The Curious Vault 008: Birds

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South Florida has a long relationship with taxidermy, one that can be illustrated through the life of locally renowned sportsman and taxidermist Al Pflueger. According to a fascinating Sports Illustrated article from the 1970s Pflueger perfected a great deal of taxidermy techniques, particularly with regard to marine life. His Miami operation was one of the most well respected sources for mounting your big catch into a timeless trophy. The article makes a brief argument that his pieces could be related to famed works of art and his business a Renaissance style workshop.

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Much of Pflueger’s work can be found in the Curious Vault, which has an extensive collection of mounted animals of all species. The kinds of beasts found within range from smaller specimen such as snakes and turtles, to much larger pieces such as bears. To get a sense of how truly unique the collection in the Curious Vault at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science is, one must only look to the three specimens of now extinct birds found within: the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet and the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Extinction is the loss of an entire species and it’s a shame to think that sometimes all we have left to remind us of Earth’s tragedy is a piece of old taxidermy. But it helps us understand their nature by providing a concrete example of the animal’s physical form.

Imagine this bird flying overhead in such massive flocks that it could block out the sun for a day or two. This is what stories say about the passenger pigeon, according to William Searcy avian expert and professor at the University of Miami. The passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America, and perhaps even the world. A flock would move between wooded areas eating the acorns or seed from deciduous trees.

passenger pigeon

Passenger Pigeon

Although hunters shot them in droves, the number one likely killer of passenger pigeons was deforestation. When the flocks were large and the birds reproduced in great numbers, predators were incapable of depleting the population. However, as forests dwindled in the beginning of the 20th century, the pigeons found themselves much more exposed and defenseless, especially their nests. Humans hunted them for food and at one point they were considered a delicacy. People even used the telegraph and the railroad to spread word of the movement of their flocks. This type of efficient hunting got the population numbers low enough and their defenses were made useless.

Another extinct bird in the collection is the Carolina parakeet, which is the only species in the parrot family that lived in the continental United States. According to Searcy, it was fairly widespread through the South Eastern United States, yet went extinct around the same time as the passenger pigeon, in the early 20th century. At the time, the parakeet was considered an agricultural pest and was regularly hunted by farmers. There is a theory that they contracted an avian-based disease from domestic chickens but “that’s a bit more mysterious,” according to Searcy.

carolina parakeet

Carolina Parakeet

The prize gems of the bird collection found within the Curious Vault are the two ivory-billed woodpeckers. So named for the strip of white around it’s beak, it was the largest woodpecker in the continental United States. According to Searcy the ivory-billed woodpecker was, “apparently pretty spectacular in life, and this is one people keep claiming to have rediscovered.” Akin to the bigfoot of woodpeckers, Searcy is not convinced by Science article in 2005 that claims the birds are still alive somewhere in rural Arkansas, though he does admit that there is “some possibility that they’re in Cuba.”

ivory billed woodpecker

Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

Deforestation also played a major role in the ivory-billed woodpecker’s demise, however, more interestingly, collecting may have played some role. Searcy laments that, “as they get rare, people want one,” meaning as an animal’s population dwindles, collectors of taxidermy snatch one up with hopes of owning something special. This raises obvious ethical concerns with respect to taxidermy, but within the walls of an educational institution such as the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, these birds are valued collection items and will remain that way.

In fact, Al Pflueger, the Miami taxidermy guru himself recognized this and donated a great deal of mounted birds to the Miami Museum of Science. Though there is no link between Pflueger and the extinct birds above, he did bequeath many birds, some of which were exhibited in educational boxes that were loaned to classrooms. Some of the boxes have been deconstructed since (with their parts still in the collection), as they are now considered unwieldy for school use. There remains one that is still in tact containing several Florida birds, some of which are also inching closer to endangered status.

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Al Pflueger’s Educational Box

Take for instance the Florida scrub jay, which is endemic to Florida, stays here all year round and is the best candidate to be the Florida State Bird according to Searcy. They are currently threatened because they are dependant on the scrub oak habitat which is used for materials in many different housing developments in northern and central Florida. Interestingly, the Florida scrub jay is one of the few animals that use a social system of cooperative breeders, meaning additional adults beyond the father and mother pitch in with child rearing. The scrub jay specimen piece came from one of Pflueger’s educational boxes.

scrub jay

Scrub Jay

Al Pflueger’s name may not be well known to most of America, but a great deal of the mounted bird collection in The Curious Vault of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science can actually be linked to Pflueger’s celebrated shop, and his legacy will bolster the collection’s strength through these wonderful mountedbirds.

This post is indebted to the wisdom and research of William Searcy, University of Miami Professor of Biology and Maytag Chair of Ornithology. Listen to a Florida Scrub Jay here.

The Curious Vault is a bi-weekly online cabinet of curiosities featuring objects from the collection of the Miami Science Museum, presented by writer Nathaniel Sandler and Kevin Arrow, Art & Collections Manager. For more information, email karrow@miamisci.org.

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