I recently had the pleasure of taking a tour of the Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College, organized by the Atlas Obscura Society, where I had a chance to see their remarkable and vast ornithological collection. The MLZ is about to undergo a major renovation and will be closed for a couple of years, so I was glad to be able to get in before that happens.
The Lab was founded in 1950 by Robert T. Moore. Moore, a wealthy fox farmer with a passion for birds, was from New Jersey and eventually settled in La Quiñada, California. His aim was to document the bird biodiversity of Mexico. According to the MLZ’s fact sheet, it contains over 62,000 bird specimens of primarily “neotropical” birds–or birds from the New World. Most of those were collected in Mexico between 1933 and 1955 by Moore’s paid collector Chester C. Lamb, a one-eyed naturalist whose impairment didn’t stop him from collecting and preparing 40,000 birds or discovering over eighty species new to science. (He’s sporting a glass eye in the photo.)
Collections Manager James Maley knew the crowd-pleasers among his collection and brought out a variety of colorful specimens.
Trays of bright tanagers, a Lovely Continga, a Superciliaried Hemispingus, and a Resplendent Quetzal dazzle a visitor with the sheer exuberance of color. In fact, it’s hard not to be struck by the dissonance between these lifeless specimens and their astonishing array of colors–a dissonance made even a little spooky by the white cotton stuffing where their eyes once were, as if they’re glowing from within despite their deathly stillness.
It’s sad to see a lot of dead animals, especially such beautiful ones, but it’s also important to understand the history and function of such a collection. Biologists are reluctant to collect and do so only when absolutely necessary. And once collected, a specimen’s research value is priceless and, if properly preserved, for all time: The MLZ’s oldest specimens date to the 1850s, with most collected before 1960.
Maley recognizes that the question of collecting is “a sensitive point” among scientists:
There’s no evidence that collecting contributed directly to the extinction of any bird species. This is often suggested as the reason some species went extinct in North America by people fundamentally opposed to collecting anything. For [extinct] species like Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Carolina Parakeet it was habitat destruction and overhunting that spelled their demise. The last ivory-bills were not collected, their remaining habitat was cut down during WWII, and none had been collected for many years prior to that.
Modern collection practices are quite restrained. And with the annual destruction of birds from domestic cats up in the range of 4-5 billion, the 2-3 thousand killed and collected annually by biologists for the purposes of recording changes in biodiversity and for comparative genetic analysis seems positively modest.
Moreover, the MLZ’s collection serves as an invaluable resource for investigations into the impacts of deforestation on bird habitat and diversity–a time lapse photo of then and now. An important function of a collection like the MLZ’s is to make such impacts visually immediate even to the untrained eye. Among the trays of birds that Maley exhibited were four representing all the specimens Lamb detected during an excursion to Nayarit in central Mexico in 1941:
The sheer exuberance of colors of these birds usefully demonstrates the regional biodiversity. The next two trays Maley exhibited represent everything Maley and his team detected on a return trip to the same region of Mexico in June of 2014, when they were astonished and saddened to find a radical reduction in both number and diversity:
Says Maley of the return trip:
The trip was amazing in that we were able to visit a very remote part of Mexico, but melancholy in documenting how much had actually changed. The landscape is now scorched, eroded, and deforested. The local ranchers burn the forest to grow grass for cattle, but during the rainy season the hillsides fill the streams with soil as it washes down to the bedrock. The deforestation is likely responsible for the huge loss in biodiversity, but the continued destruction for ranching is preventing many species from returning to this area.
What struck me especially was not just the fact that they detected fewer than half the specimens, but the absence of color among specimens they did find (see a complete checklist of birds they found here). I wanted to imagine a connection between color and survival–that color was somehow inversely proportional to rate of survival and that color and diversity are somehow connected: when times are tough, color is the first thing to go, or something like that–but that’s not exactly how it works. According to Maley, plenty of bird populations facing a decline in numbers remain quite colorful. The most important factor in the loss of color on these trays, he says, is the total absence of parrots from the recent trip’s findings, the result of the rapacious pet trade. The absence of color is another index of human impact. We like colorful birds, and so to a parrot, color is a liability.
Maley speculated–perhaps a little hopefully, he admitted–that some of these Mexican parrots might be flying around Los Angeles, fugitives (I imagine) from pet stores, homes, or overturned trucks.
In some cases, collections such as the MLZ contain the only remaining examples of birds lost to extinction, such as the Carolina parakeet, the passenger pigeon, and the imperial woodpecker–all of which are represented at the Moore lab and pictured below.
The Carolina parakeet’s color also worked against it: its feathers were hotly sought after to satisfy the Victorian mania for feathered hats. These specimens represent the last evidence of these birds, some of whose numbers reached into the billions just a century ago, as was the case of the passenger pigeon (John James Audubon once witnessed a flock of passenger pigeons moving 60 mph that took three days to pass overhead). These bright-throated birds must have seemed indomitable to those who saw them in such quantities, an example of nature at its most prolific–perhaps a feeling Chester Lamb experienced in 1941. What could possibly obliterate such a species or such diversity? It’s difficult to conceive of habitat destruction or hunting at such a scale as to reduce a population of billions to just a handful of dried specimens. The scale is inhuman. Maybe the colorful dead in collections like the MLZ, reduced to a stiff singularity, can help us conceive the inconceivable.