The Way of the Dodo

passenger pigeonThe passenger pigeon was once the most numerous bird species on our planet. During the 19th century it lived in enormous colonies that numbered in the hundreds of thousands and stretched many thousands of kilometres over much of northern America. It is said that during their annual migration the passage of these huge flocks of pigeons overhead would quite literally turn day into night for hours on end. But, on September 1, 1914 the last passenger pigeon known to man died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo.

 

huia

The Huia, the largest species of New Zealand wattlebird, was remarkable for having the most pronounced sexual dimorphism in bill shape of any species of bird in the world; a trait that the Maori revered. Europeans, however, were not so reverent. After just a few decades of persecution, the Huia also went the way of the Dodo.

 

 

 

Great Auk

The Great Auk was another large flightless bird that stood almost a metre in height. It resembled a penguin in many ways and was reputed to have been an even better swimmer. Being clumsy on land however, the Great Auk was also an obvious choice of food for early humans and for 100 000 years there was an equitable coexistence between the numerous native North Sea civilisations and this regal, if slightly comical, feathered creature.

But extensive European exploration and colonisation of new lands during the 19th century, and an insatiable demand for the birds’ exceptionally warm down, decimated Great Auk populations. Despite being one of the first species in the world to receive environmental protection by law, the last of the Great Auks was killed on July 3, 1844 on Eldey Island in Iceland.

So why am I telling you all this, you ask?

Well these are just three of the hundreds of extinct avian species whose preserved skins and carcasses can be found in the Natural History Museum of London’s ornithological collections (along with many thousands of still extant species), and whose remains I and several of my work colleagues, had the privilege to view as part of a ‘back stage’ tour that was organised for my research group a few weeks back.

This ‘collection’ is vast, containing easily millions of specimens including skins (both stuffed and empty), skeletons, preserved corpses (housed in the ‘spirits’ room), nests and eggs. Aside from species which will never again spread their wings and fly, nor ever again walk this earth, it also contains some other prize holdings. In particular, the museum is home to many of the original avian ‘specimens’ collected by Darwin and by Wallace on their now immortalised journeys of discovery in the Galapagos and the Malay archipelagos, including Darwin’s finches and mockingbirds and Wallace’s amazing Birds of Paradise. Unfortunately, I have to admit that aside from the intrigue of actually seeing these extinct creatures ‘in the flesh’ (so to speak), and the undeniable honour of having been privy to a tiny portion of the legacy of the eminent work of Charles and Alfred, for the most part the whole experience touring these collections was bizarre, morbid and left a generally bad taste in my mouth.

To give you an example of the bizarre I present to you “The Egg Man” (I’ll leave “Skin Man Sven” for another time). The Egg Man (I won’t name him for reasons that will become apparent) is the curator of the ‘eggs and nests’ section of the museum. There are more than 400 000 clutches of birds’ eggs in the collection and about 4000 nests. Every clutch and nest is labelled with a little white tag and housed in a little white box. They are all kept in little white drawers, in big white filing cabinets, in a big white room, illuminated by the gentle hum of a hundred fluorescent bulbs. Now I would have thought that this degree of colossal classification, painstaking partitioning and overly liberal labelling under the stark pallid glow of hospital grade lighting should surely be enough to make any sane person run for the door, or possibly start rocking back and forth in the corner screaming “the birds!, the birds!”, but not our fearless Egg Man. Egg Man, an incredible intense beady-eyed man who clearly suffers from a severe case of ‘short man syndrome’, loves his job violently.

Egg Man showed us through drawer after drawer of decrepit looking nests, and then whole cabinets of eggs (“from the same species, but notice the different speckling patterns!”) with such fervour it was truly disturbing. After a solid half hour of differently speckled eggs, he set off at a cracking pace to a far flung cabinet to produce his pièce de résistance: a set of three unassuming white eggs in a white box. These three unremarkable eggs were apparently the very three emperor penguin eggs collected by the ill-fated infamous early 19th century Terra Nova expedition to the antarctic. When I proceeded to ask him if those three eggs were all that they brought back with them, he just about jumped down my throat yelling “is that all?! Is that all?!”

Clearly I’m just not an Egg Person. But seriously if you’re on a collecting binge (as most of Europe seemed to be in 19th  century) and you are going on an epic journey to the South Pole then why stop at eggs? Why not just bring back the penguins as well? And don’t laugh because that is exactly what the original tenant of this museum did for most of his life.

This part of London’s natural history museum was purpose built to house the personal collection of Sir Walter Rothschild, who kept a menagerie of wildlife in his backyard, including cassowaries and kangaroos and is famous for riding to Buckingham palace in a carriage pulled by six zebras. Oh, and over the years he also managed to attain for himself many thousands of mounted stuffed animals, including a Thylacine, a giraffe and an elephant seal. And that is in fact how most specimens in European museums got there: fat, white, incredibly wealthy, English men self-indulgently amassing for themselves collections of exotic species from all over the world.

And therein lies the source of the bad taste left after my visit. It was just a result of the fact that I’m a wildlife biologist and the whole complex is a mausoleum of dead things. The ‘spirits’ room was probably the worst: several 1000’s of dead preserved birds in jars most of which are today in some state of peril and heading for extinction. Oh, by the way, another bizarre bit of ‘back stage’ museum info; every two months “The Spirits Lady” has to open up all those 1000’s of jars of centuries-old dead things and top up the alcohol which has evaporated…good times!

Let me tell you that seeing a Hyacinth Macaw’s beautiful, iridescent blue head decapitated and stuck in alcohol just for the sake of collecting it is not a pleasant feeling after you’ve spent time helping to monitor their (now) endangered wild populations.

My discomfort during my visit stemmed mostly from the fact that by visiting these collections, I felt like in some sense we were condoning, or even paying tribute to this obnoxious “I’m going to have me a zebra” behaviour. And without a doubt it is this behaviour that started the illegal trade in wildlife, which is now a real threat for many species, has done very little for conservation efforts and worst of all continues to this day (though admittedly at a slower pace).

So while I acknowledge that collections such as those in the Natural History Museum of London’s ornithological collections are an invaluable research resource for museum scientists, I’m just glad that I don’t require their contents for my research. At the least I hope that places such this can serve as a stark reminder of the reasons we must keep wildlife wild.

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