BIRDS AT CARNEGIE MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
The Section of Birds contains nearly 190,000 specimens of birds. The most important of these are the 555 holotypes and syntypes. The Section of Birds staff also cares for approximately 196 specimens of extinct birds as well as specimens of many rare species collected decades—if not more than a century—ago. The collection as a whole is ranked roughly ninth largest in the United States. These specimens are in demand by scientific researchers who visit the collection or borrow them on loan.
The Section of Birds Collection
The majority of the collection’s specimens are in the form of standard study skins, but the collection also contains skeletons—some of which include dried spread wings and tails—egg sets, fluid-preserved specimens, taxidermy mounts, and some nests. The museum maintains specimens from over 170 countries. The largest holdings from various regions include:
|North America||Central and South America||Africa||Asia||Oceania|
|Upper Ohio Valley|
Section of Birds Collection Inquiries
Visiting the Collection
Please contact the collection manager about visiting the collection.
Please be aware that requesting specimens from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CM) collection is an explicit acknowledgment that you support legitimate scientific collecting efforts and that you value the time and effort that goes into collecting, preparing, and maintaining museum collections. In exchange for granting these specimens for research, we may call on you to provide verbal or written support for scientific collecting and our collections.
Loans are made to qualified institutions at the discretion of the curator or collection manager in the curator’s absence. Informal inquiries can be made by phone, letter, or e-mail to determine which taxa are available for sampling and what constraints may apply. Formal requests must be made on institutional letterhead (electronic pdfs are acceptable). Specimen loans are made only to faculty, curators, and permanent research staff at recognized institutions with facilities to properly house and care for specimens. Graduate students must request samples through their major advisor. Individuals who are not affiliated with such an institution may request a loan of material only if they have made prior arrangements with an appropriate institution for housing specimens, and if that institution agrees in writing to receive the specimens on the researcher’s behalf. Loans are not transferable to other institutions. If the requestor changes institutional affiliation, the current loan must be terminated and arrangements for a new loan agreement with the new institution must be requested. Failure to comply with this condition shall be grounds for refusal of future loan requests.
Limitations of Loans
Duration of loans: Loans are generally made for a period of six months. Extensions may be granted upon receipt of a written request. While in the borrower’s care, the following precautions should be taken:
Number of specimens: Specimens that are part of active, in-house research may not be sent out until work is completed. Type specimens and extinct and endangered species are not loaned. No more than half of the section’s holdings of a taxon from one locality are loaned at the same time. In most cases, a request for all holdings will be divided in half with the second shipment being sent after the first has been returned. Some shipments may be further divided depending on the size and condition of specimens requested. The requestor may stipulate groupings of specimens in partial shipments within the confines of this policy.
For foreign loans, the borrower also is responsible for providing copies of all relevant import and export permits. If permits are not necessary, that should be stated in writing at the time of the request. Loans to countries where commercial delivery services are unreliable will be granted only when specimens can be hand-carried in both directions.
Loans of fluid-preserved specimens are only made to institutions with staff certified to handle hazardous substances/dangerous goods.
Upon receipt of the Loan
The borrower must contact the Section of Birds Collection Manager via email to acknowledge safe receipt of the specimens no later than two days after delivery. The borrower is liable for damage that occurs while the specimens are in their possession. All specimens must be safely stored in cases and protected against light, insects, dust, and excessive moisture. Wet specimens are to be stored in 70% ethanol and away from light.
Upon receipt of a loan, check the number and condition of specimens, and note any discrepancies or damage incurred on the appropriate copy of the loan form. Sign and return this copy to the Section of Birds. A second copy will be provided with the shipment for your files. Retain the shipment box and packing materials for the return of the loan. If required, please use freezing at -20 °C for at least 72 hours, for any pest management treatments.
Authors are asked to send a copy of any publication dealing with this material to the Section of Birds.
The Section of Birds staff is aware that some specimens that pre-date 1970 have been treated with arsenic. However, not all specimens have been tested. Therefore, all users are advised to take proper precautions when handling our specimens.
Invasive procedures are not permitted without explicit written permission. Removal of skin or feather samples for molecular analyses is considered a destructive procedure and written permission must be obtained in advance (see policies for tissue/destructive sampling loans).
Prior to or at the time of return, please send a separate letter or email providing the date of shipment and any tracking information to the collection manager. If specimens were fumigated while in your care, please state what pesticide was used.
Specimens must be packed in such a manner as to protect them from shock, moisture, or excessive heat. Skins should be wrapped in material similar to that used in shipment to you.
Use only toilet paper or similar soft paper to wrap the specimens, surrounded then with cotton batting. Please do not use cotton batting or polyester when packing skeletal material.
Place address labels on the inside as well as outside of the package. The shipment must be insured for value indicated on front of loan form.
Foreign loans should not be returned by airfreight. Please return via the postal system or by private carrier such as FedEx. The loan should be accompanied by US Fish and Wildlife form 3-177 provided by the Section of Birds for re-importation of the specimens, copy of letter written to our USFWS special agent at the time of export, original collecting permits or other statements of legal collection, and a copy of the loan invoice. These items must be attached to the outside of the shipping box to facilitate inspection upon re-importation.
Collection Manager – Section of Birds
Carnegie Museum of Natural History
4400 Forbes Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
In the case of re-identification of specimens, new designations should be provided to our curatorial staff when specimens are returned to the Museum. These data can be provided on a copy of the original loan invoice, or in a separate list that contains the CM catalog numbers and respective new identifications (either in text or spreadsheet format).
Acknowledging CM Section of Birds for use of specimens or their data
Specimens used in publications, reports, or presentations should be included in a “Specimens Examined” section and the full catalog number listed (i.e., CM P123456).
The Carnegie Museum should be acknowledged in any publications that result from the use of its specimens. Acknowledgment should be given to “Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Section of Birds.” A PDF electronic copy should be sent to the Curator and Collections Manager of the Section.
Destructive Sampling Request Policy
Destructive Sampling Request Policy
In addition to the general policy for alteration or removal of specimens or objects from the collection of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, there are specific policies and guidelines that cover the alteration or removal of specimens or parts thereof from the collection in the Section of Birds. The policies and guidelines, referring to the removal of samples of skin, feathers, portions of bone, pieces of dried muscle or other tissues, organs, or pieces of fluid-preserved specimens, cover both external and internal requests. Our collections are finite resources, and one of our primary responsibilities is to protect the Carnegie holdings to ensure that they are available for use by future generations of researchers.
We emphasize that destructive samples are intended to supplement research materials obtained from other sources, not replace primary data collection efforts such as field sampling of extant taxa. While we strongly encourage collections-based research, our obligation to protect the Carnegies’ holdings may require that some requests for destructive samples be denied.
Description of a Destructive Sample
The Section of Birds considers any request that modifies a voucher specimen as destructive sampling. Typical examples of destructive sampling of museum specimens for scientific purposes:
(1) removal of skin, muscle, feather, bone, or cartilage samples for genetic studies
(2) removal of feathers, tissues, and bone samples for toxicological or stable isotope investigations
(3) dissection or the removal of organs for anatomical studies
(4) staining specimens for CT scanning The actual destructive sampling will normally be performed by Section staff at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History unless other arrangements have been formally made
A formal request must be submitted in all cases for consideration of alterations or removal of specimens. Normally only accessioned specimens are considered at this level of request. The proposal should state the nature of the study and the research question(s) being addressed, the techniques that will be used in the study, the taxa that will be required, the number of individuals needed, and the exact nature and size of the sample requested. Requests for destructive sampling must contain compelling reasons why the project cannot be completed without the use of museum specimens. This includes evidence that the research question being addressed is explicitly historical and thus requires the use of museum specimens, or that the taxa of interest cannot be sampled directly from the field.
Requests for destructive sampling should provide evidence that the investigators have experience with associated analytical procedures (e.g., PCR amplification and sequencing of DNA from museum skins), and that the proposed studies are likely to generate usable data.
Please note, that requests for destructive sampling will be considered on a case-by-case basis by the curator and collection manager.
If permission is granted to remove specimen parts (e.g., skin clips, reproductive organs, stomach contents), those parts must be labeled with the CM catalog number by the researcher and returned with the specimens. Any slide preparations (e.g., SEM stubs, histological, karyological), are to be returned properly labeled. Additionally, any remaining samples (feathers, DNA extracts, etc.) should be returned to the Carnegie Section of Birds.
Requests should include:
Submit your full request to the collections manager, Serina Brady, and the curator, Chase Mendenhall.
Proposals will be evaluated by curatorial and collection management staff with, in some cases, advice solicited from colleagues at other institutions. Approval will be based on the following criteria:
- Rarity of specimens and potential for replacement
- Qualifications of the investigators
- Evidence of sufficient lab facilities and funding
- Amount of genetic sequence or isotope data to be extracted from samples
- Approval of original collector(s) where applicable
- Proportion of samples being collected by applicants
- Evidence that the applicants are contributing to museum collections by collecting, properly documenting and depositing voucher specimens in collections where they are available to others or by supporting such collections financially
Because the intent is to facilitate quality research while conserving the specimens in the collection, the applicant should:
- Clearly show the purpose and merit of the research.
- Strongly justify the need for sampling specimens by using published and proven methodology backed up by appropriately cited literature in the proposal.
- Keep the amount of any sample required and the number of taxa to be sampled as small as possible.
- Demonstrate the competence of the researchers and availability of institutional resources to complete the research project in a timely period. Requests should provide evidence that the investigators have experience with associated analytical procedures (e.g., PCR amplification and sequencing of DNA from museum skins), and that the proposed studies are likely to generate useable data.
- The rarity of the taxa to be sampled in the wild (endangered species and poorly known taxa) as well as in museum collections will influence the approval of a request.
- The effect of the sampling procedure and the amount of the sample taken on the physical integrity of any specimen and its future utility for other kinds of systematic research will influence the approval of a request.
Actual sampling will be done by collection staff, and specimen records will be annotated at that time. The specimen record will reflect the type of sample removed and the location from which the sample was taken. This information will be recorded for the assessment of future sampling requests. The final selection of actual specimens to be sampled will be done by collection staff in consultation with the researcher if the researcher is on-site to examine the specimens with section staff. Normally only one sample can be removed from any specimen. Destructive sampling of borrowed specimens will not generally be allowed. Holotypes are not available for sampling.
Transfer or loan of specimens (including tissues) is made under the following conditions:
- Please be aware that using avian specimens from the Section of Birds for research purposes is an explicit acknowledgment that you value the time, effort, and expense that goes into collecting, preparing, and maintaining museum collections and that you support ongoing legitimate scientific collecting efforts.
- Specimens (including tissues) will be used only for the purposes stated in the Description of Research. The Description of Research may not be amended, nor may the material be used for other purposes without written permission from the Section of Birds. Samples are only approved for the study as outlined in the application and should not be used for any additional studies without prior approval.
- Loaned tissues remain the property of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CM). Upon completion of the specified project, all unused material, including purified DNA, must be returned to the Section of Birds. We ask that usable samples (cloned genomic DNA, PCR-amplified mtDNA, syringes, slides, etc.) be returned to us for storage in the collection where they can be made available to other researchers.
- Neither the specimens nor samples (or any part, extract, or product thereof) may be transferred or lent to a third party, or another laboratory, without written consent from the Section of Birds.
- Raw data associated with the computerized specimen record (locality, GIS coordinates, date of collection, collector, etc.) will not be supplied to or made available on any publicly available database (digital, electronic, or hard copy) without written consent from the Section of Birds.
- The permanent data record of destructively sampled specimens will be amended to include the name of the sample recipient. Also, any publications will be appended to the electronic data record.
- No commercial use will be made of, nor license or patent applied for on the samples or any information or data derived from them without written consent from Section of Birds. In some cases, commercial or restrictive use of the samples would violate the terms of the permits under which they were collected.
- GenBank accession numbers and raw stable isotope data must be reported to the Section of Birds. These data will be appended to the official specimen record.
- The “CM” (the preferred acronym of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History) will be explicitly acknowledged in each publication that was based in part or entirely on raw data derived from Section of Birds specimens. Voucher specimen numbers will be acknowledged in each publication that results from research on or other use of the samples. This may be done in table or text format.
- Recipients will send 2 reprints of each such paper (the alternative is a PDF) or book (1 copy) to the Section of Birds, upon publication. A signed agreement from book publishers is required.
- Any other stipulations made by the Section of Birds, as a condition of a particular transfer or exchange.
- All responsible parties must sign and date a letter of agreement specifying the terms of the transfer (tissues) or loan (partially dissected or whole specimens).
The decision to accept or reject a request for consumptive sampling takes into account that the section’s collections are finite resources, and one of the section’s primary responsibilities is to protect the Section of Birds’ holdings to ensure that they are available for use by future generations of researchers.
While the section does approve such requests, they are evaluated more stringently than other requests.
The Section of Birds emphasizes that destructive samples are intended to supplement research materials obtained from other sources, not replace primary data collection efforts such as field sampling of extant taxa. While the section strongly encourages collections-based research, the section’s obligation to protect the Section of Birds collection may require that some requests for consumptive samples be denied.
History of the Section of Birds
W. E. Clyde Todd
Todd began his association with Carnegie Museum as a freelance collector of birds in the summer field season of 1898. The following April, he was hired as an assistant in charge of recent vertebrates, which included birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and fish. However, his devotion was entirely to birds, and the other vertebrate specimens were primarily cared for by volunteers or honorary custodians. In the first few decades of the museum’s history, Todd had a significant budget for building the birds collection by employing extremely talented field collectors and by purchasing specimens from professional field collectors. Among those who made significant contributions to the collections were Samuel Klages (1917–1924) with 29,088 specimens, Melbourne Armstrong Carriker, Jr. (1908–1923) with 25,156 specimens, and Jose Steinbach (1910–1924) with 9,127 specimens, all concentrating in the Neotropics.
Todd officially obtained the title of curator of birds in 1914 and continued as such until 1945 when he retired. Of the study skins catalogued into the collection, 75% were added prior to his retirement. He continued to come to the museum almost daily for the next 24 years, making his association with the museum span a surprising 71 years. During that period, he made 23 field trips, the last of which was when he was 80 years old. He won two Brewster awards for monumental works to ornithology with his The Birds of the Santa Marta Region published in 1922, and Birds of the Labrador Peninsula and Adjacent Areas in 1963. His third major publication was Birds of Western Pennsylvania in 1940.
George Milsch Sutton
Sutton became an assistant curator in 1919 and continued until 1924 when he retired to become Pennsylvania’s state ornithologist. However, he continued to be part of Carnegie Museum field trips even after he began his PhD program at Cornell. His dissertation became a part of the Carnegie Memoir series, The Birds of Southampton Island, Hudson Bay, published in 1932. Sutton went on to have a stunning career as an ornithologist at the University of Michigan and the University of Oklahoma, but may be best known for his artwork.
Earnest G. Holt, Rudyerd Boulton, and Ruth Trimble
Ernest G. Holt was an assistant curator from 1927 to 1931, and Rudyerd Boulton held that title from 1926 to 1931. When he left, Ruth Trimble assumed the position as acting assistant curator and became assistant curator in 1934 before leaving in 1940.
Twomey was hired as a field collector in 1936, took over the assistant curator position in 1940, and two years later, he became the second full curator in the section. Twomey led major expeditions to many countries over his 37-year tenure, contributing 17,142 specimens to the collection.
Parkes became the first PhD in the section when he took the position of assistant curator in 1953. By 1962, he became the third full curator and continued here until his retirement in 1996. Ken is best known for his study of molts, Philippine Birds, and taxonomic study dealing with subspecies of an array of birds. He spent a considerable amount of time working through the collection trying to keep taxonomy up to date—an almost impossible task.
Mary Heimerdinger Clench
Mary joined the section as an assistant curator in 1963 and began to organize the anatomical collection. She was a specialist in pterylosis, the study of feather tract patterns on the surface of skins. In 1968, she was promoted to associate curator and continued in the section until she resigned in 1980.
D. Scott Wood
Wood was hired in 1981 as an assistant curator. Wood brought the collection into the 20th century in both storage and computerization. With some help from Ken Parkes, he was awarded two National Science Foundation grants—the first to purchase a new compactor system to re-house and expand the collection and the second to computerize the data. During this same time, Scott re-energized growth of the collection which had languished since Twomey had made numerous field trips to Africa and Central America until the 1960s. He pushed for cataloging specimens, which had been held in the collection for many years, and added anatomical specimens, bringing the collection completely up-to-date. Scott resigned in 1992.
Livezey came to Carnegie Museum of Natural History in 1993 as associate curator of birds and was awarded full curatorship in 2001. During that time, he served as the museum’s first dean of science. He was generally considered to be the world authority on the osteology—the study of skeletons—of birds. Perhaps his greatest legacy is the Higher-Order Phylogeny of Modern Birds, which consumed parts of 10 years’ research with associate Richard Zusi of the Smithsonian Institution. This research opus analyzes more than 2,700 bird “characters”—traits such as beak shape, relative wing proportions, and feather characteristics—to create the most comprehensive bird classification scheme known to science. Livezey was also one of the first researchers to embrace the concept that birds shared their evolutionary lineage with dinosaurs. Livezey worked for Carnegie Museum of Natural History until he passed away in 2011.
Meet the Researchers
CHASE MENDENHALL, Ph.D.
SERINA BRADY, M.S.
Section of Birds Collection Featured in Museum Displays
The Section of Birds collection is the focal point of Bird Hall on the third floor of the museum. Other ornithological specimens—like a bald eagle, bohemian waxwings, and gulls—are also part of the dioramas in the halls of African and North American Wildlife and Botany Hall.
Bird Research at Powdermill Nature Reserve
Avian Ecologist and Bird Banding Program Manager
Urban Bird Conservation Coordinator
Bird Banding Program Manager
Bird Banding Assistant
The avian research center at Powdermill Nature Reserve, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s environmental research center in Rector, Pennsylvania, bands about 10,000 birds each year. Track banding data on the avian research center’s website, and learn more about other research initiatives like flight tunnel analysis and the bioacoustics lab. Information on banding workshops, visits, and the center’s facilities is also available.
BirdSafe Pittsburgh is a local partnership that engages volunteer citizen scientists in researching the issue of birds colliding with windows. Window collisions are one of the leading causes of human-induced avian mortality, with estimates of up to 1 billion birds dying each year in the United States alone. Volunteers find and document birds that have collided with windows throughout Pittsburgh and monitor their homes in order to learn more about window collisions on residential buildings. Dead birds are brought back to Carnegie Museum of Natural History to become part of the collection. Live birds are safely captured to be rehabilitated and released.
The flight tunnel at Powdermill Avian Research Center has been instrumental in testing “Bird Proof Glass” or glass that birds can see to avoid a collision.
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