6/24/2015 Peter Durantine

Still Life With A Bird Field Guide

Inspired after a chance encounter in the basement of a Lancaster County museum, a Franklin & Marshall professor, with help from his Hackman Scholar, is pursuing a book about birds.

Not just any ornithological creatures, though. These birds have already passed through the hands of the taxidermist or curator and reside in collections in three museums: the North Museum, just off the F&M campus, the Delaware Museum of Natural History, and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

"This is a bit unusual insomuch as we're focusing on specimens of birds that are dead and stuffed and in natural history collections," said Erik Anderson, F&M Writer in Residence & Director of the Emerging Writers Festival.

For Anderson, the project began in the North Museum, where he brought his Science Writing class one day to write about the more than 1,000 taxidermy birds, displayed in large glass cases in the basement. A small South American hummingbird caught his eye.

  • Inside the North Museum, Professor Anderson shows Larissa Kehne the black-tailed trainbearer's iridescent patch on the gorget. Inside the North Museum, Professor Anderson shows Larissa Kehne the black-tailed trainbearer's iridescent patch on the gorget. Image Credit: Melissa Hess

"It's called the black-tailed trainbearer and it has this outrageous tail," Anderson said.  "It's a bird about the size of my thumb and its tail is many times that length."

When he examined the bird he noticed an iridescent patch on the gorget – the upper breast or throat portion of its body. Anderson then became interested in the creature's journey. He posed the question: How did a Peruvian hummingbird find its way into the basement of a museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania?

"It was sort of like a detective story to piece together the clues of how it might have gotten there," Anderson said. "I have some answers to that now, but really the book began as this investigation into the practices of collecting birds and putting them in these natural history collections."

The project is based on a standard field guide for birds. It will include about 50 entries for 50 individual species, some of which are extinct. Hackman Scholar Larissa Kehne, a senior environmental studies major and resident of New College House, researched each bird they selected and Anderson then wrote the entry.

"I go through and dig up the interesting stories, the human side that he can apply in writing," Kehne said. 

Kehne and Anderson spent time in the Lancaster and Delaware museums, while the professor traveled alone to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Kehne also interviewed an ornithologist who runs a nature center in her hometown of Montpelier, Vt. as well as F&M Assistant Professor of Psychology Timothy Roth, who studies the behaviors and cognitions of black-capped chickadees, and Professor of English Judith Mueller, chair of F&M's English Department, and an avid bird-watcher.

Kehne said the research project was a good introduction to writing for her and gave her an exciting experience.

"I just think it's a really cool opportunity that undergraduates get to do this sort of thing here," she said. "It's been really illuminating for me. Frankly, I'd love to get published some day, and this is a good experience for me to see the manuscript-writing process, all the work that goes into it."

Anderson said Kehne wrote one of the entries to appear in the book, which will explore why birds are so interesting, why people project human values on them, and why people love them.

"There's something that we deeply identify with in these birds.  There is something about them that fascinates us," Anderson said. " I want the birds to be vehicles for answering questions about how we engage with the natural world."

Anderson is collaborating with an illustrator to provide drawings based on photos he has taken of the specimens. An introductory essay about his discovery of the North Museum's humming bird will open the book. His experience with 50 others birds will follow, and then a postscript. 

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