Thursday, January 29, 2015

Living Dead

Yesterday I visited the Natural History Museum at Tring for the first time. As a keen birder from an early age, I grew up on Hadoram's myths of the endless aisles there. Now that I live not too far away from Tring I had a chance to finally visit this fascinating place. The main purpose of my visit was a project I am doing on Nubian Nightjar subspecies - hope something useful will come out of it. I went there with Quentin who is doing a project on Snow Buntings, and we met up there with Yosef who's working on his moult project there.
The NHM is quite an amazing place indeed. The incredible amount and diversity of birds found in their bird collections is unimaginable. It is an invaluable resource for any ornithologist. The opportunity to work with huge sample sizes, available at NHM, is impossible to achieve in a lifetime in the field. 
However, my excitement of seeing so many birds was slightly shadowed by the fact they were all dead. Very dead. Most birds I saw were collected in the late 1800's or early 1900's. Quiet a few of the species receive attention and are the focus of research, but I guess that some of the thousands of cupboards there remain untouched. So to think about how many birds were 'collected' (laundered term for shot) is sad. For instance I walked past the Brown Fish Owl cupboard and couldn't resist having a look - I shuddered a bit when I saw a couple of hundreds of these majestic owls lying there, each one of them was taken down by someone many years ago. I know that back then people didn't know better etc., and I acknowledge the importance for modern science to have this incredible infrastructure for research, but still it's just sad. Or Gurney's Pitta, how much I sweated in the jungles of Khao Nor Chuci in Thailand in 1999 until I finally managed to see one of these gems - one of the most excelling birding moments of my life. And at NHM, half a cupboard full of this Globally Endangered species. The only, and big, consolation is the good science that does come out of NHM, contributing back to conservation, that to my eyes justifies these mighty collections nowadays.

Anyway, I worked efficiently to get the data I need on the nightjars - here's a quick sample:

Nubian Nightjar subspecies - typical males:

And before leaving I had time for some 'fun':

White Wagtail subspecies - all 2cy males in spring / summer:

'Isabelline' Shrikes - adult males:

Gurney's Pittas RIP 

All images in this post are copyright of The London Natural History Museum (Yoav Perlman).

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