Museum Blog

Birds indictment of human nature


It's astonishing what ancient creatures lie beneath the public arena of the Whanganui Regional Museum.  Shielded by walls and floors of concrete, hidden in spaces known only to the museum staff, are all manner of things that once crept, crawled, stalked, swam, foraged, flew, ran, rampaged, hopped or hovered in lands and times long since passed.  Museum director Dr Eric Dorfman looked through them and chose specimens of a feathered kind for his Vaults story: a mummified falcon and three stuffed examples of the extinct passenger pigeon.
The passenger pigeons, a male and two females, could have saved the species, says Eric of the birds that once filled the skies over North America. Countless millions of these birds were destroyed for food, sport, pet food and fertiliser until, by the middle of the 20th century, there were none left ... at all. "Last year, I took great delight in showing the American ambassador and his partner around the museum ... especially when North Americans come through it's fascinating, and everyone's always surprised, that we would have this species here, because it's extinct and quite a famously extinct species.''
The birds are quite beautiful with a natural iridescence in the plumage; they would have made an amazing sight in massed flight.
"John James Audubon, the American naturalist, said that a single flock darkened the sky for two days,'' says Eric. "There were billions of them, and that's a sad indictment of human nature. It was, at one time, the most numerous bird on Earth.'' By the 1870s, when Samuel Drew was establishing the collection that would become the Wanganui Museum, the passenger pigeon was already on its way out. Martha, thought to be the world's last passenger pigeon, died on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo.
"It's a phenomenon of museums all over the world that, as species started to decline in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, they thought, well, they're going anyway, we'd better preserve them.
"You show any biologist these three birds, and it will have an emotional pang,'' says Eric.  "Even though these are quite nicely done, you miss the majesty of them, the mass and behaviour of them.''
He says the birds, including the mummified falcon, are indicative of how incredibly rich the Whanganui Regional Museum is in terms of its collection.  "More than 100 years on, we are still reaping the benefits of his [Samuel Drew's] vision. We're very right in having the bust of him inside the front door.''
Eric has identified the mummified falcon, based on its morphometrics, as a common kestrel. "Which are now declining in Egypt and therefore not so common any more,'' he says.  "This is a glorious thing. It's thousands of years old, this bird.'' Where it came from, history neglects to tell us, but it was brought to New Zealand by some traveller long ago and deposited in Samuel Drew's world famous natural history collection in Wanganui. The 19th century Egyptian antiquities market cared little for provenance, so it could have come from anywhere, probably the fruit of a tomb raid.  "There are tombs that were specifically animal tombs,'' says Eric, casting a dim light on its possible pedigree.  "There was one that had three sections: one of baboons, one of ibis and one of falcons, so ...
"They would have been sold like souvenirs at a ball game now.'' Eric looked closely at the style of wrapping around the bird, in this case, spiral, and the density of the weave to help identify the age of the artifact. "There are three different layers of linen weave here ... I believe it's from the Roman period, which is about 300BC to 300AD. It doesn't look like a bird from the heyday of wrapping, I think it was a bit later in Romanised Egypt.'' Eric says he believes the kestrel is female, based on its size.
"I'm really interested in different kinds of heritage; here's one bird but the bird has a natural history, a cultural history of the way it was used in its day and also the cultural history of being brought to New Zealand ... the modern day fascination with ancient Egypt. Then also there's the material culture, the physical history of it.''

Original article appeared in the 'Wanganui Midweek on 13th March 2013, and republished here with permission from the editors.

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