Painted Redstarts, American Museum of Natural History

Painted Redstarts, American Museum of Natural History

The Dovkie’s head flopped loosely as Paul showed it around the room, asking if anyone knew what it was. I’d already volunteered the “auk” part, and was trying to maintain the discipline of letting someone else have a chance, especially since there were a lot of kids on this tour. They seemed kind of overwhelmed, though. Maybe it was the hog-tied, half-mummified Jabiru on the table, waiting to be sent to the dermestid beetles. Maybe it was the fluorescent light. But I held my peace and gave them their chance.

Oh, who am I kidding. I wasn’t totally sure it wasn’t some obscure Murrelet from the west coast, or for that matter the world’s weirdest example of convergent evolution, an auk-alike that actually lives in the slow-flowing rivers of southern China or something. This was the AMNH. Anything, from anywhere, was possible. I mean, I was pretty sure that there was no such thing as the Cantonese Fresh-water Perching Penguin. But I haven’t memorized all 10,000 avian species. And stranger birds have happened.

I studied the CFPP carefully. Its stubby beak faded into the dark facial feathers, making it look even smaller. The plumage was pristine, and almost cuddly-looking. The eyes were slightly sunken, a little oozy, but that was the only gruesome note.

Paul eventually gave up trying to prompt the word Little out of us, and went on to explain the origin of the specimen. “I got a phone call from a guy in Jersey,” he said, with that casual NYC confidence that we would all understand he was talking about over-the-Hudson, not over-the-Atlantic. “He said he had a penguin running around in his living room. I knew right away what it was.” Not a penguin, freshwater, perching, or otherwise. Like many a pelagic bird before it, the Little Auk had been storm-swept into the unforgiving land, starved until it was too weak to flee human contact, and perished. Now it would be processed into immortality in this windowless basement room.

Like all the skinning-and-stuffing sorts I’ve known, Paul was a keenly enthusiastic man with a sense of humor that occasionally lost people. “They’re alcoholic specimens,” he said, gesturing at a pair of large mason jars. Each jar contained a liquid the color of old, cheap paper and a Tufted Puffin in a contorted head-down pose. “Some people call them spirit specimens, but all the specimens here are spirits.” He paused a beat. The kids looked at him, po-faced. “Because they’re dead.” Another beat. “Ok, moving on.”

I really liked this guy.

But then, I liked everything about this evening, from our cliff-hanger arrival at the museum just in time to catch the last members-only tour after overstaying at happy hour, to the ancient elevators – complete with operators! – that conveyed us first up to the research collections and then down to the subterranean den of preservation, to the smell. Call me ghoulish, but the preservative smell of a venerable museum has always triggered intense feelings in me. It’s too joyful to be properly described as Proustian, because instead of representing something lost forever, this smell stands for something that will continue long after I’m gone. It’s the smell, to me, of knowledge.

I inhaled deeply as we started the tour, and was inclined to linger among the infinite rows of sheet-metal cabinets. (The guide probably thought I was taking it easy on The Inimitable Todd, who was walking with a cane after a marathon-related mishap.) Our first meeting was with Peter, who pulled out drawers of Painted Redstarts and Hawaiian Honeycreepers, not-quite-perfect rows of party colors, black and red, yellow and green, each skin carefully stuffed with cotton and fitted with a tag that, in cramped curlicues of ink, transfigured a dead bird into a valuable cache of data. I wanted desperately to touch, but restrained myself.

He described collecting expeditions classic and contemporary, particularly his own work in the Solomon Islands. Correlated birds (green-and-purple pigeons, small falcons) to maps and field guides, catching each one neatly in a web that, if it was but a pale faded mimeograph of the mesh that holds an ecosystem together, at least offered the consolation of being comprehensible to the human mind.

And then he took questions.

“Do you have an Ivory-billed Woodpecker?” It wasn’t me. And in fact, I was a little irritated, because now I would look silly asking about Great Auks.

“Yes – in fact, you’ll be seeing one later in the tour.” All irritation vanished. And the crowd went wild – in a subdued, respectful way appropriate to dues-paying members of the Museum.

Our next stop was a book-lined office where Tom had set up a projector screen. Tom was the man in charge of the effort to get the ornithology collection electronically databased and online. A Powerpoint was in the offing. My heart quailed. But, sensitive to the potential pitfalls of his material, Tom managed to rally interest with a bit of slightly scandalous history – recounting some of the events surrounding the AMNH’s acquisition of Lord Rothschild’s collection – before launching into a cogent explanation of how his project was making it possible for researchers around the world to use the museum’s resources without ever setting foot in New York. Photos of specimens – only a few, since funding seemed always to be a roadblock – scans of documents, all sorts of things were making their way into the ether by way of this desk.
Like the next slide that appeared on the screen; a black-and-white photo. Two men sitting in a boat against a background of tangled vegetation. One staring somewhere off stage right, holding a gun. And the other, a slender man in a hat and an enormous beard, staring right at the camera as if to say, “Yeah? And what are you gonna do about it?” And well he might, for over his knee he holds a limp Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

The man is with the woodpecker was William M. Brewster; the man with the gun was Frank M. Chapman, who had just shot the woodpecker and would shortly bring it back to the museum. To be turned into a cache of data. An uncomfortable chill went through me.

But then, if you’re going to go, ending up a cache of data was at least no worse than being Christmas dinner or a kitten’s dinner, or beaten to death as a a witch…

Oh, who am I kidding? Granted, at the time the Ivory-bill was not yet the ornithological Elvis. Still, it was known to be in decline. And it’s one thing to point out that a healthy population should be able to sustain the loss of a few individuals, another to inflict the loss knowing that the population is not healthy. Even in a place that smells like heaven, there’s always the nagging little worm of contradiction.

But it’s not like that stopped me from leaning over schoolkids and even abandoning The Limping Inimitable Todd to get a front-row view of the Ivory-bill, the selfsame one that appeared in the photo, when we reached the basement. It looked small, its skeleton (including the iconic bill) having been removed and prepared separately. Chapman had read that there was no skeleton preparation of the Ivory-bill, and he’d set out to repair that lack. Now the skeleton was disarticulated and stored in a cardboard box. Its tail had also been removed, and its remaining skin folded rather haphazardly and dried. Not exactly a proud presentation of the Lord God Bird.

But when Paul started talking, the melancholy passed. The sad skin, he explained, had been used to prepare an extended wing specimen to compare with the alleged Ivory-bill photos and tapes trickling out of Arkansas and Florida. It didn’t excuse, but at least it wasn’t wasted. And here were some Sage Grouse study skins, plump with cotton. A Bufflehead pinned out neatly to dry. And here was a black-and-white bird that hadn’t been prepared yet. Did anyone know what it was?

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NB: For anyone who was wondering about the Hempstead Thick-billed Murre, I asked Paul, who confirmed that it had been received and processed.