Who’s Minding the Ornithology Collection?

One in the series, “Who’s Minding the Collection?”

By Christine Sellers

The Academy’s Ornithology Collection is widely recognized as one of the largest, most complete, and best curated ornithology collections in the world. It contains more than 210,000 specimens and 20,000 tissue samples, representing more than 90 percent of the world’s bird diversity.

Many specimens in the collection are of great historical importance, including birds collected by John James Audubon, and others that are now extinct or endangered.

Interested to hear more about the collection and what makes it such a resource to researchers around the world, I spoke with Collection Manager Nate Rice.

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Nate Rice on a birding expedition in Vietnam. Photo by Le Manh Hung.

I was drawn to the Academy because… of the history associated with the institution. In reading both the Proceedings of the Academy [of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia] and popular magazines, I knew about the work the Academy had done for centuries and wanted to continue that legacy.

My job at the Academy consists of… taking care of our specimens and ensuring they’re available to researchers; keeping track of specimen data and sharing accurate, up-to-date figures on our website and data consortia; adding new specimens to our collection; and mentoring undergraduate, graduate, and co-op students.I knew I was interested in ornithology when… as a little kid I went bird watching, kept bird lists, and engaged with birds through my parents’ bird feeder. But it wasn’t until I was an undergraduate that I became interested in birds as more than just a hobby. I had an ornithology class with a fabulous instructor who really inspired me.

I have conducted research on… the evolutionary biology and natural history of birds that I’ve observed on field expeditions. I also recently published a paper on bird feather pigments and how they’ve been impacted and changed by introduced plants.

My favorite type of bird is… I don’t know that I have a single favorite species, but I like kingfishers as a group. They’re found around the world and have striking colors and exceptionally long bills for their body size.

African Pygmy Kingfisher Ispidina picta carrying frog near nest burrow along the Olifantspruit River, near Nylstroom, Limpopo Province, South Africa 6 January 2006

African Pygmy Kingfisher, Ispidina picta, carrying a frog near nest burrow along the Olifantspruit River, near Nylstroom, Limpopo Province, South Africa. © Greg Lasley/VIREO

Visitors should check out the Ornithology Collection because… we have amazing treasures and icons of global ornithological research. We have about a quarter-million bird specimens, including those of birds that are now extinct. We offer behind-the-scenes tours to groups who register in advance.

The hardest part about being collection manager is… keeping track of our collecting permits and staying up-to-date on them. We need local, state, federal, and international permits, so it gets harder every year. There’s a lot of paperwork involved with importing and exporting specimens.

The most rewarding part about my job is… when someone uses a specimen I’ve collected for a different research project than what I’ve worked on. It really reinforces the value of growing and maintaining the collection. Also, being able to inspire students with hands-on, experiential learning is probably the greatest reward I can extract from this job.

A fun, interesting, or surprising fact about birds is… that birds are superb athletes. Most—of course, migratory birds, specifically—can travel thousands of miles in one year.

I hope to pursue future research on… using stable isotopes in bird feathers to track environmental changes, which I started researching a few years ago. I’d also like to continue working on evolutionary history-based research.

Rice says one of the greatest rewards of being Ornithology Collection Manager is helping students gain "experiential learning."

One of Rice’s greatest rewards of being ornithology collection manager is helping students through “experiential learning.” Photo by Jeff Fusco.

If I could describe ornithology in three words, I’d choose… dynamic, cutting-edge, inspiring.

I encourage young people to become interested in ornithology by… finding good field guides to learn more about birds. Binoculars are good too. You can start out really entry-level and then take it as deep as you want to.

When I’m not working at the Academy, I like to… spend time with my family, enjoy nature through hiking and bird watching, and go on collecting expeditions.

Something people don’t know about me is… I have always loved to travel, even from the time I was a kid. I’ve always enjoyed learning about different cultures.

For information about the Ornithology Collection, visit our website. If you would like to support ornithology research  and collections, click here or contact Monica Cawvey Gallagher, vice president of Institutional Advancement, at gallagher@ansp.org. Better yet, donate now by clicking the blue box.

To read previous posts in this series, visit:

Who’s Minding the Ichthyology Collection?

Who’s Minding the Botany Collection?