Then and Now: The Museum’s Oological Collections
Imagine a family out for a quiet picnic, mom spreading the blanket, the kids running through the nearby woods, and dad—well, dad is watching an Allen’s Hummingbird quickly dart from one flower to another before returning to the same cluster of leaves within a tree.
Dad realizes there is more to this story. He follows the bird’s cues and approaches the tree to find a small, tidy nest with two tiny white eggs. Dad methodically reaches into the nest, removes the two eggs, swaddles them in cotton, and tucks them into a worn wooden cigar box filled with several other sets of birds’ eggs he has discovered at the picnic area.
Once home, he will remove the purloined eggs from their cotton nests, carefully drill each one with a small hole, and blow out their contents. After washing and drying them, he will carefully mark them with tiny script indicating his personal numbering sequence and species identification. Then he will place them in a cabinet in his study to admire. The year is 1896, and the man is an oologist.
The Egg Boom
The practice of hobbyist egg collecting was a cultural import from England’s Victorian era. Private egg collections were amassed through backyard collecting, exchanges between collectors, and even by catalog orders. Catalogs of North American bird eggs listed “going rates” for collectors selling or trading among each other. For rare species such as California Condors, single eggs valued at $350 in 1900 skyrocketed to $750 by 1922.
While some dismissed egg collecting as nothing more than glorified stamp collecting, collectors included amateur and professional ornithologists who gleaned knowledge about bird lifestyles and origins by studying the size, shape, and color of their eggs (oology) and the structural characteristics of their nests (nidology). The hobbyist and scientific collection of eggs peaked between 1885 and the 1920s, when changes in social attitudes as well as new collecting regulations marked its decline.
The Museum Begins
The Museum got its start in 1916 as the Museum of Comparative Oology under the vision of William Leon Dawson. Already a prominent ornithologist, Dawson headed to Santa Barbara in 1910 to start work on his third museum collection. This collection would be unique in that it would house eggs and nests for all the birds of the world. Housed at his home on Puesta Del Sol, this collection of over 5,000 eggs from 525 species of birds received visits from prominent collectors and ornithologists, particularly those in a position to donate material to the coffers.
Dawson’s passion for the study of eggs, combined with his ability to solicit funding, drew together 15 incorporators to form an institution dedicated to the accumulation, study, and display of this world-class egg and nest collection. With Joel R. Fithian, a Santa Barbara banker and founder of the Montecito Country Club, serving as president and Dawson as the charismatic scientist, The Museum of Comparative Oology was issued a state charter on January 27, 1916.
The Museum operated from Dawson’s home until two acres of land, to serve as a bird refuge, were gifted by Miss Caroline Hazard in memorial of her eldest brother Rowland G. Hazard, the Museum’s first honorary curator. New buildings to house and display the museum’s collections were dedicated on April 17, 1922; the Museum of Comparative Oology opened to the public the following August on the same grounds we occupy today.
The Evolution Continues
Dawson’s efforts were dual focused during these years. While cultivating partnerships with collectors around the world and publishing frequent notes on his current discoveries, he was struggling with the finalization of The Birds of California, his third and greatest ornithological contribution. The work was proposed as an elaborate subscription-based manuscript that would describe 567 species and sub-species of California birds including photographs by Dawson and Donald R. Dickey and more than 100 color paintings by Allan Brooks. By fall of 1922, 10 years after the manuscript was first proposed, Dawson was forced to take leave to finalize the publication. While on leave some Trustees felt the “usefulness of the institution could be increased and perhaps the necessity for adding to the enormous number of eggs for comparative study was not so urgent”.
After finishing The Birds of California, Dawson was never re-instated as the museum’s director. By 1924 the Museum, now titled The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and Comparative Oology, added collections in entomology, botany and anthropology. The words “Comparative Oology” were dropped from its name, and to this day we remain the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.
The Past Meets the Present
While our mission has changed, our scientific focus has diversified, and our outreach has intensified, the Museum still holds a wealth of ornithological collections within the Vertebrate Zoology Department. In addition to the collections first gathered under Dawson’s watch, the department has over 10,000 bird study skins, many with accompanying skeletal material, among them the largest collection of birds from the Central Coast region and important holdings of Channel Islands specimens. Our bird egg collection ranks tenth in the nation with over 11,000 egg sets from 1,300 species.
Recent advances in molecular genetics and technology have helped collection-based ornithological science evolve far beyond simple taxonomic studies. New pursuits include the examination of eggshell infrastructure by scanning electron microscopes; the study of genetic relationships between and within bird species by isolating mitochondrial DNA from eggshell membranes and feathers; and the study of avian migratory patterns and diets by stable isotope analyses of tissues and feathers.
The oologists of the late 1800s had no idea that their egg collections would become key elements of 21st century conservation science! No one can predict what bird secrets will be unveiled over the next century by emerging scientific techniques. But one thing is certain: the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History collections will play a pivotal role.
Museum Birds Go Global
The ornithological collections of the Museum have gone global! As part of a National Science Foundation-funded initiative, the collections of the Vertebrate Zoology Department are now available online through ORNIS (ORNithological Information System). This web-based project provides allows users to search for specimens by species, locality, collector, or any number of variables. The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is one of 33 museums participating in the project, which gives researchers from around the world immediate access to specimens. Cooperatively, these collections help document the spatial distribution, ecology, systematics, and historical record of the world’s estimated 10,000+ bird species.