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Home » 2009 - Issue 2, Companion Parrots, Issue

Specimens at the Smithsonian

By EB Cravens


One might think that, with a collection of over 600,000 bird specimens, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History would not have a large demand for more such material.

Not so.

This period in worldwide aviculture, zoo activity, and private birdkeeping is somewhat of a “golden age” as far as potential fresh material needed by museum collections is concerned - an age that certainly cannot last for too many more years.  Mortalities among captive birds can provide valuable research material for museum collections. These specimens augment a museum’s inventory of study skins, skeletons and more. Some can be prepared as taxidermy mounts for use in exhibits or educational programs. They also offer scientists access to tissue samples of rare species for a variety of molecular DNA studies.

It is critical that those scientific parties working with avian species - as well as we many private bird breeders and pet owners - realize how important to natural history collections may be some of the avian specimens which die while in our care.

This article is the result of interviews with Mr James Dean, Collections Manager, and Dr Gary Graves, Curator, both of the Division of Birds, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. Our focus was on the family Psttacidae within the research collections.

The Smithsonian’s Division of Birds has the third largest collection in the world, behind the British Museum and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Within the parrot stores, the bulk of the specimens represent older material from early explorations. A fair number of Pacific and Asian skins follow WL Abbott from the early 1900s.  Many other specimens were obtained in the period of World War II by personnel in the army medical corps, who had specific disease concerns in which the blood of birds was thought to be a vector.

Collections Research Use
Each natural history museum around the world has its own set of research usage rules. The Smithsonian’s Bird Division has one of the most heavily used research collections - 250 to 300 visitors a year from all over the world. It is staffed by Mr Dean, two curators, and three other staff members. Incorporating both the old Biological Service collections  (from the US Geological Survey) and the original Smithsonian collections, this department of the Natural History Museum has a very open policy towards researchers wishing to visit the row upon row of cabinets and drawers. I was there to study relative morphological physiques and record measurements on the 11 Yellow Fronted Amazon  specimens. By the same token, heavy use eventually takes a toll on those specimens in
the collection which receive regular handling.

Every year there seem to be more non-traditional research uses. Spectrographic studies of feather color for different bird ages or geographic location, archaeological studies of bone to determine cultural use, anatomical and fossil work. The least invasive techniques are preferred in dealing with specimens.

In order to maintain the condition of the collection, the staff does routine visual inspection.  Mothball-like substances may be used, along with sticky bug traps, to catch the stray insect bent upon damage!

Decades ago, much skin specimen preparation was done by painting arsenic material on the inner skin-to kill off any invasion of bugs. This practice of preservation treatment was discontinued in the 1960s.

“We have very few bug problems - a couple of times since 1980 or so,” Dean said. “But what we did have - moths or beetles - were mostly in the more recent specimens, from the last 20 years or so.”

He added that some specimens prepared with borax undergo change of the colors in the brown and red avian feathers. All plumage tends to fade some with age - especially the reds and yellows.

Today the Smithsonian has a staff of technicians for preparing new specimens. More material is gotten from each mortality. Boneless round skins are often now prepared. A colony of dermestid (Family Dermestidae) flesh-cleaning beetles is kept at an off site lab for removing flesh and blood, tissue, sinew, tendons, etc. But if a really rare bird came in, it likely would be pickled to keep it whole. “Bugging” a specimen of a parrot the size of an Amazon or Grey takes about three to four days with the dermestid beetles.

Dean stated that the captive parrots that come in all have more fat on the body than the wild ones. And there are other defects often seen in the bodies of former avicultural pets. Among these are: deformation of the skeletons, bone breaks, arthritis.

He explained that no one really knows how long avian skins may be preserved. This collection harbors birds from the early 1800s. Many early specimens were prepared “in the field,” so if a scientist ran out of materials, the birds might end up stuffed with leaves or other organics. Today’s state of the art methods will preserve as much of the specimen as possible, including hundreds of skeletal bones. New techniques will theoretically allow specimens to endure 300-400 years or longer!

Another advantage of new specimens is the chance to get tissue samples - something that early mortalities did not have. Samples now can be saved of the heart, liver, muscle, brain, etc. They are ultra cool frozen, then transferred to liquid nitrogen storage.

Dean indicated that out of the 600,000+ specimens, there are only circa 7350 parrots, counting all types of preparation. The Division of Birds takes in about 2500 new specimens each year. Of these, usually fewer than 50 are Psittacidae.  Incoming material is kept for 10 days at between minus 10 and minus 20 degrees Celsius to kill organisms.            “A parrot of any kind is a big investment of time,” Dean noted. “Just getting the skull out of the skin, for example; the neck is smaller than the head, so it has to be slit behind the neck. It amounts to about four times as much work as, say, a starling. A macaw takes about three hours of preparation; an African Grey, two hours.”

“These are really tough birds!” he added, then in jest: “I swear you could tan the skin and make shoes!”

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