Thursday, February 21, 2013

Photo Essay: Moore Laboratory of Zoology, Closed to Public

There was a time in college when I spent a lot of time with chickadees.

It was two particular chickadees, in fact, that I'd captured in the fields of Hamilton, New York, and encaged in the collegiate biology laboratory.

I fed them, draped their cages with a cloth, shone light in their darting eyes, and visited them daily to study their behaviors. I cradled them in my cupped hands. They let me pet their little heads.

And when the study was over, I released them.

I've been a bird person ever since, even now that I'm no longer the science person I once was, or could have become.



Hence, I decided to visit the Moore Laboratory of Zoology on the Occidental College campus, which houses over 62,000 specimens of various bird species in one of the world's largest natural history research collections.





Though mere curiosity brought me there, I found myself drawn to the preserved specimens stuffed in cotton (and some wet specimens in jars) in the same morbid way I'm drawn to cemeteries - only this collection of the dead appeared much more gruesome. After all, I haven't actually photographed cadavers.

Yet.



I was always interested in animal behavior...



...but this collection is well-suited for the "button counters" that love to classify and taxonomize birds (or any animal, I suppose) based on their physical characteristics...



...comparing size, color, and general morphology of the different genders of the various species, their types and paratypes...



...and painstakingly labeling them based on extensive (and, in the case of Robert Moore himself, sometimes flowery) field notes.



Although there are some familiar faces among the dead...



...there are also bold, staggering colors not often seen in our backyards...



...and not often seen even in this country. Many of the specimens were collected from Mexico and South America...



...where brightly-colored berries turn feathers a similar hue...



...and other feathers erupt in their own unique shades of pigment through bubbling bursts of keratin or other anatomical, physiological anomalies.



Some birds look identical, but aren't even closely related.



And in the battle of appearances versus genetics, DNA always wins.



Many of the birds were collected by Moore himself, an avid bird huntsman who shot and captured the beasts for his private collection...



...including his first victim, a blue jay, collected when Moore was still a child.



This was back when he bothered posing the bird, with glass eyes and open beak and perching limbs.



Now, the taxidermal tweeters lie flat on their backs, beaks threaded shut, feet or toes or claws entwined.



But at the Moore Lab, you have the rare occasion to pick their bodies up, and hold them in your hands...



...after the weight of life has left them...



...and their heads and legs must be supported so as to not be left dangling, ready to eventually dangle right off.



They are soft, not stiff, some with softer feathers than others (like the spotted screech owl)...



...with fluffy cotton bursting through their empty eye sockets.



Some beaks look poised to chirp.




Some birds look so peaceful.




But they are crowded in there, packed tightly in drawers and laid out on trays,



...sometimes with several other type specimens from the same time period, the same place, a different time period, a different place, their differences indiscernible when laid out all together in a row.



The standouts include the exotically mohawked...



...the uncharacteristically silent parrots...



...the realistically uncartoonish roadrunners...



...and the unfortunately extinct imperial woodpecker.



There are plenty of bodies that have been bartered by other institutions and collections...



...and the multiple tags tied around the ankles of the creepy currency tell the story of their circuitous path, since a tag is never removed.



Among the long-billed...



...iridescent-chested...



...scary-clawed...



...and long-tailed...



...there is one drawer of even more mysterious collections of ornamental (or perhaps ceremonial) beads adorned with birds, other items fashioned out of birds and their feathers...



...and one, lonely, beheaded bird.



In the dusty files stacked high above, skeletons clatter...



...some deconstructed into mere boxes of bones, which no one ever opens.

Normally the Moore Laboratory is closed to the public, accessible only by appointment and only for researchers and graduate students, so we were lucky to get such an intimate, hands-on group tour as laypeople.

I resisted talking about my minor in biology. I resisted rattling off mating and feeding behaviors, exhibitions of handedness and attraction to light. These birds are dead anyway. They don't do those things anymore.

But occasionally, it did appear as though they were smiling at us...

To Like Avoiding Regret on Facebook, click here.