Currently, I am working on a new project involving species loss. For part of it, I wanted to photograph a Passenger Pigeon, the one hundredth anniversary of whose extinction was mourned in 2014. I discovered that the Beaty Biodiversity Museum had two of the beasts in their collection and the curator of birds, Ildiko Szabo, kindly allowed me to come and photograph them, as well as some of the other related species and creatures in the “bone room” and lab. Interestingly, I learned that scientists in the US are right now working on bringing the passenger pigeon back to life by “de-extinctioning” it. I’m not sure if I have that terminology right, but apparently they will be taking the DNA of the pigeon and by some magical process creating pigeon sperm and eggs and implanting these into chickens. The eggs thereby produced will not be chicken eggs, but Passenger Pigeon eggs. Fascinating but not without ethical issues … I am not sure how far along in this reclamation process those individuals are.
The Passenger Pigeon is the brown-breasted bird in the bottom left corner of the image above.
The second Passenger Pigeon is contained in a glass case within the Victorian Curiosity Cabinet display in the Museum itself, along with many other tetrapod specimens. “Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, arose in mid-sixteenth-century Europe as repositories for all manner of wondrous and exotic objects. In essence these collections—combining specimens, diagrams, and illustrations from many disciplines; marking the intersection of science and superstition; and drawing on natural, manmade, and artificial worlds—can be seen as the precursors to museums” (MOMA).
Ildiko removed a tray of pigeons from their enclosure in one of the Museum’s cabinets, which she carried out to the hall underneath the gigantic whale so I could photograph them in better light. These were the Passenger Pigeon’s closest living relatives, brownish banded pigeons from the Transval in Africa and the larger wild pigeons we see everywhere around us today; I also photographed their bones and eggs. In addition, I photographed two specimens which looked plucked and semi-skeletal, preserved such that they demonstrate the way the birds’ feathers grow.
While in the bone room I took many photographs of the Passenger Pigeon from many angles, as well as closeups of its head. I was also able to access the drawers of similar bird species, including a very large white Rock Pigeon. I find it fascinating to compare the sizes and colours of these related birds, some of which are very small and others quite large, the latter used by poultry aficionados for pigeon pie.
In the bone room was also several other specimens of tetrapods (four legged species), including a Canadian Bison with a tiny squirrel beneath its stomach,
some large-horned goat-like creatures (they were not labelled), and a fantastic group of colourful birds, including several beautiful pheasants from the collection of Plato Mamo.
I was invited to take a look at the lab, a “wet room” where specimens are prepared in various ways. I saw a number of aquaria containing recently-obtained bones and skulls, upon which beetles are crawling and feasting. These bugs do the work of cleaning the bones very efficiently (although Ildiko did mention that they initially turned their collective noses up at a crocodile head).
Many thanks to Ildiko Szabo and the Museum for allowing me access!
See more information about the Beaty Biodiversity Museum.
Read about my earlier visit to the Museum here.