Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Bird Skin Heist

An American citizen was arrested in the U.K. for stealing 299 bird skins from one of the world's largest ornithological collections.
Speaking at the time, Professor Richard Lane, director of science at the museum, said the birds formed part of the collection assembled over the past 350 years.

He said the items were of scientific interest, and many were irreplaceable and "literally priceless".

There are some 750,000 bird skins, representing 95% of known living species, held at the museum.

Some of them appear on the Red List of endangered species.

Professor Lane said the ornithological collections were used by researchers throughout the world, who either visit Tring or request loans.

He said: "The knowledge gleaned from these collections can help protect endangered species and answer questions about the biodiversity of the world around us.

"It is very distressing that we should have been deliberately targeted in this manner."
I hope that the skins were not severely damaged and that any scientific information accompanying them is recovered also. A bird skin is literally that: the skin (with feathers attached) of a deceased bird, stuffed with some material. (To see how a skin is prepared, see Nate's posts: part 1, part 2.) Each skin is a record of how an individual bird looked at a particular time and place. While field observation has become increasingly sophisticated, examining birds in the hand is still vital. Bird skin collections are training tools for bird illustrators, repositories for the type specimens for species and subspecies, and records of historic distribution, among other things. A theft of that many skins would be a major loss for ornithology, not just for the skins themselves, but the information they conveyed.