I caught up with Nate Rice in his small office on the top floor of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, a squat building tucked away in a corner of Logan Square in downtown Philadelphia.
Nate’s office – not much bigger than a broom cupboard – is a mess. He sits at his desk surrounded by books, papers, the detritus of his latest field trip and his dirty laundry and tells me about his life and work with birds.
Nate is in the office but, like all field biologists, is looking forward to his next field trip “I became a biologist because I like to be in the field – not because I like to sit behind a desk. If I don’t get into the field for a couple of months every year, if I don’t get to places where there is no light pollution and no humans … I go batshit crazy.”
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Nate is the latest of a long list of esteemed ornithologists that have had charge of the Academy’s collection of over two hundred thousand specimens.
As Nate tells me “Some of the most famous ornithologists in the world have been associated with us – John Audubon, Alexander Wilson, Rudolph Meyer De Schauensee, James Bond, Leo Joseph, Frank Gill – all of those folks have worked here and contributed to the collection and to the growth of the collection.” The Academy dates back to 1812 and has been on this site since 1876.
I’ve come to the Academy to visit the collection of John Gould’s Australian birds, many of which were collected by his field researcher John Gilbert – a story in itself that I’ll return to soon. Talking to Nate about the rich history of the Academy’s collection, and why it is important, is a definite bonus.
I asked Nate about how, and why, he adds to the collection.
NATE RICE: We have specimens in the collection that are well over two centuries old. I send those specimens and data from those specimens all over the world to conduct research on everything from the evolution of birds, modern ecological questions and environmental issues.
I also add to the collection. I add about a thousand new specimens to the collection each year. Much of that is done by way of salvaging birds. In North America 100 million birds a year are killed running into windows, wires and cars. I also collect – directly collecting birds – that is, shooting or sacrificing birds from mist nets.
BOB GOSFORD: What about the, in the minds of some, controversial practice of shooting birds in the field for addition to the collection?
NATE RICE: There are a couple issues there. There is a group of people, and I think it is fairly small, that just can’t get over the killing. I shoot birds. I’ll admit that, it is part of my job. There are people out there that just can’t get that their minds around that.
I am as passionate as birds as anybody on the planet. I don’t like to shoot birds. I don’t get off on that. I’m not sadistic in that sense.
I understand the moral of not wanting to shoot things but principally you have to understand that this is for a purpose. As for rare birds, generally speaking, rare, threatened and endangered birds are totally off-limits for collecting. I get them into the museum by way of them hitting windows, being hit by cars and also through zoological gardens – zoos – that have captive breeding programs where birds die. They get sick, the die of old age and that is a great way to get them into the collection.
I will say that some species of birds that are considered rare and endangered, when you look at them on the ground they are actually not. They are more abundant than people think. It is just that they are often in damned inaccessible territory. I’m not against collecting – and I’m talking about surgically collecting – removing one or two individuals from a viable population.
There is an amazing amount of research traction that you get out of those specimen that are immediately used for phylogenetic and population genetic work. The benefit to a species that has a small population of having a few specimens collected far outweighs any potential loss to the genetic structure of that population. That has been proven and I will stand by that to my last breath.
BOB GOSFORD: Why do collections like the Academy’s need so many specimens, using John Gould’s Musk Duck specimens for example, of each species?
NATE RICE: Great question! If we look at a pond of Musk Ducks, they might look similar to us. Obviously the juveniles look different but if we get them in the hand and start measuring them, we get an awful lot of differentiation.
If your look at that pond full of Musk Ducks we see a lot of variation in the depth and tones of the browns and blacks of their plumage, lots of variation on the ground at this time.
But if we went back to the Musk Ducks that John Gould collected and we compare them to what we see from specimens collected today, we will also see variation. Temporal variation over time.
We might see some micro-evolutionary change, some small steps on the evolutionary ladder. And for certain we are going to see ecological change occurring, and that is because bird feathers are great at capturing the historical and environmental conditions at that time.
So we can go back to the Gould Musk Duck specimens and get a glimpse at what the environment was like in Australia in the 1830s. We can see what nutrients were available and in what concentrations. What contaminants were in the environment?
And, if we have done a good job in our collection, and added a couple of specimens every decade or every few decades from certain points on a map we suddenly have a tapestry to look at. For example we can ask what has happened over the last hundred and eighty years. That is one reason why you really need large series of specimens and dozens, even hundreds of specimens collected over centuries.
That material then becomes a very, very powerful research tool. Not just to evolutionary biologists, not just to bird taxonomists – which is historically what bird collections have been used for – but now ecologists, nutrient biologists and people that study global warming.
These traditional museum study specimens are being used for all sorts of things beyond traditional bird taxonomy. And there are Musk Duck specimens in Museums across the globe – it is a world patrimony – a resource for all of us.
BOB GOSFORD: What is the future for collections like that at the Academy?
NATE RICE: Our recent affiliation with Drexel University will open lots of financial and resource doors for us and this year we’ll be adding internationally recognized ornithologists to the staff.
Even in the bad years we’ve always managed to keep and maintain the bird collection at very high research standards. And we’ve always managed to grow the collection, either through salvage work or purchasing collections or direct collecting.
We get our funding from almost across the board. Historically we would get some money from the City of Philadelphia, though that doesn’t happen anymore.
Most of the museum’s funds come from private individuals and almost all of our research grants are Federal grants.
In the US the National Science Foundation funds a lot of that work. The National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control also provide funds and a lot of our field work is underwritten by these centres that are very interested in what’s happening on the influenza and West Nile virus front – these are organisms that can kill people.
That money helps us get into the field. Birds fly – they fly thousands and thousands of miles and whatever is in their lungs and blood goes into the environment.
That is one small part of the story and why collecting and preserving specimens is so important.
You can be anti-collecting, anti-shooting, whatever – we respect that. But please come in and learn how to skin and preserve bird specimens!
They are dead. They ran into a window, got killed by a cat, hit by a car – but they are so important – so why are we going to throw them away? I consider these to be free specimens.
It takes time and it is not easy to prepare a specimen. But it is great fun.
In part two of this interview I’ll talk to Nate Rice about his particular ornithological obsessions – hacking through south-east asian jungles with machetes and going to the end of the road – and beyond.