Thousands of bird specimens preserved for study in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- "I can just grab any one of those specimens and there's something kind of amazing to tell you about it," said Dr. Jason Weckstein.

The Associate Curator of Ornithology at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University has an office that is arm's length away from hundreds of years of studies surrounding birds.

"We're a science institution. We do research here," said Weckstein. "We're sitting basically in one of the largest natural history collections of bird specimens in the world."

The Ornithology collection is one of 10 around the world that is considered most taxonomically complete. It includes over 205,000 skins from more than 7,000 species. Birds have their skins dried and receive informational tags detailing the date, habitat, and other data. They are stored in shelves and laid out like kitchen utensils. One species collected in 2009 might share a space with another collected in 1877.

The collection allows professionals and students alike to examine birds to learn more about the greater world around them.

"They disperse seeds, for example. They are pollinators in some cases," said Weckstein. "They help us understand our own diseases and the health of our environment."

For birders like Weckstein, these fluttering gems are on the mind year-round. But avians make local headlines at least twice a year when mass migrations occur along the east coast. Philadelphia is located along the Atlantic Flyway, a popular migratory channel. Here, spring migration is known to start during April and last until May.

"A lot of the birds that migrate through here are nocturnal migrants, and when they see light on buildings, they fly towards it," said Weckstein. "So, they end up slamming into the building."

In October 2020, Philadelphia experienced a perfect storm of conditions that caused hundreds of birds to collide into buildings and perish. 500 of them were collected and are currently stored with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

The shocking event prompted them and other local organizations to band together and create the "Bird Safe Philly" initiative.

"Many buildings have volunteered to turn their lights out during peak migration," said Weckstein. "So, our monitoring program will hopefully help us figure out other places that are problematic around the city. That's the goal."

Weckstein hopes that more people will appreciate the beauty of birds and work to create a better world for all living creatures.

"There's a lot of nature that inspires and to enjoy all over and we need to do a better job of taking care of that," he said. "And if nature is healthy, we're healthy, too."

The Ornithology collection is not a publicly-accessible exhibit, but has been historically opened on certain nights to members of the museum before the COVID-19 pandemic. To learn more about the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, visit their website.

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