Teddy Roosevelt did not come to life, and no one got slapped by a monkey, but the behind the scenes workings of the museum sure came to life! Mary Normandia set up a private “behind the scenes” tour exclusively for Queens County Bird Club Inc members and we got to see parts of the massive collections used predominantly by researchers and other privileged guests, but not open to the public.
Set to start at 1pm, a small number of us met earlier to try to get some of the Manhattan specialties, as long as we were in the neighborhood. Some of us met at Inwood Park hoping to see the Dicksissel. When Jean Loscalzo Mike Feder and I arrived, Eric Miller and Jeff Ritter were already there. Eric waved us on as we arrived, and we thought they were on the bird in question. They were not, but they had a beautiful adult Bald Eagle on the top of the hill of and cued up nicely in the scope!
Thinking that the birds might come in to food, some of us went to get some seed, while Eric and Jeff went after other targets. On our return, Andrew Baksh was on site, also with the Eagle cued up; and was somewhat disappointed to learn that we had already seen it earlier. Find us the Dicksissel we said, but it was not to be. Strike one. Andrew also let on that he was bailing on the museum tour in favor of a potential life bird - Slaty-backed Gull upstate. Priorities.
Jeff and Eric met up with Ian Resnick in Central Park to track down the Barred Owl that had been seen in the Pinetum, while Jean and I took the train to Bryant Park hoping for the Yellow-breasted Chat, and perhaps the Ovenbird. Nope and nope. Holy cow. We gave it a good try, and got some free snacks from the ‘teach kids how to eat expo’ then took the train back uptown to meet up for the tour.
When Jean and I returned to the museum, we tried entering through the subway access as instructed, but there was a sign saying to go around to the front even though they were letting people exit that way, I explained to the guard that we were to be meeting staff, but he wasn’t having any of it and we walked all the way around to the front, and back down two flights of stairs to be right where we started from. *&%DR#R!
But the timing was good, no sooner did we get to the basement than all the others in our party assembled as if by cue. Peter Capainolo, Scientific Assistant: Division of Vertebrate Zoology - Ornithology of the American Museum of Natural History came out to greet us, and we were led by Peter through a locked but unassuming door to the bowels of the museum.
We began in one of the older parts of the museums facilities, where Peter does his work preparing study skins, skeletons, or ‘pickling’ of entire animals. Here is where the ‘unpleasant’ parts of the museum work gets done, removing tissue etc. Peter explained the process, and detailed how it has changed over time due to prohibitions against using toxic compounds, and how it has also stayed the same. Mainly, soft squishy parts are not necessary, while the hard parts, ie bones are. Whole critters are pickled first in formaldehyde, and after the tissues are fixed, stored in Ethanol.
Peter explained that for ornithology, ‘study skins’ are prepared so that various measurements can be done of bill, wing and other parts, especially over time and to compare populations etc. This entails removing the entrails which are largely not of study value, and thus Mary’s disappointment who emphatically wanted to see the gonads. Sorry Mary, wrong museum.
Another preferred method for study is skeletal preparation. Peter showed us samples of birds that had been partially processed. These had most everything but bony parts removed, with a bit of the ‘jerky’ muscle tissue remaining. Labeled with a tag on the foot, and tied in a neat bundle, these birds sat in the freezer until ready to be brought to the ‘cleaning facility’ where all soft parts are removed on even the tiniest and most fragile of bones by Dermestid beetles.
When Ian heard the beetles were used to clean up, his interest was peaked, but Peter quickly pointed out they are Dermestid, not domestic beetles. They are kept in a separate building so that they can minimize the risk of them getting to the rest of the museum’s collection and ruining them.
Down the hall in this dark, dank, and antiquated part of the museum, we were shown the room full of trays full of boxes of bones, each marked carefully with identifying numbers lest one be misplaced. It was fascinating to see these items, and try to guess what species or even genus they came from.
We then boarded a freight elevator of the type I no longer believed to exist. The type where the inner and outer doors are closed manually, and there are no floor buttons; rather a lever that is pushed forwards or backwards to make the car go up and down, and requires a bit of trial and error to get it to line up with the desired floor. These you will find in old movies that had elevator operators.
What was intriguing was that I noticed that the floors went from 5 to 4M to 4 and then 3. Hmmm. If we get off on 4m will we be inside John Malkovitch’s head, before being dumped by the side of the NJ turnpike? But enough conspiracy theories, we were there to see the bird collection.
On the 3rd floor we got a nice sampling of the skins and many an OO and AH was elicited. Peter showed us the drawers of the Falcon skins, and quizzed us on what birds we think they might be related to, alluding to their not necessarily being hawks. If you guessed Parrots you win the prize, a relation I would never have guessed. Polly want a burger?
Moving on, we saw my favorites, the hummingbirds. It was something to see in your hand the minuteness of the Bee Hummingbird, and have the others to marvel at their colors and diversity. Peter also told us of current research on bird coloration being done, where it is being revealed that some birds may have ultra-violet colorations visible to them, but not noticed by our eyesight without the help of special cameras. He told us that it appears that Male Chickadees have UV markings, while the females do not; revealing that there is stuff going on that we are not aware of in the bird world.
We ended with the birds of paradise, a nice study in variation within a species, and discussions on how DNA is being used to find “crypto-species”. Note this is not trying to find Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness Monster, but rather species that by typical means of size, color, song etc may be indistinguishable. Peter told us that the “Herring Gull” colony at Captree State Park may in fact be a colony of 3 identical looking but reproductively isolated species, ...and you thought the Crossbills were hard!
Although some of us did not want to leave, after spending more that twice the time with us as he had planned we bid Peter a fond adieu and heartily thanked him for a fantastic experience. He made the tour beyond merely informative and quite entertaining at the same time. And as far as Peter’s protests of not being a people person, none of us were having any of it because we had a blast with him.
After the tour Jean, Seth Ausubel and I tried for the ‘live’ Rufous Hummingbird that has been at the museum entrance, and maintained our streak No bird. So the three of us went to the pinetum to try our luck looking for the Barred Owl. We weren’t disappointed. But only in that our streak continued. By now, it was late and dark enough that trying for the Red-headed Woodpecker was out of the question. Wow. Six birds missed. And Andrew’s Slaty-backed was a no show. At least Eric and Ian reported having seen an Eastern Phoebe.
With the way our luck chasing the rarities was running, it seemed the whole day was as if we were in ‘Peter’s world’, where successful chasing only involved opening the correct cabinet drawer. The better birding was by far in the museum. Thanks Peter!
To see photos of the tour taken by Seth, check out his face book album here