Deceased Parrots: Life after Life at the Smithsonian


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. .mlJ

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=-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 auqment 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 that die while in our care.

The present 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, D.C. Our focus was on the family Psittacidae 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 amount of Pacific and Asian skins follow W.L. 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 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 U.S. Geological Survey) and the original Smithsonian collections, this department of the Natural History Museum has a very open "But what we did have=-rnoths or bee-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 that receive regular handling.

Every year there seem to be more nontraditional 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 substance may be used along with sticky bug traps to catch the stray insect bent upon darnaqel

Decades ago, much skin specimen preparetion 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 coupie of times since 1980 or so;' Dean said. "But what we did have=-rnoths 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 feathers. All plumage tends to fade some with age~especially the reds and yellows.