Isn’t he beautiful? He was caught in the hills in Marin County, not all that far from me, and kept in captivity until he died in 1931.
You might think he’s purely colorless at first glance, but he isn’t. He’s more blue-silver than white, an incredible color to come shining out of a drawer of junco specimens when you’ve just spent the last few weeks measuring the same brown-and-black birds over and over. When you look close you find that hidden in those pale feathers are the whispers of normal junco coloration.
Museum collections are a scientific resource. They let researchers refer to a single specimen over and over, or look at variation over an entire continent, or go back and look at change over a century.
They can also be weirdly beautiful.
In the course of my junco specimen bill measuring – I’ve measured 561 so far – I’ve handled ratty specimens and fine ones, old and not-quite-so-old. (Most of the specimens are from before 1950, so they’re all fairly old.) It’s fun to see how much variation there is even among individuals from the same subspecies and the same state. Here are my three favorite specimens:
This male has lovely red-brown spots on his head.
“You work in a museum and you don’t collect? At all?” My officemate glanced up from labeling specimen tags to give me an incredulous look.
“Yep,” I said.
I work in a museum filled with hundreds of thousands of specimens, and I do not add to them. I do not collect: i.e., “sacrifice” (kill) birds in order to add them to the museum’s collections. Many researchers would consider this to be poor teamwork, even poor manners – here I am measuring bills, benefiting from others’ collecting work, and not contributing! What is my problem?
Dark-eyed Junco specimens that I have measured
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