Monday, August 17, 2009

Stolen Bird Skins

Bird skins similar to those stolen
Photograph by the Natural History Museum

Over the weekend I read a disturbing story in The Guardian about a theft of bird skins from the Natural History Museum's ornithological collection at Tring (U.K.).
Curators at the museum's bird collection in Tring, Hertfordshire, noticed that dozens of specimens had gone missing following a break-in on 24 June.

Although the thieves left behind more than 8,000 "specimen types", including the finches collected by Charles Darwin in the Galápagos, they took 299 birds.

The gang, which could have stolen the birds to order, removed quetzal and cotinga birds, animals that had originated in Central and South America, and birds of paradise from Papua New Guinea.

Police believe those responsible had detailed knowledge of the birds since the cabinets were labelled with Latin names organised in evolutionary order and only a small number of birds were disturbed.
Why would someone steal bird skins? The police and curators think that the colorful feathers may be sold as raw material for clothing or fishing lures. They could also end up in the hands of private collectors.

Large museum collections of bird skins may seem like an anachronism since so much research today is done through observation of live birds. Shooting birds is no longer necessary to determine an identification. However, they continue to serve an important role for research and education. Field guides depend at least in part on the study of museum specimens. Thus the theft of such rare specimens is a real loss. The best outcome would be if the skins were found intact.