“We have lots to show you this morning,” Chris Witt, Curator for the Bird Collection at the Museum of Southwest Biology, told the 27 people assembled outside of the museum for the Central New Mexico Audubon Thursday Birder-sponsored field trip. “I have asked our Collections Manager, Andy Johnson, and Phred Benham, one of our graduate students to assist.”
According to Witt, the museum has over 30,000 specimens that represent not only New Mexico’s birds and those of the Andes where he and his students conduct a lot of their research, but also representing birds from all over the world.
He told us that we could contribute to the museum’s collection if we found a dead bird, besides a House Finch, House Sparrow, Rock Pigeon, White-winged or Mourning Dove, and how to preserve it until it could be delivered to the museum.
Our first stop was the lab where specimens are prepared for research. The lab is used by both the mammal and bird divisions. Andy Johnson explained the preparation process. On the day of our visit a gray wolf carcass was ‘cooking’ in a large lidded vat to boil the meat off of the carcass and organ and tissue samples were in a drying compartment across the room.
“When we prepare bird specimens,” Andy relayed, “we remove the skin, take tissue samples and clean the carcass. After the carcass in cleaned, the bones are placed in the beetle colony we keep on the roof of the building to complete the cleaning process.” To prevent contamination, they use sticky traps in the corners of our labs and collection sites. The body cavity is stuffed with cotton to maintain the original shape of the bird, and then placed on a tray to dry.
He pulled out some trays of drying specimens, which included a Woodcock, a sixth state record that had been discovered near Magdalena. Then he showed us a European Kingfisher, obtained from the U.K. “We have contacts from around the globe,” he told us.
Next we went into the collections room. The moving metal ‘stacks’ resembled a library, but instead of books, each row contained row upon row of bird specimens, or study skins. Instead of being catalogued by numbers, the trays are arranged taxonomically.
While the feather color stays intact, the eyes on all of the specimens were white, giving them a glassy appearance. Even though they had blank stares, it was hard not to stop at the trays of colorful specimens we passed on our way to the tray of flycatchers.
Chris used this tray to tell us that the collections inform their research in evolution, ecology and geographic diversity. The first example he showed us were two flycatchers that appeared similar, but represented two different species, one found at higher altitudes and one at lower altitudes in Peru. He then drew our attention to a species we were familiar with – the bright red Vermillion Flycatcher. This species is found from the Bosque del Apache to Argentina. What they discovered in Lima, Peru was that the pyrocephalus rubinus found in the heart of the city was not red, but a chocolate brown color. Interestingly, their research has shown that there is very little inter-breeding between the two different color variants – each preferring their own color. And, those that do inter-breed tend to be less successful breeders. They do not have an explanation yet for this phenomenon.
We next moved on to a tray of hummingbirds, which represented a variety of sizes and beak configurations. Chris pulled out 8 species and laid them out, then requested two additional species. Phred, who Chris called a taxonomy wizard, quickly retrieved them. Chris compared and contrasted oxygen concentrations in the blood of each species and how it was not necessarily related to the elevation where they reside.
Later as we spread out to view different specimen trays, I focused my attention on the trays of New Mexico birds. It was interesting to view the size differential of different species within a family group, e.g. warblers and swallows, especially since they are birds in constant motion and don’t often perch near a similar species.
There were skins of several Great Horned Owls. Chris showed those of us who were gathered around the difference in coloration between the southwest species (dark gray) and the pacific (dark brown). The pacific sub-species specimen was found nearby. Since owls don’t migrate, there is much speculation on how it made its way to central New Mexico.
Three hours later, small clusters of field trip participants were still gathered around Chris and Phred, deep in conversation.
“I could have stayed there all day,” Mymm relayed later in an e-mail.
That evening at the CNMAS meeting, Dwayne told the others in attendance, “Today I had the opportunity to study the skins of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a Passenger Pigeon, and a Carolina Parakeet – all extinct. It was thrilling.”
I hope to have the opportunity to take another group of bird enthusiasts to the museum in the future.