The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Science
One of the best things about my internship this summer is the interaction between archival research and the living world beyond the walls of the Smithsonian.
Step outside any of the Smithsonian buildings around the National Mall and you’ll be sure to hear a symphony of cheeps, chirps, and coos from the birds who call the Mall home. Each day I make it a priority to spend time in one of the beautiful spaces created and maintained through the hard work of Smithsonian Gardens. The Fountain Garden in the Enid A. Haupt Garden and the curvilinear windings of the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden are quickly becoming personal favorites. Amidst the serenity of these thoughtfully cultivated landscapes, the lively abundance of passerines (also known as perching birds, or songbirds) never ceases to delight and amuse me.
Inside the walls of the Smithsonian there is a long-standing tradition of ornithology. As part of my internship, I’ve been working on the oral history interviews of Roxie Collie Laybourne, or “Roxie” as she is simply and affectionately called. Roxie worked in the Smithsonian’s Division of Birds from 1944 until 1988, and remained active as a research associate until her death in 2003. While her greatest achievement is the establishment of the field of forensic ornithology, Roxie is fondly remembered in the hearts of many for her weekly bird-skinning classes, hosted on Thursday evenings in the basement of the Natural History Building. The class was offered free of charge, and was open to any person who expressed an interest in attending.
The birds most commonly used in class were those collected around the National Mall, including common starlings, house sparrows, and brown-headed cowbirds. In a 2001 interview, Roxie commented that the equally abundant doves were less desirable because “doves lose their feathers very easily, they are usually fat, and most of the time you skin one and [laughter] you may not have much left but the head!” At the heart of the class was the desire for a fuller appreciation of the beauty of natural history, and of birds in particular. Listen to Roxie talk about her work at the Smithsonian in the audio clip below.
Roxie Collie Laybourne talking about her work at the Smithsonian.
Today there are new opportunities for learning about birds and their lives. On July 25, 2012, Smithsonian Gardens established the Urban Bird Habitat Garden outside of the Natural History Museum. The garden has been planted with native trees, shrubs, and perennials to provide food, shelter, and nesting areas for local birds. Today, the habitat garden even boasts its own snag, providing a home for cavity-nesters such as woodpeckers, bluebirds, and chickadees!
Unfortunately a new teacher has yet to take up the challenge of weekly bird-skinning tutorials. But you can see mounts of all of our local birds in the Birds of D.C. exhibit on the ground floor of the Natural History Museum.
- Video of Gray Catbird Singing at the Castle, Gabrielle F. Graham
- Video of Birds Bathing in National Botanic Garden, Gabrielle F. Graham
- The Smithsonian Urban Bird Habitat, Smithsonian Gardens
- Birds seen around the National Museum of Natural History, Encyclopedia of Life
- Record Unit 9610 - Oral history interviews with Roxie Collie S. Laybourne, 2001, Smithsonian Institution Archives
These photographs document the field work of explorer, naturalist, and science administrator, Edward William Nelson, and field naturalist and mammalogist, Edward Alphonso Goldman. They worked for the US Biological Survey and collected in the field together for 14 years. These photographs are a stunning look at Mexico during the turn of the twentieth century.
- On Monday, Asian elephants Swarna, Maharani and Kumala finished their 30-day quarantine and made their public debut at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. [via Smithsonian Science]
- Guess who's on Pintrest? - The Library of Congress that's who! [via InfoDocket]
- The Field Book Project sheds some light on what one does with a field book. [via Field Book Project blog, NMNH and SIA]
- Check out the awesome video series by Cooper-Hewitt, Design Dictionary, which illustrates the various design techniques employed in the museum's collections via video. [via Cooper-Hewitt Labs]
- The story continues, Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, voluntarily testifies at a congressional hearing regarding the loss of email at the IRS. [via The New York Times]
- Answers to a question you may not have thought of . . . what happens to my social media profiles after I die? [via Mashable]
- This week the Library of Congress released its recommended formats for the long-term preservation of six types of creative works. [via InfoDocket]
- Last week saw the passing of Stephanie Kwolek, a scientist at DuPont who invented Kevlar. [via Core77]
In the fall of 1914, a three hundred pound block of ice was shipped from the Cincinnati Zoo to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. It held the remains of the last of a species that had once turned the skies of North America dark when its enormous flocks were in migration. The cold and lonely final migration was made by Martha, the last known passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), who had resided at the Cincinnati Zoo since 1902. Estimated to be twenty-nine years old, she was named in honor of George Washington’s wife, Martha.
Passenger pigeons were more brightly-colored than the related Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura). They were also larger than other species of pigeons that we are used to seeing today, some 14-16 inches long, with long wings, and a long, pointed tail. They had particularly large breast muscles that enabled them to fly for long distances. The male passenger pigeon had an olive-gray back, rusty breast, slate-blue head, and iridescent neck. Female passenger pigeons were similar to males, but were somewhat duller and browner. It is estimated that the passenger pigeon was once the most numerous species of bird in North America, if not the world, and had lived there for over 100,000 years. Between three and five billion passenger pigeons once inhabited the deciduous forest region of the eastern United States and from southern Canada to Kansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Georgia. During the breeding season, massive flocks gathered to mate in New England, the Mid-Atlantic region, the Ohio River valley, and the lower Great Lakes, but they wintered in the southeastern US. These social birds lived in enormous colonies, with up to 100 nests in a single tree. When flocks migrated overhead, their formations were a mile wide, went on for days, and turned the skies dark.
The noted 19th century bird painter, John James Audubon, watched flocks of passenger pigeons migrate overhead on his way to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1813. All he could hear was a continuous “buzz of wings,” and said “the air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse…” When he reached his destination, fifty-five miles away, the birds were still passing overhead, and “continued to do so for three days in succession.” No one could imagine they could so quickly go extinct, but uncontrolled hunting, loss of habitat by logging and farming, and perhaps disease conspired to wipe this species off the face of the earth. After the last confirmed sighting of a wild passenger pigeon in 1900, surveys in 1910-1911 failed to record any wild birds. A few survived in captivity, and the Cincinnati Zoo’s Martha was the last.
After Martha arrived at the US National Museum, she was studied by ornithologist Robert Shufeldt and her skin was prepared for display by taxidermists William Palmer and Nelson Wood. She was on display in the Natural History Building’s Bird Hall in the 1920s through the early 1950s, and in the Birds of the World exhibit that ran from 1956 until 1999. She also had four flights to break the monotony, winging her way first class, escorted by a flight attendant, to the San Diego Zoological Society’s Golden Jubilee Conservation Conference in 1966, and in June 1974 returning to the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens for the dedication of a new building named in her honor. She will return to public display on June 24, 2014, in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries exhibit Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America on the ground floor of the National Museum of Natural History. Be sure to stop by to see her!
- Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America exhibition, Smithsonian Institution Libraries
- "Martha," The Last Passenger Pigeon, National Museum of Natural History Centennial website
- Passenger Pigeons, Encylopedia of Life
- Project Passenger Pigeon