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
United Kingdom 415
North America 100,954
United States 60,904
Costa Rica 5,475
New Zealand 645
South America 58,833
French Guiana 4,657
- So you want to take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count? You’ve got your nature notebook ready and you’ve found the perfect …Read More »
- February’s here and you know what that means… it’s time for the Great Backyard Bird Count! Since 1998, people all over the …Read More »
- By Patrick McShea A detail in a Hall of Botany diorama can add much to our understanding of a popular songbird. Pictured …Read More »
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, Melvin A. 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.
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.