Little Arsenic for the Plumage
The ultimate goal was completeness: one volume documents five important bird collections from natural history museums and portrays important ornithologists.
Akop lived alongside Alexander von Humboldt for over thirty years. And when the researcher asked him: “Who will die first?” “Too much sugar and too much coffee, Mr. Seifert,” was the reply, and that was the information the housekeeper heard every day. Jacob was not a Dadaist, but a big vasa parrot. This species lives in Madagascar and the Comoros Islands, has a shiny face and a length of about fifty centimeters.
Humboldt met the bird when he was visiting Goethe. At the time, Jacob still belonged to Carl August von Sachsen of Weimar, who finally bequeathed him to the world in 1828. By this time, the parrot had faded somewhat. For example, it lived with the last Bavarian king, Maximilian I, who bought it from a soldier in Strasbourg.
He has to turn the animal into a meeting. Although the bird died in 1859, it remains a Class C celebrity to this day. As an example, it is in the Museum of Natural History in Berlin and plays the role of a mascot there. Without Humboldt’s joint, the stuffed animal would have been discarded and never recovered after being damaged by a grenade during World War II.
Back then, everything that could fly was killed
Ornithologist Carl Schulz-Hagen, photographer Klaus Niege and taxidermist Jürgen Fiebig have created stories like this one, in which historical, biological and anecdotal elements intertwine, in their book “Vogelwelten”. They provide an outline of the history of collection and preservation techniques, and show excellent photographs of skins, eggs, and birds preserved in alcohol, current scholars, and five distinct collections. In addition to the Natural History Museum in Berlin, you will visit the Natural History Museum in Vienna, the Frankfurt Senckenberg Museum, the Alexander Koenig Research Museum in Bonn and the Naumann Museum in Köthen Castle.
The foundations of modern discoveries in ornithology, according to the thesis always in the background, were laid in natural history museums in the 19th and 20th centuries. In Germany there are forty-three scientific bird collections, each with more than a thousand specimens. While modern ornithologists sat in a lab or wandered off with binoculars and a camera, their predecessors photographed everything that came out of nowhere. Preservation methods were also more radical for the time.
An Atlas of the Red-footed Beautiful Widow prepared by Jean-Baptiste Picou around 1750 is in perfect condition even today only because it was protected from worms with arsenic. As a result of this toxic treatment, some 3,000 18th-century bird skins are still found in European natural history museums.
Skin worms and intestinal worms
Initially, it was intended that the groups be as complete as possible. British banker and zoologist Walter Rothschild owned the largest and most modern zoo in Tring, England. From the end of the 19th century he collaborated with the German ornithologist Ernst Hartert. Together, the two collected three hundred thousand bird skins. This desire for completeness, which also involves accumulating several specimens of the same species, can bear fruit.
This is illustrated by the story of the insecticide DDT: Seventy years ago, peregrine falcon populations suddenly collapsed in the northern hemisphere because the eggshells of birds of prey began to shrink. However, the “complete time series of hawk eggs” was stored in the museum’s inventory, and their shells can be examined for thickness and DDT content. The conclusion was clear: “The more DDT, the thinner the peels.” The poison was banned and the population recovered.
Small portraits of famous and lesser-known ornithologists complete the scale. The reader encounters charismatic figures such as Johann Natterer (1787 to 1843). He wandered around Brazil as an explorer for almost twenty years, published no texts, clearly described his activity as “non-Humboldtian” and sent 12,300 bird skins and over 700 vessels with intestinal worms (including his own) to the imperial empire. court in Vienna. Natterer discovered more than two hundred species of birds, but he returned home too late and had to accept the humiliation that some of his companions called them animals.
The natural history illustrations of Ferdinand Lucas Bauer (1760 to 1826) are surprising, whose accuracy remains beyond doubt, as well as the research activities of Emily Snethlage (1868 to 1929), who was one of the first women in the world. Germany to receive a PhD and can prepare the perfect hummingbird skin in fifteen minutes. Anyone wondering why natural history museums are still important today and what kind of people on completely insane expeditions, anyone who has risked their lives to find a few birds for European collections can expect interesting reading.