SI Research Notes: NMNH Division of Birds

August 31st, 2009 by Linda Stevens
At the Division of Birds in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History preserved bird specimin stretch as far as the eye can see. Photo: Chip Clark

The Division of Birds storage facility in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Photo: Chip Clark

Linda Stevens is the Field Notes Coordinator for Smithsonian Journeys. Combing the Institution for interesting projects happening around the world, she prepares these research notes especially for travelers. Click here to learn more about Linda.

The National Museum of Natural History’s Division of Birds houses and maintains the third largest bird collection in the world with over 625,000 specimens. The National Collection, known in ornithological literature by the acronym USNM (referring to the old name of United States National Museum), has specimens of 80% of the 10,000 known species in the world’s avifauna. While the majority of these specimens consist of study skins, the USNM also manages skeletal and anatomical (alcohol preserved) collections. Additional collections include egg sets, nests, and mounted skins. In recent years, tissues frozen in liquid nitrogen have also been preserved.

The USNM Bird Collection contains many specimens of historical importance. The first group originated from the private collection of Spencer Fullerton Baird, who collected in Pennsylvania in the early 1840’s. Baird later became the second Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Another early component of the collection derived from the U.S. Exploring Expedition from 1838–1842, commanded by Captain Wilkes of the U.S. Navy. Theodore Roosevelt collected birds as a boy and later as a member of the Smithsonian African Expedition, and his specimens are part of the USNM collection. Finally, a major portion of the collection has been derived from the activities of the U.S. Biological Survey from the 1890’s to the 1930’s.

The National Collections are maintained as a resource to promote ornithological research and as such are irreplaceable.

The USNM holds approximately 3,500 bird specimens from Baja California. John Xantus, who was one of Spencer Baird’s corps of collectors, collected a significant portion of the Baja specimens. Xantus was originally an army officer who collected for the Smithsonian while he was posted to various forts in the west. In Baja, he was assigned to do coastal surveys and record weather observations. Other significant portions of the Baja California collections came from the International Boundary Survey in 1896, and several expeditions of the U.S. Biological Survey.

Click here to learn more about our small ship expedition to Baja California.

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