For The Birds

Unique trip gives Randolph students behind-the-scenes access to the Smithsonian

BirdsTucked away in a part of the Smithsonian most visitors never see, several Randolph students handled tiny bird skins that were part of an important research project at the museum. Treasa Bryant ’13 watched as Chris Milensky, director of the Smithsonian’s bird division, demonstrated a better way of rolling cotton to stuff and preserve the skin. A few minutes later, she sewed the specimen closed.

“I really liked learning from masters how to put specimens back together in a way that made them look realistic and lifelike,” Bryant said.

The trip, led last semester by Doug Shedd, the Catherine Ehrman Thoresen ’23 and William E. Thoresen Professor of Biology, and Emily Patton Smith ’12, natural history collections manager, allowed a group of students to receive a unique behind-the-scenes tour of the National Museum of Natural History’s bird division.

“This was an opportunity for them to see how one of the largest collections in the world is managed, see what kind of uses there are for these materials, and then conduct specimen preparation with one of the top people in the world,” Shedd said. “The response has been really overwhelming.”

For the past two years, Shedd’s students have been working with Randolph College’s own natural history collection, repairing damaged specimens and preparing and preserving bird skins that had been in storage for years.

Bryant got involved because she wanted to make the collection more accessible for other students.

“This gave me a chance to be a part of Randolph in a way that I hadn’t been involved before,” said Bryant, who is now studying veterinary medicine at Virginia Tech. “It felt like I was doing something to leave a mark.”

Aaron McRorie ’13, who, like Bryant, hopes to become a veterinarian, said working to preserve animals for the collection provided an experience he could not have had just dissecting animals in class. “It’s more like an art form,” he added.

In the summer of 2012, Shedd met Milensky at a conference. They talked about the fact that some bird specimens in Randolph’s collection came from the Smithsonian, and Shedd asked about arranging a tour for Randolph students.

The Smithsonian bird division holds more than 600,000 specimens representing 80 percent of all known bird species, making it the third largest collection in the world, Milensky said. The collection includes samples of endangered and extinct species, such as the passenger pigeon.

“Being able to go behind the scenes and see how they’ve stored this vast collection of animals was a special opportunity,” McRorie said.

“Some students saw this trip as potentially career-changing,” Shedd said, adding that it allowed students to see what can be learned from natural history collections by preserving animals and their DNA. “While the birds may be dead, the information that they contain is very much alive.”