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
The Section of Birds collection is also maintained in a Microsoft Access database. Data from the collection can be obtained by contacting the collection manager by letter on institutional stationary or by email. Send a brief abstract of the study that benefits from the requested data. Data, if received, are for one-time use and are not to be re-posted in any other format.
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.
Bird Research at Powdermill Nature Reserve
Avian Ecologist and Bird Banding Program Manager
Urban Bird Conservation Coordinator
Bird Banding Program Manager
Bird Banding Assistant
Bird Banding at Powdermill Avian Research Center
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.
Meet the Researchers
CHASE MENDENHALL, Ph.D.
STEPHEN ROGERS, 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.
- by Patrick McShea Cliff Swallows are potters. The gourd-shaped earthen vessels the birds construct, one tiny mouthful of mud at a time, …
- by Annie Lindsay On spring mornings that I’m not banding birds, I like to sit on my back porch with my binoculars, …
- On a late January afternoon, as I used binoculars to count roosting vultures on a water tower in a northern Pittsburgh suburb, …
- Powdermill Nature Reserve researchers are using radio technology to track songbirds marked with grain-of-rice-sized nanotags as they migrate North and South through …
- Leaves have fallen and so has snow, low clouds shroud the blue sky in a drop-ceiling effect, and the frigid air …
- On December 20, 2020, 34 intrepid birders braved a wintry mix to count birds in assigned sectors within a 15-mile diameter circle …
- Since 1900, the National Audubon Society has hosted the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), a fun day for birders and bird watchers of …
- Northern Saw-whet Owls have a reputation for showing-up in surprising places. The late November news that one of these small predators accompanied …
- November is the month best known for the holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of the month, Thanksgiving, which revolves around one …