonads, a good practice no matter if it is a bird or mammal. Determining sex and examination of sex organs is an internal affair. While in there, it is possible to check for fat and endoparasites. The line for the identity of the bird was in pencil since the initial identification might require amending. The specimen could have been identified incorrectly, the scientific name might be misspelled or some other mistake. Strangely, even though the identification written in pencil, it is against any good museum rules to never erase or remove anything on a specimen label. If the identification is wrong, write the supposed correct one somewhere on the label. Any changes, I learned during my day job at Smithsonian, should be in pencil, initialed and dated. Thus, the information, including changes, on specimen labels provides a history. For example, through either initials or handwriting, it might be possible to determine that Spencer Fullerton Baird or Robert Ridgway identified specimen X. Knowing this might help a modern investigator recreate an earlier ornithologist’s concepts of a particular species. For example, knowing Oberholser’s concepts would help in some of my research, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Meanwhile, back in the day, the early 60’s, Frank left me with a couple of references, one being the AOU Check-list, and an empty room. All alone, I explored the collection, which at the time was around 600 specimens of birds and perhaps that many mammals. Specimens of birds do not look like live birds. Of course, feather coloration and pattern remain intact. Yellow Warblers remain yellow, but the differences of females of that species are suddenly difficult to distinguish from other female warblers. Seeing birds close up sometimes reveal unexpected details showing differences as well as similarities with other species. All these specimens made me feel inept. What looked to be typical of a species was not what I had been observing in the field or was the specimen misidentified?

Carl Richardson collected most of the specimens. I had met him at a local meeting, but had no idea he collected birds or that his collection was here. Surely, such a large collection would be in a larger institution, perhaps at Berkeley or maybe Smithsonian. Certainly, many collectors did donate their specimens to such places, but others ended up in small collections, often in colleges. Stanley Jewett’s birds are mostly at San Diego, but are scattered across the country including one or two in the collection that I was about to curate. Carl wanted his collection in the Ashland college. To his honor, the collection had the name Carl Richardson Bird and Mammal Collection.

Another duty on my menu at the collection was preparation of specimens. All those days at the dinner table bisecting chicken and an occasional turkey were paying off, or so I thought. Frank was not skilled at preparation, but left a copy of Blake’s 1949 instructions showing, how-to drawings and step-wise directions on preparing a bird specimen. Naturally, I did not understand it. I had never skinned a bird, let alone put it back together. The title of the instructions also left me wondering: Preserving Birds for Study. I was only beginning to grasp just how a preserved bird could be. Frank Sturges handed me a 1931 book on measuring birds. Otherwise, I was mostly on my own.

The 1931 publication was by S. P. Baldwin, H.C. Oberholser and L.G Whorley on measuring birds. One of the names was familiar. In my1962 trip, I met a fellow in Cleveland, Ohio, who offered to introduce me to Oberholser. Being told that Oberholser was ailing and having a few good manners, I declined the invitation. In addition, I really did not have an inkling of facts on Oberholser. He died the next year. Standing alone among the museum cases, wondering if the job of preparation and curation would take me beyond the anatomy of fried chicken dinners was just the beginning of Oberholser’s impact on my future.

Before getting ahead of myself, I must admit that the first preparation of a bird that had potential as a museum specimen was nothing short of a disaster. The chest freezer was full of frozen birds and mammal. I picked out a bird, carefully removed it from a plastic bag (yes, plastic had already been invented) and placed the bird and a ragged piece of paper denoting when and where the bird died together on a paper towel. Later, maybe an hour or two, I had time between classes to sit down and skin the bird, an American Robin. Being a virgin, I hesitated, my scalpel trembled, there was no one to wipe sweat from my brow and I made the cut. Unfortunately, the skin of birds does not recognize equal opportunity concerning thickness. Some species have extremely thin skins, such as Northern Cardinal and species of nightjars. Of course, at the time I did not know that American Robins and nightjars compete for having the thinnest skin. Give me a tough, thick-skinned woodpecker any day. My condolences go to the science of specimen preparation and to that poor robin.

After a few more prepared specimens of birds, I switched to preparing mammals. In some ways, creating a mammal specimen was easier than making a bird specimen. Luckily, most of the mammals I worked on were small, mostly rodents such as deer mice and voles. I soon learned that measuring mammals must be up to the preparator since shrinkage and removal of bones alter the natural parameters of mammal ears, length, legs, etc. Measurements from a bird specimen are available later for whoever is investigating a particular problem. Years later, when I studied geographic variation of various species such as Cliff Swallow, Dunlin and others, I measured the specimens. There are several reasons for measuring the specimens of your project. One, if any previous measurements exist, the person taking them may have not measured the specimens the way you do. Differences in individual methods may be only millimeters apart, but such differences might be critical for small birds. Of course, the method of obtaining measurements by one investigator is essentially the same since any variation introduced into the data might alter conclusions. For example, I measured specimens of Cliff Swallow even though Oberholser and others may have measured some of the same specimens. Usually people use dial calipers, and all that dialing makes for sore thumbs.

One day, on my way to Hoover’s Lakes, I spotted a dark Great Blue Heron standing at the edge of a pond and not far from a lumber mill operation. The more I looked at the bird, the more I was convinced it was a melanistic individual, something worth documenting. After alerting my mentor at school, the decision was made to collect the bird. As part of my curating, I relocated the bird and with a shotgun, euthanized the heron.


Saw some of my first shorebirds here.  Currently, Hoover’s Lakes, once a go-to birding site, has been left to the destructive forces of ATVs.  Owned by Jackson County and allowed to be ruined by Jackson County.

Back at the laboratory, the heron was examined and found not be melanistic but to be soaked with a lightweight oil that penetrated every feather to the skin. The heron was emaciated, surely the result of the oil that most likely came from the mill. It was consoling that the horrible death of starvation and exposure ended for the heron.

Carl Richardson, then older than I am today, arrived the day I was to prepare the hapless heron. Cleaning up the mill victim was an all day job, but Carl and I, mostly Carl, produced a specimen of Great Blue Heron. Later, it became apparent how few specimens of Great Blue Herons existed in museums from Smithsonian to the one Carl and I prepared.

Robert W. Dickerman eventually worked out some of the kinks in subspecies of Great Blue Heron. Bob then turned to Great Horned Owls. Recently, he asked me for contacts that might have a salvaged owls that he might have. Wildlife biologists sometimes acquire road-killed birds, which after adding a slip of paper recording the date and place the bird was found, will bag and toss the bird in a freezer. The hope is someone will eventually want to process the frozen stiff into a museum specimen. Lucky for them, the salvaged owls taking up space in freezers across Oregon were to become important as tools for a better understanding of the species. Several people sent birds to Bob who turned the ill-fated owls into specimens. Measured and compared, the specimens from numerous museums contributed to his database. His study solved some of the age-old mysteries, ones Gabrielson and Jewett only hinted at in their 1940 Birds of Oregon.

Bob worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York before “retiring” to the University of New Mexico. We crossed paths too few times, shared enthusiasm for birds, especially their geographic variation and our common friends Alan Phillips and Dan Gibson. Sorry, I am getting ahead of myself again. Suffice to say, Bob would have appreciated the story of the Great Blue Heron.

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