Saturday, September 13, 2008

New hall is a birder's paradise


Do you know the Williamson’s sapsucker from the red-naped sapsucker? How about the common nighthawk from the lesser nighthawk?
If you don’t, it’s okay because there are plenty of people in Santa Barbara County who could tell you the difference. They call themselves birders, and not surprisingly, they bird (to observe or identify wild birds in their native habitat, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

And even if you don’t know your neighborhood birder, you’ll probably still be all right, thanks to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s new Dennis M. Power Bird Hall.
About 300 bird enthusiasts turned out Thursday night to celebrate the unveiling of the new hall, which has been closed for the past three years for a $1.8 million face-lift.
The Bird Hall features 500 individual specimens, as well as several exhibits pulled from its massive 11,000-strong egg collection from 1,300 species, the 10th largest of its kind in the country.
“We’re really setting the bar,” said Krista Fahy, the museum’s assistant curator who searched the world over for innovative ways to remodel the Bird Hall. Fahy’s search included a whirlwind museum tour in Europe, where she and her husband toured 18 museums in three weeks. Nothing she saw there compared to what is now available in Santa Barbara.
“Ours is so much better than anything I saw,” she said.
That’s not all that surprising, according to museum Executive Director Karl Hutterer, who pointed out the museum’s bird-centric history runs deep.
When the museum opened in 1916, it was dubbed the Museum of Comparative Oology (the study of birds with an emphasis on eggs and nests). The name came from the then egg collection that consisted of more than 5,000 eggs from 525 species.
The museum’s emphasis on birds over the past 82 years, while aided by museum directors known for being partial to birds, comes more from the location of the museum.
Hutterer said the diverse nature of Santa Barbara County, from the Channel Islands to New Cuyama, is a top-notch paradise for varying species of birds.
“Birds always were important,” he said, adding that he feels the bird and egg collection is one of the “museum’s greatest treasures.”
Many of the bird mounts currently on display are decades old and were mounted by the museum’s famed taxidermist and exhibit preparer Egmont Rett, who Hutterer said was with the museum from the 1920s into the 1950s.
Hutterer said Rett used revolutionary techniques while mounting the birds, which aside from minor touchups over the years, have remained in stellar condition.
“He became nationally famous for his incredible technology,” he said. “He made the best bird specimens in the country.”
While the new Bird Hall, which is located in what used to be the museum’s Changing Gallery, has oodles of history, it also has a subtle, yet complicated touch of new that Fahy insists will allow museum goers to better understand the specimens.
At first glance, the rows of birds, ranging in size from the tiny Allen’s hummingbird that doesn’t appear larger than an inch, to the large turkey vulture, don’t appear unusual, or out of place.
That’s because they’re not. But they are arranged differently than they have been in the past.
Fahy said the birds are organized not taxonomically, by species, but by their foraging guild, or feeding patterns.
For instance, before the old Bird Hall closed down three years ago for renovations, the brown and white pelicans were located directly next to each other. While that may seem like a no-brainer, it isn’t. And in fact, by the museum’s standards, it’s not as accurate as it could be.
Case in point: Fahy said the brown pelican is a “plunge diver,” which means it swoops down and dives deep into salt water to feed. The white pelican on the other hand is a “surface diver,” which means it dives at an angle, or more shallow in fresh water.
The white pelican is now located with a number of other “surface divers,” while the brown pelican, though nearby, is next to its fellow “plunge divers.”
If all this does is prompt museum goers to ask the obvious question of, “Why aren’t the brown and white pelicans next to each other,” Fahy said it has done its job. She said such questions open up a much wider discussion of how the birds eat, where they live, how they breed and why.
“It’s a way to encourage people to get deeper into the hall,” she said.
The new Bird Hall’s namesake, Dennis M. Power, was the museum’s director for 21 years from 1972 to 1993. Power’s contributions to the museum included growing the curatorial staff, developing fundraising and constructing several new buildings. But beyond that, Power is an ornithologist with a special interest in the evolution and biogeography of island birds.
The new Bird Hall features a number of improvements, including shallower glass display cases that afford a closer view of the mounts, glass view windows on the sides of display cases to allow children easier viewing as well as new educational materials and videos.
Hutterer also said he was proud to announce the hall was constructed as “green” as possible by installing energy efficient lighting where possible and floor made from cork.
Andy Calderwood, a self-described amateur birder who once worked at the museum, said he liked the new and improved Bird Hall.
“It’s very elegantly put together,” he said. “It’s the kind of place you’d come back to.”
It is definitely that. Hutterer said the old Bird Hall was so well known people traveled from around the country and world to see it. Unfortunately, he said many people did so over the last three years, while the hall was out of commission.
“Over those three years people would come in daily and weekly,” he said. “They would go away terribly disappointed.
“Now [the birds] are back.”
Of the total $1.8 million cost for the renovation, the museum still needs to raise $198,000. Easter Moorman, the museum’s marketing and public relations manager, said people interested in donating can sponsor a bird. She said sponsor amounts range from $1,000 to $3,000. Information about sponsoring a bird is available at
The Bird Hall opened to the public yesterday. Moorman said the museum will host a free bird walk each Monday between Sept. 15 and Oct. 27.

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