‘Field’ trip reveals trove of avian treasures
(published 4-7-05)

Museums are not usually my thing, unless you count “outdoor museums” like the Morton Arboretum. But when the opportunity arose to go on a behind-the-scenes tour of Chicago’s Field Museum I jumped at the chance.

The February event was sponsored by the Chicago Ornithological Society so naturally the focus was on the Field’s world-renowned bird collection. It proved to be a fascinating two hours for me and about 25 other birders.

The Field houses more than 450,000 bird specimens, and about 90 percent of the world’s 10,000 known species are represented. Only a small percentage of them are on display to the public. The rest of the specimens are in storage and used for research. The Field is truly a working museum, and ornithologists from throughout the country rely on its resources.

Some specimens are in the form of eggs or skeletons, but most are “skins”—essentially birds cleaned out and stuffed with cotton. The skins are stored on wide trays in large, climate-controlled cabinets, keeping them dry, dark and safe from pests. The smell of mothballs permeates the air.

Dave Willard, collection manager for the bird division, has hosted more than a few of these tours during his 28 years at the Field. He knew exactly how to push our buttons. In the skins collection, he first pulled out a tray of exotic birds from New Guinea. These were like fantasy birds, with impossibly brilliant colors and spectacular tail feathers.

We viewed only a tiny fraction of the skins, of course. One of the highlights for me was when Willard retrieved a specimen that I donated myself in 2002. It was a worm-eating warbler, picked up in downtown Chicago after it crashed into a building. A tag attached to the specimen’s leg said when and where the bird was found, and who found it. (Side note: I’m still searching for my first live worm-eating warbler!)

Willard told us that many of the Field’s locally acquired specimens are victims of building collisions during the spring and fall migration seasons. Over the years, more than 30,000 birds have been gathered from outside the McCormick Place convention center alone!

The Field’s owl inventory skyrocketed recently thanks to this winter’s “invasion” in northern Minnesota. Great gray owls, in particular, were unusually abundant in the Duluth area due to a decline in prey in Canada’s boreal forests, where the owls reside year-round. The phenomenon was great for birders—including dozens from here who traveled north—but not for the owls. Cars and trucks hit many of them, since great grays are low-flying hunters and tend to be unwary of highway traffic. With cooperation from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Field acquired more than 300 owl carcasses.

Our tour included the opportunity to see and touch several extinct species, such as the ivory-billed woodpecker, Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon and Bachman’s warbler. It was a neat experience but also a haunting one. Holding those skins, I wondered what unfortunate species might be next. Would people taking this same tour 50 years from now be passing around an extinct cerulean warbler? Or a Henslow’s sparrow? I hope not, but the trends are not good. Stanford University researchers predicted recently that at least 10 percent of all bird species will disappear by 2100. And the latest issue of Audubon notes that 28 percent of bird species are significantly declining.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

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