Day with Smithsonian birds was dream come true

Last month I wrote about Marcy Heacker, a research associate and forensic ornithologist in the bird division of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. I met Marcy earlier this fall, and she invited me to visit for a behind-the-scenes tour.

A few weeks ago my daughter, Nora, joined me for the visit. In advance of the trip Marcy had asked me if I had any special requests. I said I’d like to see some examples of extinct species. So I was thrilled at the contents of the first cabinet she opened.

Among the first specimens Marcy showed us were three extinct species — a passenger pigeon, an ivory-billed woodpecker, and a Carolina parakeet. The passenger pigeon was collected April 19, 1879 in Highland Falls, NY.

Causes

Though ivory-bills were probably never common, passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets were abundant in the early 1800s. Habitat destruction and unregulated market hunting, however, wiped out the passenger pigeons in just a few decades. The parakeets fell to habitat loss and persecution as an agricultural pest.

Next we looked at some nests, including an elaborately woven African weaver finch nest that suggested a Nautilus shell and a strange piece of material that looked vaguely like porous peanut brittle without the nuts.

“Any idea what this is?” Marcy asked. Sensing my ignorance, she explained, “This is the nest from which bird nest soup is made.” I knew about this soup, but had never actually seen the nest. It’s made by small Asian swifts that attach a shallow shelf to cave walls. The nest is made of the bird’s viscous, sticky saliva. The nests are collected and used to thicken pots of soup.

Realization

Marcy laughed when she told us about a group of Chinese students she had led on a tour. She asked if they were familiar with bird nest soup. Most were, and a few had even eaten it. But none realized what the key ingredient was. They were appalled.

After about an hour, Marcy was called away to a meeting, and she turned my daughter and me over to her colleague Faridah Dahlan. After a whirlwind tour of Faridah’s DNA lab, she whisked us away to the Entomology Division, where she worked until a few years ago.

“You must see the leaf-cutter ant colonies,” she said. She could barely contain her enthusiasm as she showed us the ants that grow their own food. They harvest leaves to grow crops of fungus.

After we rejoined Marcy, she asked if there was anything else we’d like to see. “How about some big birds?” my daughter asked. “Do you have an ostrich?”

Soon we were standing in front of some over-sized cases.

“Obviously we can’t fit an outstretched ostrich into these drawers,” Marcy explained, “so we fold them up like a rug.” And there it was — a full-sized adult ostrich skin folded to fit the drawer.

Identification

Attached to all specimens are labels that identify the date, location, and collector of each skin. This ostrich was a gift in 1904 to President Roosevelt from an African king named Menelik. Next Marcy opened another drawer that contained a pair of peafowl.

“I’ll bet you think the long feathers with the colorful eye spots are tail feathers, but they’re not,” she explained. “They are the upper tail coverts, the feathers that grow over the base of the tail feathers. In most birds they cover just the base of the tail feathers, but the peacock’s coverts are long, showy, and heavy. The real tail feathers are much shorter and provide the strength to left and display the showy coverts.”

I felt like a kid in a candy shop. I could spend days just browsing the cabinets. Every drawer in every cabinet held feathered treasures. Birds-of paradise, brilliantly colored tropical tanagers, a harpy eagle with the biggest fist of any raptor, penguins and exquisitely tiny hummingbirds made this a morning to remember.

And as Nora and I said thank-you and good-bye, Marcy’s reply was music to me ears. “Come back, and next time we’ll explore the mammal collection,” she promised.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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