The Denver Museum collections tour, or, Dead Birds R Us

January 28, 2010
Museum trip participants

Some of our happy participants at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

I led a field trip today for Fort Collins Audubon down to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to take a special behind-the-scenes tour of the specimen collections with Jeff Stephenson, the zoological collections manager. We had a terrifically fun and animated group (in contrast to the rather unanimated specimens) of 11 participants most of whom carpooled down from Fort Collins, with the remainder coming from Loveland and Aurora.

I became aware of the value of specimen collections a few years ago, but only in the past several months did I figure out that having a field trip down to the museum to see one could be quite popular. And this one was – we actually had more interest in the trip than our capacity would allow, so I have to think that we could run a similar trip next year.

Anyway, a few of the highlights:

  • The museum currently contains about 864,000 total zoological specimens, of which nearly 50,000 of those are birds.
  • About 1% of all the bird specimens are on display at any time in the museum, while the rest are in storage downstairs.
  • The oldest specimens date back to about the 1870s.
  • Albert Bailey went on several expeditions to bring specimens to the museum from around the world, and the museum in general has often finagled and made  deals to secure interesting and valuable specimens from other museums and collectors.
  • The museum hopes to create a new storage facility in two floors to be built underneath the current floor, to improve temperature control and insect infestations
  • They also hope to replace many of the antiquated storage cabinets, many of which suffer from problems ranging from outgassing to not having properly “gasketed” doors.

The bird tour began with Jeff showing us the “stacks” in the main storage room, and going to the cabinet with the heaviest flying birds in the world. He showed us a couple Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori) skins, as well as an Australian Bustard (Ardeotis australis) skin.

Jeff showing the Kori Bustard skin, with Ann looking on

The Australian Bustard, subdued

Here’s what a live Kori Bustard looks like, by the way – this is from the Denver Zoo, just next door to the museum.

Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori)

Kori Bustard, February 2009 (© Eric DeFonso)

The American Kestrel tray

Jeff then proceeded to show us some American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) skins. This was particularly fascinating, since many of the kestrels in the tray he showed us came from decades ago, and some of them from Guatemala. In discussing the AMKE skins, Jeff explained the value having skins from any species distributed broadly in space and time, to allow researchers to have samples and hard data for birds that have different diets or other traits that are still in the process of evolving, even if they are of the same species. For that reason the museum is still interested in collecting specimens even from “common species” like American Robins and Blue Jays and the like. He encouraged us to bring down any specimen regardless of quality or species, as long as we know when and where it was collected.

It was also interesting to see how the museum has to keep track of the latest taxonomic news, by updating their specimen tags where needed. For example, he showed us a Gunnison Sage-Grouse holotype specimen that had its tag updated a couple times, by having the original genus name crossed out. Heck, I didn’t even know what a holotype was until today.

A tray-full of tanagers

Jeff then pulled out a few trays of tanagers and talked for a while about the kinds of expeditions that the Denver Museum used to run back in the day. Most if not all of these tropical tanagers were obtained during those old expeditions, and you could see that from looking at the tag data. In the first tray you can see some Bay-headed Tanagers (Tangara gyrola) on the far right, some Speckled Tanagers (Tangara guttata) in the middle row, and Saffron-crowned Tanagers (Tangara xanthocephala) just above them. After I got home to look at the photos it occurred to me that it looks like Jeff is offering hors d’oeuvres to everyone. “Try the Saffron-crowns, they’re to die for!” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the morbid humor.)

There was also a tray of Blue-necked and Golden-hooded Tanagers. Just awesome.

More tanagers from Peru

Everything was building up to the end where Jeff showed us the trays with Several extinct North American species. The first tray had the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), and Jeff explained for the group what led to the demise of this once outrageously abundant bird. It was a poignant reminder of what used to be, and how wasteful, stupid, and greedy some people were and how the effects of that continue to this day.

Jean and Ann looking on to the Passenger Pigeons

Passenger Pigeons, closer up

We also got to see a couple extinct subspecies. The first of them was the Dusky Seaside Sparrow of central Florida. We then saw a few Heath Hens (Tympanuchus cupido cupido), a subspecies of  Greater Prairie-Chicken that used to live on the eastern seaboard.

Heath Hens

The Carolina Parakeets (Conuropsis carolinensis) were spectacular. Like the Passenger Pigeon these birds were heavily persecuted and therefore hunted into oblivion.

Carolina Parakeets in repose

Of particular interest was seeing this specimen, gathered in 1892 in Cherokee Nation/Indian Territory, as indicated by the original tag. This location is now better known as Oklahoma. Jeff commented that there were anecdotal reports of birds quite similar to Carolina Parakeets in the Arkansas River Valley in SE Colorado around that same time – it’s plausible then that even Colorado saw at least a few of this stunningly beautiful species sometime in the 19th century, although no hard evidence exists to prove that.

I finally got to see my first Bachman’s Warbler (Vermivora bachmanii) too.

Bachman's Warbler

The "Lord God" bird - the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

At last Jeff brought out the big guns, the Campephilus woodpeckers. First was the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), seen here. The museum does have a mounted Ivory-billed on display in one of the dioramas, I believe on the third floor. But it was very exciting to see this study skin up close. Interestingly, one of the 3 IBWOs they had in the drawer was collected from St. Louis, Missouri, although I don’t know when. Jeff also explained the origin of the previously common name for this bird, the Lord God bird.

In the tray I photographed the other remarkable Campephilus specimen, the Imperial Woodpecker (Campephilus imperialis), formerly from central Mexico. This was the largest of the genus, and the largest woodpecker in the entire world. Sadly, this species was last documented in the wild in the 1950s, and like most extinct species it suffered from extensive habitat destruction by deforestation.

The Imperial Woodpecker

A pair of mounted Huia, from New Zealand

Two more highlights were shown after this. The first was a pair of mounted Huia specimens, showing a male (right) and female (left). The Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris) was one of the three wattlebirds endemic to New Zealand, and was last documented in the wild in 1922. It too suffered from habitat loss, although the introduction of mammalian predators was also a huge factor. New Zealand has no native or natural mammal predators, and all its bird species evolved in an ecosystem without them and therefore suffered greatly as they had no natural defense or instincts against them. Note the highly dimorphic bill sizes!

The last highlight was a pair of eggs from the Aepyornis, or Elephantbird, and extinct ratite from Madagascar. The egg is slightly larger than a basketball, and belonged to a bird that stood nearly 12 feet tall.

A semifossilized egg from Aepyornis, or Elephantbird

Jeff showing us a photo of the Elephantbird posed with its egg. The egg looks small only because the Elephantbird stood nearly 12 feet high.

As Jeff led us out of the main storage hall, we made one last stop at the room where they prepare specimen skeletons using dermestid beetles. I didn’t take any pictures in here mostly because the room was small and I didn’t think the photos would really be all that illuminating. However, you can read a little more about how the beetles are used here. Jeff explained to us how it works, and we were all fascinated, although not all of us were in the room for the explanation. Consider that the room is used to strip the last remnants of flesh from the carcasses of dead animals ranging in size from small birds to ram skulls, and you can maybe imagine that it isn’t the most pleasant smelling place. Because a few of us on the trip are regular volunteers at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program where we frequently work with things that don’t smell nice, I guess we were more accustomed to it.

All in all, a truly fascinating excursion. The rest of the trip was spent perusing the displays in the museum, having lunch in the food court (watching the dermestid beetles made us all hungry), or taking in an IMAX show or the special Genghis Khan exhibit. Thanks to Jeff Stephenson for offering the tour and his many entertaining and illuminating stories and explanations of what goes on behind the scenes at the museum!

Update (1/28/10, 11:10am): I can’t believe I totally forgot to mention that at the end of the tour, I gave Jeff a new museum specimen. Denise B of Loveland had called me a few weeks before the tour and said that although she was unable to take the tour herself, she had a dead Swainson’s Thrush in her freezer, and wanted to donate it to the Museum. It had collided with her patio door last October. She dropped it off one day and I kept it until the field trip, where I was able to donate it then in a very timely and instructive way for our field trip participants. All I needed was a reasonably approximate date of collection and location.

The museum is always interested in specimens like this, so keep that in mind the next time you come across one. It doesn’t matter how common the species is, it’s still useful. And even if it isn’t in the best appearance or shape, they can still use it as a skeleton or tissue sample. So if you can overcome any personal revulsion at seeing dead birds, please consider doing something like this if the opportunity arises.



  1. So are you going to explain the origins of the name, Lord God bird, to the rest of us? (please?)Great post, Eric. what an opportunity to see specimens of species long gone, and long thought to be gone.

  2. Great trip Eric, a very nice service for our community. I cannot believe how small the Ivory-billed Woodpecker seems “in the hand”. Did you see the Ancient Murrelet from Fort Collins (which made its way posthumously to me and then to the museum)


  3. No, but I wished I’d asked. The thought did occur to me during the tour – I remember you showing it to me before donating it. And I’m sure they don’t have too many Ancient Murrelets lying about, so it would been pretty nifty to see. But as it was our tour was crammed with interesting stuff and we went a half hour over our scheduled tour time anyway.

    It’s true about the IBWO size. Even the Kori Bustard seemed smaller than I’d have thought. That’s one reason I posted the live photo of it, because that’s a pretty big bird. As big as it is though, it still fit on that shelf.

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