Trip to the Museum - A Glorious Bird Collection

Today, me and my students from #LSUSoMe (a strategic social media course in the Manship School of Mass Communication, LSU) took an Instagram field trip to the LSU Museum of Natural Science! While my students took pictures with their camera-phones (to practice their mad Instagram skills), I cheated and brought my Canon T3i and 100mm macro lens. LSU's museum of natural science is renowned for its bird collection and characterization of new species.

The LSU Museum of Natural Science maintains one of the world’s largest frozen tissue collections of birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. Since 1979, the museum’s curators and researchers have collected samples from unexplored regions of the world. They carry liquid nitrogen tanks in the field to flash freeze the tissue samples, which are brought back and stored in the Museum’s Collection of Genetic Resources. - LSU MNS

As a class, we got a tour of the bird collection, a giant room with rows upon rows of file cabinets (or rather file drawers) full of birds. We were told to think of any kind of bird we might want to see - because there was a good chance it was hidden away in one of these drawers. Magnificent.

We also got to see the frozen tissue sample storage tanks in the basement of the museum, where graduate students were hard at work preparing a magnificent bird with long tail feathers, which it apparently uses as a rudder for extra agility as it catches prey in-flight.

It all started with the Orange-throated Tanager. (C) Paige Brown Jarreau

I like to say it all started with the orange-throated tanager. The orange-throated tanager (Wetmorethraupis sterrhopteron) is a "threatened species of bird found very locally in humid forests around the Ecuador-Peru border" (Wiki). It was discovered and described by scientists at LSU, George Lowery and John O'Neill, in 1964. (Check out this list of birds discovered by LSU - it's quite impressive.)

Black above with brilliant orange throat and rich cream colored abdomen and under tail coverts; tail black; primaries black but with wing coverts and anterior edge of secondaries between Light Violet Blue (capitalized color names are from Ridgway, 1912) and Flax-flower Blue; color of bill, tarsi, and feet jet black in fairly freshly preserved skin.

The color of the throat, which is a brilliant orange, and the cream color of the breast, abdomen, and under tail coverts are colors that are unique in the family; the feathers of the throat are stiff and almost bristly; the bill appears disproportionately large in relation to the bird's general size; and the tail is relatively short in comparison with the length of the wing. - Lowery and O'Neill


We all perked up when our tour guides mentioned that there was a hummingbird drawer. A hummingbird drawer! In a sea of feathers of marvelous colors, there lay both the largest and the smallest hummingbird in the world. Hardly the size of a large butterfly, the bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) is on the right in the image above.

Bee Hummingbird, Adult male. Carol Foil,

Hummingbirds come in all shapes and sizes.

You might recognize the Toco Toucan (Ramphastos toco) below. It's "one of the most recognizable tropical birds in the Americas." The Toucan is found along forest edges and in low wet grassland in regions of Central America.

Toco Toucans feed extensively on figs and other fruit, and also occasionally prey on insects and nestling birds.  When foraging, these birds travel in small groups in the canopy, gliding in single file from site to site.

Toco Toucans are hunted for their meat by humans and young birds are sometimes captured as pets. It is is not known, however, if these practices significantly affect the population size. - The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Toco Toucan (Ramphastos toco). Image (C) Paige Brown Jarreau

The next bird we saw was a personal favorite of one of our tour guides (or so it seemed - he wouldn't name a favorite - how could he!): the Curl-crested Aracari (Pteroglossus beauharnaesii). This bird has some very special plumage adorning its head. Its head feathers look like pieces of plastic, not feathers! According to Birds of Peru, "at close range, features of crown curled, with fused barbs and plastic-like texture." A few other birds have plastic-like feathers, including the Red Bird-of-Paradise. For this bird, the "plastic" features function in courtship display, but supposedly we don't know why the aracari has such features on its head.

The Curl-crested Aracari is one of the more spectacularly plumaged aracari, and one of the more stranger looking birds. Unlike any other aracari, or any other bird, it has modified head feathers that resemble shiny black pieces of plastic.

Curl-crested Aracari (Pteroglossus beauharnaesii). Image (C) Paige Brown Jarreau

Nathan Rupert,

Oh, the Carolina parakeet. Image (C) Paige Brown Jarrea

Next came the Carolina parakeet. Our guides told a story about this now extinct bird, about how if a hunter shot into a flock and hit, the rest of the flock would circle back to remain with the dead or dying birds. Either being curious, or mourning their dead, these birds became far too easy for hunters to kill a flock at a time.

The Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) was the only parrot species native to the eastern United States. It was found from southern New York and Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico, and lived in old forests along rivers.

The last known wild specimen was killed in Okeechobee County, Florida, in 1904, and the last captive bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo on February 21, 1918. This was the male specimen, called "Incas", who died within a year of his mate, "Lady Jane". Coincidentally, Incas died in the same aviary cage in which the last Passenger Pigeon, "Martha", had died nearly four years earlier.

A factor that contributed to their extinction was the unfortunate flocking behavior that led them to return immediately to a location where some of the birds had just been killed. This led to even more being shot by hunters as they gathered about the wounded and dead members of the flock. - National Audubon Society

Carolina parakeet. Image (C) Paige Brown Jarreau

To top the tour off, we got to see the room where the incoming birds are stored for museum preparation, and the tanks where the frozen tissue samples are stored for DNA analysis!

Feathers. (C) Paige Brown Jarreau

Pulling a bird tissue sample out of dry ice. (C) Paige Brown Jarreau

(C) Paige Brown Jarreau

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) used to live in Louisiana, but is now extinct from logging / deforestation. Did you know woodpeckers' tongues wrap all the way from the back of their throat, back to the front of their skulls, for shock absorption?!