Hello. I’ve decided to try out a new line for this blog. My background is as an ornithologist, and I’m lucky enough to work with one of the best bird collections in the UK, at Manchester Museum. The collection includes about 15,000 preserved ‘study skins’ which aren’t usually on display, but are kept in drawers in locked cabinets. These have a number of uses, and we keep them in the dark to keep their colour and keep insect pests from eating them. If you try to imagine a time without bird books, or when next to nothing was known about birds, that’s when the collection was mostly put together. The collection, and others like it, is the basis of what we know about birds. What species there are, where they’re found, how they vary. Collections like this are still used a lot, to work out where birds are found, how they vary and how they change with age. If you think people know everything about birds, you couldn’t be further from the truth. Nature is extremely dynamic and things are changing all the time, and we know next to nothing about some of the commonest birds.
So, I’m going to use this blog to go through some of the ways we identify birds, what they are and why museum specimens important. I hope you like it. To get us started, I’ve chosen a specimen of an Arctic Redpoll (the privilege of position, a truly wonderful bird). This is a small greyish finch, which eats seeds, and as its name suggests mostly lives in the Arctic. The species is a rare visitor to Britain. It is found in Greenland and Canada, and in northern Europe across Siberia. It comes in two forms, Carduelis hornemanni exilipes (the more southern subspecies, known as Coues’ Arctic Redpoll) and Carduelis hornemanni hornemanni (found in Greenland and northern Siberia). Elliot Coues (pronounced ‘cows’) was a 19th century American ornithologist.
The first thing is to get to know the terms used for different parts of birds, like a kind of ‘map’.
This bird was collected (shot) in April 1875. It is identified as an adult male, probably on dissection. The tail feathers are adult. Note how white the rump and lower back are, with white extending up between the tertials (large wing feathers). Note also the broad white fringes to the tail feathers. Ground colour is certainly not white, but is greyish brown.
A view of the underside of the same bird, no streaks on flanks or undertail coverts. Breast is flushed rosy pink, not red as on the forehead.
Side view of the same bird, showing how white and unstreaked the sides of the lower neck are. Broad whitish supercilium (eyebrow) extends between eyes. Small black patch on chin. Bill is thick looking, partly because of black feathering over nostrils.
This bird was collected by the famous English ornithologist Henry Seebohm on one of his trips to Siberia, in 1875. It was described by Henry Dresser in his famous book ‘The History of the Birds of Europe’. It is Coues’ Arctic Redpoll, not the Greenland Redpoll as not white enough and too small.
Hope you enjoyed this, the first venture into using museum specimens to help identify birds. The real power of these specimens is in affecting how we look at, understand and help conserve living birds.