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The Secret Lives of Birds

Avian exhibits at the Berkshire and New York State museums

by Darryl McGrath on May 24, 2012 · 1 comment


Nature typically grants a species a couple million years on earth, but when you consider all that humans have done to birds in just the last couple of centuries, you wish you could push a reset button and buy the birds a little more time.

That fraught relationship between human beings and birds is masterfully illustrated in two exhibits—one at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, the other at the New York State Museum in Albany. The Berkshire Museum’s Taking Flight: Audubon and the World of Birds celebrates one of the great artistic achievements of all time—John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America” prints. At the New York State Museum, the latest New York Discovery exhibit on the extinct Carolina Parakeet—which was New York’s only native parakeet—highlights an internationally acclaimed research project in which the museum’s curator of birds, Jeremy Kirchman, had a lead role.

You could easily spend several hours absorbing the Berkshire Museum exhibit, which fills three large galleries, but the layout also acommodates a quicker visit. The far more compact display in the State Museum’s lobby details Kirchman’s DNA studies of the Carolina Parakeet, a charming bird with popsicle-colored plumage of green, orange and yellow that once frequented fields and forests around Albany. Despite their difference in scope, both exhibits carry a poignant message about what we have lost, and stand to lose, in our natural world.

Taking Flight is built around nearly three dozen first-edition framed Audubon prints made from his watercolors for The Birds of America series. The Haitian-born Audubon—who was reared in France and arrived in the United States as a young adult—ended up painting nearly 500 of the approximately 700 North American species. The prints set a standard for bird art that has never been equaled: Everything that came before Audubon looks like a caricature, and everything that followed is measured against Audubon’s vivid action and incredible detail. (Like other naturalist artists of his day, Audubon shot his subjects and posed their carcasses to capture that detail.) The prints also document dramatic changes in bird populations: A half-dozen species that Audubon painted are extinct; dozens of others are in severe decline.

The Birds of America project ran from 1826 to 1839, and all but 10 of the prints came from the London engraving studio of Robert Havell Sr. It is believed that Havell produced no more than 175 complete sets. Subscribers to the series received the hand-colored prints as unbound pages, about 26” by 37”. It was up to individual collectors to bind the pages, so a complete bound set is one of the world’s rarest books.

Curator Maria Mingalone had a simple but effective idea for showcasing Audubon’s art: mounted specimens of the birds depicted in the prints are displayed at the center of the middle and main gallery in the exhibit, with the prints forming a backdrop on the wall behind the specimens. The haunting double-exposure effect allows for comparisons between such details as actual plumage and the individually drawn barbs of the feathers in Audubon’s prints. When you look at the specimen of the Common Loon, for example, your gaze flows straight to Audubon’s loon print on the wall.

The first and third galleries deliver lessons on conservation; the bird as an image in various cultures; human effects on bird populations, and facts about birds on topics ranging from flight to nest building. Visitors will learn that one early 20th century sale of heron feathers through a commercial broker meant the slaughter of nearly 200,000 birds to produce a little more than 3,000 pounds of decorative trim for women’s bonnets. Children and adults will enjoy videos and interactive features: Sketch books are set out in the central gallery; you can measure your “wing span” against that of various bird species, and a box of build-your-own “nesting materials” invites you to sample the architectural skills that are hard-wired into birds without any lessons from mom and dad.

Carolina Parakeet exhibit at the New York State Museum

Even people who know very little about birds often recognize the story of the Passenger Pigeon, which once numbered in the uncountable billions in the United States but which faced such relentless slaughter for sport and food that it went extinct in the early 20th century. Far less well known is the Carolina Parakeet, which was never as numerous as the Passenger Pigeon but which was also wiped out by hunting. Ornithologist Kirchman at the New York State Museum conducted the first DNA sequencing of the Carolina Parakeet with snippets of dried toe tissue taken from preserved specimens of the bird. He then worked with two biologists at New Mexico State University, Erin Schirtzinger and Timothy Wright, to reconstruct the parakeet’s evolutionary history.

The study found that the Carolina Parakeet was genetically distinct from several other sampled parrot species, and that it may have arrived in North America from South America as far back as five million years. The findings are the cover story of the April issue of The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union and one of the most prestigious publications in its field. The museum’s concise lobby exhibit tells the story of both the DNA sequencing and the Carolina Parakeet’s natural history. The journal’s cover painting by Michael Rothman was originally done for the museum’s first Focus on Nature exhibit in 1990.

Children will be drawn to parakeet exhibit for the close-up view of the colorful mounted specimens, as well as the story of extracting DNA from a long-extinct animal. But comparisons to Jurassic Park end there, Kirchman says. A fertilized bird embryo needs to develop inside an egg, a highly specialized environment that science can’t duplicate.

“That’s science fiction and I think will remain science fiction for . . . I don’t think it will ever be possible,” Kirchman explains. “The reproductive biology of birds is much different from that of mammals.”

The very real hit-or-miss process of obtaining the DNA took many days and at least one unsuccessful attempt. Kirchman had to soak the samples, separate the non-DNA materials from the solution, run the results through through a centrifuge and then splice the DNA strands back together, because DNA can break apart when its source dies.

“The trick trying to get a study like this to work is to get DNA out of something that wasn’t preserved for DNA,” Kirchman says. “It was sitting in a drawer for 130 years.”

The project highlights the importance of preserving specimens for advanced scientific techniques that early collectors could not even imagine, and also documents a poignant missed opportunity in New York’s environmental history. In the 150 years since the Carolina Parakeet last lived here, New York has become a national leader in bird conservation, in reaction to the extinction of several species around the country and near-misses for several others, including the Bald Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon. All of this came too late, however, for the Carolina Parakeet and the Passenger Pigeon.

And so, as with the Audubon show, the Carolina Parakeet exhibit drives home the point that in the comparative blink of an eye, human beings are capable of wiping out a creation of nature that took hundreds of millenia to perfect. We’ve done it before, and tragically, we will probably do it again.

“Taking Flight: Audubon and the World of Birds” runs through June 17. For directions and hours, go to berkshiremuseum.org. The Carolina Parakeet exhibit at the New York State Museum will be on display in the museum lobby through May 31. For more information, go to nysm.nysed.gov.


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