The other juncos

As I mentioned before, I don’t get to be out in the field interacting with the juncos right now. I am, however, making use of the other juncos: the ones that don’t fly away, don’t stress out when I handle them, and are always there when I go to look for them. The ones that live about twenty feet from my office.

I work in a museum, remember?

The other juncos

The other juncos are dead, but they do have some redeeming qualities. The museum has a collection of junco specimens dating back over a hundred years, making it possible to track the evolution of certain characters over that century. It’s pretty awesome to be able to measure juncos that were alive before my grandparents were born, and strange to look at specimen tags and think, “Just before the Great Depression… end of WWII…”

Specimen tags for juncos from 1911. The collector was “J. Grinnell” (or, for the top tag, “Grinnell & Storer”), which, if you’re a museum nerd, will be fantastically exciting.

I’m measuring bills right now. I found a hint of an interesting pattern in bill measurements from my data this summer – which I won’t describe in more detail because 1) it’s preliminary, and I don’t want to mislead anyone, and 2) if it turns out to be something, I want to be able to publish it, then tell you about it – so I’m investigating whether that same pattern holds up across more sites and back through history.

Working with specimens is not like working with live birds. Avian skins are traditionally prepped and stuffed in a belly-up, head-back position that means they fit well in drawers but don’t look much like real birds anymore. Sloppy prep work doesn’t help: many of the junco specimens are unnaturally heron-skinny, dove-plump, or just odd.

The square, lopsided face of science.

Many of these birds were shot on collecting trips. Although the feathers cover up most signs of that violence, sometimes it leaves its mark where you can see.

Grazed bill

And even the best prepper can’t make the threadbare nestling specimens look anything other than sad. I don’t know why anyone collected such young birds, but I hope they had a very good reason.

However, juncos are beautiful birds, and even shooting, skinning, stuffing, and leaving them in a drawer for 100+ years can’t rob them of all of their elegance. Without the need to minimize stress by releasing the bird quickly, I have time to appreciate the way their feathers fit together, the grey edges of the hood feathers, the daubs of peach at their flanks.

But mostly I measure their bills.

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4 thoughts on “The other juncos

    • That’s a great question, and I’m surprised (and rather embarrassed) to say that I can’t find an answer to it. We have over 184,000 individual bird specimens, and for most orders, have over 70% representation at the genus level… but there isn’t a list of species! I’ll have to ask one of the curators.

      The quick answer, though, is: a lot. And we don’t just have study skins, like the ones pictured here; we also have skeletons, flat skins, fluid-preserved specimens (“pickles”), frozen tissue samples, and nests and eggs. Oh, and mammals and reptiles and amphibians, too!

  1. Each year around this time, slate colored Junco’s return to our backyard and patio where they can usually find some nyjer/thistle seed we put down for them (Dallas, TX area). This year, we’ve already found three of them dead on the patio. I suppose they could be running into the windows, however, that’s never happened before nor have we ever found any dead before. Do you know if they are under duress from any diseases this year or any other reason we might be seeing this? Pretty sad to find these little guys like this.

    Thanks very much!

  2. Pingback: Three specimens | Tough Little Birds

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