A Bird In the Hand…Viewing Specimens at the Moore Laboratory of Zoology

I suppose I should insert a pun here but I don’t really feel like it. I’m just feeling too bird brained today. Hyuck, hyuck, hyuck.

So, I don’t know if you heard, but last Saturday was Obscura Day. It’s a worldwide celebration of… well…obscurity. Basically anything that’s off the beaten path. It’s put together by one of my favorite websites, Atlas Obscura, and is probably one of the most unique celebrations of the year. Multiple cities take part, offering various activities. Los Angeles had a plethora to choose from and I decided to go for “Examining Bird Specimens and the Moore Laboratory of Zoology.”

And boy was I glad I did. For only $5 I was able to see so many rare bird specimens including some extinct ones. The lab was located at Occidental College, a place I don’t think I had ever heard of before. It’s a quaint campus located in Eagle Rock that is very, very hilly. I learned this when I got lost trying to locate the lab. But that’s neither here nor there.

So, in the lab the curator, John McCormack, told us the history of the collection – it was put together by this guy

or I should say one of these guys. I’m not sure which one is Mr. Moore. I know it’s definitely not the owl (bada bing!).

Some of the specimens date back to the late 1800’s, a time when there were not so many regulations on collecting specimens.

The specimens come mostly from Mexico and South America.
But there are some from other regions as well.
They’re all housed in these zinc boxes

and don’t smell so great thanks to the old habit of preserving them in mothballs. But they are in excellent condition for having been dead for decades.

Especially, for having gone extinct several years ago (only some of the species).

That’s a large woodpecker (totally not the official name, I don’t remember it). Much larger than the current ones around.

There were also skeletons, eggs, and nests to see.

Yes, that’s an old cornflake box. A Mexican cornflake box to be exact. Back in the day the ornithologists would use any container they could. Is it bad that this box was my favorite “specimen?”

It was very, very interesting. Unfortunately, it’s not a collection that’s open to the public and the next Obscura Day is a year away…I figured I’d tell you now cuz if I waited a year I’d probably say that woodpecker was a raven or something. AND in the meantime you can check out Atlas Obscura and see if there’s anything cool in your area to see.


  1. Audrey May 9, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    I’m torn between being absolutely fascinated and incredibly sad about the dead birds. Especially the ones that are now extinct. Did they say why they had to have so many specimens of the same species? This is probably the kind of thing I’d go to, despite the grumbling in the back of my mind. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Melanie May 10, 2012 at 1:38 am

    They did explain why there were so many specimens…something about needing to have a large number to study them properly and to determine whether or not they were the same species (as it was a long time ago when they were collected). Unfortunately, I’ve never been too into science so some of it was in one ear and out the other.

  3. Chris May 10, 2012 at 2:21 am

    Hi there Audrey! The large number of birds is because they’re used to provide a representative sample. Here’s an easy way to explain why you can’y have just one or two: Imagine you’re an alien, and you scoop up a redheaded girl. You’ll describe humans as having red hair, freckles, and pale skin. Another alien grabs a second human, this one an Italian brunette, so humans have thick, dark hair and olive-toned skin. That’s why when classifying animals you need to have multiple samples. Sometimes a wing marking might be unique to just one bird and not all the others of that species – like a freckle. A representative sample is the number of anything needed to give a clear picture of the thing you’re trying to describe.

    We also had the number of birds in the collection put into perspective by our host. Think about birds that hit windows and die. (I know it’s awful!) Approximately one billion birds are killed every year in U.S. hitting windows on buildings and those birds do nothing to help conservation efforts for any other birds. The majority of the total collection (60,000 birds) took 40 years to put together, so the amount of birds taken from the wild was actually fairly conservative. 🙂

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