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Impact Magazine

Birds Around the World

With the number of natural history collections declining, Skip Skidmore and Randy Larsen recognize the importance of the bird collection at the Bean Life Science Museum.

An illustrated Mallard Duck stands in a yellow circle. Mallard ducks can't dive, so they look for food underwater with their bottoms bobbing above the surface. An illustrated Blue Crane stands in a green circle. Also known as the Stanley crane and the Paradise crane, the Blue crane is the national bird of South Africa. Its long, black "tail" feathers are actually part of the bird's wings.
Illustration by Emily Tribe.

For Skip Skidmore, assistant curator of animals at the BYU Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum, variety keeps nature exciting. And the Bean Life Science Museum has variety around every corner, including in the waterfowl of the Fred and Sue Morris Gallery. Nearly all waterbird species in the world are on display at the museum, from the extinct Labrador duck to the Canada goose that Skidmore mounted himself.

“Out of 165 waterfowl species, according to ornithologist Frank Todd, we’re missing 11,” Skidmore says. Many of the remaining eleven species are nearly impossible to obtain. However, the museum overcame one such obstacle with its most recent acquisition: a pair of blue ducks from New Zealand.

Pheasants for the President: The late President Boyd K. Packer frequently visited the Bean Life Science Museum and once asked to see a blood pheasant. Years later, Skip Skidmore obtained a magenta-feathered bird while on a trip to Beijing and displayed it in the pheasant exhibit of the museum. As President Packer was leaving the museum one day, Skidmore ran outside and called out to him, "Brother Packer, we've got a blood pheasant! You've got to come see it!" President Packer will always have a special place in Skidmore's heart. He specially requested pheasant still sits inside the Fred and Sue Morris Gallery.

“These are very special and sacred to the Maori people, and we’re lucky to get these,” Skidmore says. “They indicate the health of the environment.” These iridescent ducks are usually found in cold mountain streams. They use their rubbery-tipped bill to scrape out larvae from rocks beneath the water’s surface. New Zealand’s ten-dollar note features a blue duck with three ducklings.

The Fred and Sue Morris Gallery also features a variety of pheasants and other birds. Perhaps the most valuable bird on display at the museum is the passenger pigeon. The species went extinct in 1914 when the last passenger pigeon, affectionately given the name Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. The Bean Life Science Museum has a glass case containing one mounted pigeon alongside two carvings provided by Fred Morris.

Two illustrated Mandarin Ducks in an orange-yellow circle. In Chinese culture, mandarin ducks represent love because they are thought to have only one lifelong partner. The ducks are often associated with weddings in China.
Illustration by Emily Tribe.

On a museum tour with the BYU Audubon Club, plant and wildlife sciences professor Randy Larsen took club members to the Life Science Museum research collection, which is typically closed to the public. Larsen says the museum stores approximately 10,000 bird specimens from around the world. The museum has more than 2,500 clutches of eggs as well. Many specimens are freeze-dried and kept in drawers for future research purposes, but some go on display throughout the museum.

With the number of natural history collections declining, Larsen recognizes the importance of the bird collection at the Bean Life Science Museum. “Thankfully, we’ve got good support here at BYU, and I think we’ll be able to keep what we have,” he says. Visitors are welcome to see this treasured collection of birds from across the world year-round.