Chuck Cruit: Solving Riddles in Ornithology

Chuck Cruit says coming to work at the Academy is a “luxury of being retired.” Nearly every week, he reports to the Ornithology Department for a full day in the collection. Lately, he’s been learning how to prepare bird specimens for study and storage. And he’s doing it as a volunteer because he couldn’t be enjoying himself more.

Cruit has always been interested in certain birds — especially egrets, blue herons and members of the Ardeidae family — that he sees while kayaking and spending time outdoors with his family at the Jersey Shore. Upon his retirement from Boeing as director of intellectual property five years ago, Cruit, of Media, received a field guide to birds as a gift. Though he had never truly considered himself a birder, he thought, “Why not start now?” He was intrigued when he found out he could get an even more intimate look at birds from all over the world in the Academy’s collections.

Man in sun hat paddles yellow kayak

“I thought to myself, what better way to get to see the birds in field guides up close?” Cruit says.

In 2015, Cruit met Ornithology Collection Manager Nate Rice, who immediately put Cruit to work. Without a science background, Cruit had a lot to learn about taxonomy, and he spent many hours exploring the collections and consulting field guides to bolster his background knowledge. Soon, he knew the collection well enough to assist Rice in pulling specimens for loan to other institutions. His favorite job has been helping Academy scientists add some of the 2,000 birds a year to the Ornithology Collection.

“It’s sometimes a puzzle because we’re out of room! If you want to add four snowy owls to the collection, you have to move lots of stuff around to fit them in the proper place.”

Solving riddles like this one keeps Cruit coming back for more each week. He loves to see and learn about many different birds as he adds them to the collection over the course of a single morning’s work. Using labels with Latin names, Cruit obtains field guides and seeks out the common names of the birds to further his own knowledge. He then dives deeply into the taxonomy, learning what family the specimens belong to so he can catalog them properly in the collection.

Male volunteer shows bird skin to young kids
Five Five Collective for ANS

Cruit’s work has gone beyond the collections and into the field, where he has traveled locally with Rice to collect specimens. He has also audited Curator of Ornithology Jason Weckstein’s undergraduate class, trekking into the field with groups of students to identify birds. At the Academy’s annual Members’ Night, Cruit can be found in a lab helping members decode subtle differences between hawks, woodpeckers or other common birds that are challenging to observe in the wild. He also helped set up a Brazilian birds unveiling party last spring, enabling Rice and Weckstein to reveal specimens collected over several expeditions to remote areas of the country.

Participation in events like these, plus the Academy’s Back From the Field event, has immersed Cruit deeply in the science culture of the Academy, which he says has been “a real departure” from his background in technology licensing. Over his nearly five years of volunteering at the Academy, the department has undergone a renaissance, with the hiring of Weckstein and several other staff, plus the addition of many students.

“Not only is the work fascinating, but there is a steady flow of postdocs from all over the world, and they are amazing,” Cruit says. “And the scientists have a great sense of humor— I’m laughing the whole time I’m here!”

Woman and man stand beside bicycles with backdrop of mountains

As a Lewis and Clark Circle donor, Cruit is thrilled to see the rapid growth of the Ornithology Department. Last Giving Tuesday, Cruit provided a matching gift for the Laboratory for Molecular Systematics and Ecology, the Academy’s genomic lab, where our scientists and students study genetics and use DNA technology to research biodiversity. Thanks to Cruit’s matching gift, Academy scientists including Weckstein, who uses the lab to study the evolutionary history and ecology of birds and their parasites, received twice the expected support to process DNA and conduct other molecular work.

With his deep ties to the Ornithology Department, its specimens and its people, Cruit has no intention of stepping aside anytime soon.

“It’s one of the best parts of my week,” he says.

Volunteers like Cruit have been integral to the success of the Academy for 200 years. Nearly 400 volunteers, from ages 14 to 80+, contribute their time each year toward our mission. Dedicated volunteers assist visitors throughout the museum’s exhibit spaces and provide critical support behind the scenes in research departments and offices. Are you considering increasing your contribution to your community through volunteering in 2020? To learn more about becoming a volunteer at the Academy, check out our opportunities and contact us at 215-299-1029 or volunteers@ansp.org.

By Mary Alice Hartsock

This content originally appeared in the fall/winter 2019 issue of Academy Frontiers, the Academy’s member magazine.

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