Taxidermy for Birders: Birding the Canadian Museum of Nature

Hello everyone and welcome to my inaugural post for the Bird Canada blog!  My name is David Pugh and I’m a birder from Calgary, Alberta who writes a blog named, with shocking originality, “A Calgary Birder”.  If you would like to know a little more about me there is a more detailed biography here and the aforementioned blog is at calgarybirder.blogspot.ca.

A treat for western eyes!

Northern Cardinal: A treat for western eyes!

As an Alberta based birder, I spend a surprising amount of my time thinking, reading, and writing about birds from elsewhere in the country and around the world.  Part of this stems from my love of travel and perhaps there’s an element of the birds being greener (or redder, or whatever) on the other side of the fence.  With this bias toward the new and the unfamiliar embarrassingly engrained in my birding personality, I’m excited to find myself spending a March break week in Ottawa.  On Monday, I was walking through Hurdman Woods, watching scarlet Northern Cardinal’s singing their spring songs.  Yesterday, I stopped by the banks of the Rideau River again, unsuccessfully searching for American Black Ducks and chatting with two local birders watching a current Ottawa “celebrity” Barrow’s Goldeneye.  However, if you have the opportunity to visit Ottawa or are fortunate enough to live in this lovely city, you should be aware that one of the birding highlights features no living birds whatsoever.

Natural History museums have been historically vital parts of the scientific enterprise.  No visit to London, England can be complete without a trip to that city’s museum in its stunning home in Kensington.  Here you can peruse a sample of the more than 70 million specimens collected from every corner of the world over centuries of exploration.  If that last sentence carries a faint whiff of imperialism remember that without these specimens and this cataloguing work our knowledge of global biodiversity would be sorely lacking.  The expansion of empire went hand-in-hand with an expansion of scientific knowledge.  For a detailed explanation of the importance of this facility and its collection, I recommend Richard Fortey’s “Dry Store Room #1″, and, if you remain in doubt about the value or morality of collecting specimens in the modern era, try Tim Flannery’s “Among the Islands”.

Even the entrance to the Canadian Museum of Nature has birds.

Even the entrance to the Canadian Museum of Nature has birds.

Canada is no different in needing to catalogue and describe its own wealth of flora and fauna.  Since 1997, the Canadian Museum of Nature carries out this work in its scientific facilities in Gatineau, Quebec, where researchers can access more than 10 million specimens for projects in fields such as zooarcheaology, systematics, and conservation.   The public face of the museum remains in its original 1912 home, the “castle” in Ottawa, which was beautifully renovated in 2010.  Birders will want to make a beeline for the top floor where, tucked away at the back of the west wing, are 500 lovingly preserved specimens of a huge variety of Canadian bird life.

This looks promising...

This looks promising…

At this point I should be honest and admit that, despite the title of this post, I know nothing whatsoever about taxidermy.  With that in mind, there are two points to be made: stuffing a bird to produce a lifelike result must be really hard and these results are stunning.  Take a look (and click to enlarge on most photos)…

The first display case you see walking into the gallery.

The first display case you see walking into the gallery.

Even when they're sorted, stuffed and stationary, I still find gulls confusing!

Even when they’re sorted, stuffed and stationary, I still find gulls confusing!

Probably the single most impressive specimen - Greater Sage-Grouse.  Yes, it's beautiful, yes, they're endangered, yes, you can do something about it - click on the image!

Probably the single most impressive specimen – Greater Sage-Grouse. Yes, it’s beautiful, yes, they’re endangered, yes, you can do something about it – click on the image!

But don’t think that this gallery is just a place for birdwatching geeks to get extra-close looks at different species – you can also learn.  The species are grouped to illustrate different aspects of bird behaviour, bird identification, or human interaction with the different species.  A few examples…

Challenged by Accipter identification!  This shows why: all in juvenile plumages from left to right, male and female Sharp-shinned Hawk, male and female Cooper's Hawk, male and female Northern Goshawk.

Challenged by Accipter identification! This shows why: all in juvenile plumages from left to right, male and female Sharp-shinned Hawk, male and female Cooper’s Hawk, male and female Northern Goshawk.

A little more straightforward and non-birder friendly: all of the provincial and territorial birds with their eggs.  Here is Alberta's Great Horned Owl between BC's Steller's Jay and the Northwest Territories' Gyrfalcon

A little more straightforward and non-birder friendly: all of the provincial and territorial birds with their eggs. Here is Alberta’s Great Horned Owl between BC’s Steller’s Jay and the Northwest Territories’ Gyrfalcon

There are also a series of interactive exhibits which I can personally say were enjoyed by one birder, his three non-birding adult companions, and his two “nestlings” (ages 2 and 5).

The first and likely only picture you will see of me on this blog.  Apparently I weigh as much as 23,567 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

The first and likely only picture you will see of me on this blog. Apparently I weigh as much as 23,056 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

This station, one of several interactive exhibits, features a selection of birding hotspots for each province and territory.  The Weaselhead and Glenmore Reservoir are a great choice for Calgary.  Conveniently all of this content is available online here.

This station, one of several interactive exhibits, features a selection of birding hotspots for each province and territory. The Weaselhead and Glenmore Reservoir are a great choice for Calgary. Conveniently all of this content is available online – just click the image above.

The Bird Gallery is a great place to spend a few hours of your next Ottawa visit, and the museum as a whole could easily fill an entire day.  The website for the Bird Gallery is here and it links back to the museum homepage with details on location, hours, tickets and so on.  Perhaps you have your own experiences birding in museums and we would love for you to share them with us in the comments.  If your interests lean more towards living birds, it’s reasonable to assume that my future posts, on the 27th of every month, will feature more of those!  Thanks for reading and good birding!

One last look at the bird gallery!

One last look at the bird gallery!

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One Response to Taxidermy for Birders: Birding the Canadian Museum of Nature

  1. Another very interesting post on this great site. I often pass on the insight to others who may not be familiar with birds beyond looking for them. The birding world is broad.