The 100th Species

September 22nd, 2011 | Meera

Since I started volunteering in the Bird Division of the Field Museum a little over two and a half years ago, many things have changed.

I’ve gotten much more confident and relaxed about preparing specimens than I was in my first tentative months, though I feel no less amazed by the process each time I sit down to begin.

The plastic ID card I use to beep myself in and out of the museum and to access the staff-only elevators (something which still gives me a thrill) has gotten scratched and worn.

I’ve made some wonderful friends.

And, as of today, I’ve worked on one hundred different bird species.

You can find the list in its entirety here, where it will continue to grow as Dave keeps putting out new species for me to work on. But I thought I’d give the 100th a bit of fanfare in this post, especially since it’s not a bird that tends to get a lot of fanfare.

The 100th species on my list is neither unusually large nor remarkably small, neither brightly colored nor glossy and dark. There’s nothing exotic about it. It’s just another little brown bird. Yet if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that the more data we have about a particular thing, the more meaningful that data is and the more useful it is to science.

Paradoxically, the fact that White-crowned Sparrows are extremely common in our collections—according to a search I just did of the Bird Division’s database, at least 1433 individual Zonotrichia leucophrys specimens already exist in the museum, dating back to 1863—makes every additional study skin we prepare of even greater value. With a healthy-sized data-set like that, any researcher wanting to do a genetic study, track migration patterns or wing-lengths over time, generate a set of characteristics that birders or bird banders can use to age or sex a bird in the field, or answer any of a thousand-and-one impossible-to-predict future questions, will have a larger body of information to work with and a far better chance of producing reliable results.

So here it is: One big milestone for me, one precious incremental addition to scientific data, and one beautiful bird.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

100th species

P.S. You may have noticed that this little fellow, despite being called a White-crowned Sparrow, has no white visible on its crown. That’s because it was an immature bird, probably hatched earlier this year, and had not had a chance to moult into its adult plumage before it died. Females of the species also don’t live up to their name, and look similar to juveniles—but their tails aren’t quite so long as you see here, and they don’t have any white bars on their wings. Aren’t bird names wonderfully confusing?

3 Responses to “The 100th Species”

  1. shoreacres says:

    I’m so happy to see this. Living on the water as I do, without cover or brush, I have an abundance of herons, gulls, pelicans and assorted smaller seabirds to watch, but very few songbirds.

    I do have one feeder, which brings in more pigeons than I’m happy with, but I get finches and sparrows as well – and I do have the White-crowned sparrow. Your entry is a wonderful reminder of how important even the less flashy species can be.

    And thrill of thrills – the osprey are back, and the hawks are migrating. I’ve seen only three kettles of hawks in my life, but one of them was this past week – we’ve not had thermals all summer, but everything was just right for them. Last year, a friend caught the Broad Wing migration on radar.

  2. Sarah says:

    Congratulations and excellent work!

  3. Tom says:

    I just came across your blog, excellent. Someday at the Field Museum our paths will cross.
    This line by you says a lot. Data can always tell a story, and it can always be used to benefit science and humanity:
    “Yet if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that the more data we have about a particular thing, the more meaningful that data is and the more useful it is to science.”