Living birds are warm-blooded vertebrate animals that have:
- forelimbs modified as wings
- scales on their legs and feet
- a bill without teeth
- lay hard-shelled eggs
The Australian Museum has one of the largest ornithological collections in the Southern Hemisphere. A recent count puts the total specimen count for the bird collection at just over 100,000 registered specimens, including 360 Type specimens, all of which are stores both onsite at the museum in the Sydney CBD and at the Castle Hill Discovery Centre. The collection contains a large variety of bird skins, mounts, skeletons, eggs, nests, spirit specimens and tissue samples, representing approximately 95 percent of the world's bird families and 75 percent of all living bird species.
While the main emphasis is on species from New South Wales, almost all species that breed in Australia are well represented. The collection also contains around 3,500 non-Australian species, many of which hail from New Guinea, New Zealand, the south-west Pacific. The collection has great historical and scientific significance. It contains many rare, endangered and extinct species plus a significant number of Type specimens, primarily from Australia and the Pacific Islands. As many specimens date from the mid-1860s, some even earlier, the collection affords us an insight into avian biology, morphology, anatomy and geographical distributions over time. The Australian Museum’s egg collection is very large, rivalling other large world collections like the American Museum of Natural History.
The collection is historic and dates back to the inception of the AM. Important collectors or figures associated with the collection include G. Krefft, AJ North, G. Masters, EP Ramsay (Dobroyde Collection), E. Troughton and FG Waterhouse; notable Scientific officers and Collection staff include T. Iredale, JA. Keast, KA Hindwood, J. Disney and WE Boles.
Some of the most important specimens in our collection are the types. Types are original specimens on which the first description of a particular species or subspecies is based. We hold about 340 type specimens of birds across around 180 taxa. Most of them are Australian species; for example, the skin of a Princess Parrot (Polytelis alexandrae) that John Gould used when originally describing this species. Other types are species that were collected in the Pacific Islands, such as the holotype of the New Britain Kingfisher (Todiramphus albonotatus).
Many specimens have a special place in history, such as more than 700 Antarctic birds and eggs collected by Douglas Mawson and his team on their historic Antarctic expedition (1911-14). These range from large King Penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) to dainty Wilson's Storm-petrels (Oceanites oceanicus).
Among the extinct species is the beautiful Paradise Parrot (Psephotus pulcherrimus), which holds the dubious distinction of being the only Australian mainland bird to have become extinct since the arrival of Europeans. Of the 12 Paradise Parrot specimens in the collection, one of the most beautiful is a mounted specimen in a glass dome, presented to the Museum by the estate of Sir Edward Hallstrom.
Other species, such as the Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis), represented in the collection by five specimens, have not yet slipped into extinction but remain very rare and endangered.
Some birds are known only from a single representative. Captain Blood's Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea bloodi) is the only known specimen of a hybrid between Raggiana's Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea raggiana) and the Blue Bird of Paradise (P. rudolphi). It is named after the collector, Captain Neptune B. Blood, who collected the specimen from Mount Hagen area in Papua New Guinea in 1944. As well as being the only known specimen in existance, it is also the type of Paradisaea bloodi.
Another example is the Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda). While widespread in the New World, this is the only record for Australia. The bird was collected at the Randwick Swamps in 1848. It was sent on loan by the Museum to John Gould, in order that he could illustrate it for his book series, 'The Birds of Australia'.
Some specimens offer a fascinating insight into the lives of birds. In 1903, a specimen of the very uncommon Grey Falcon (Falco hypoleucos) was donated to the Museum. This specimen is of particular interest as it still has the head of its last meal, a Mallee Ringneck Parrot (Barnardius zonarius barnardi), clamped firmly to its leg by the beak. The Falcon had been shot by a farmer in Condobolin, who was no doubt surprised to see that the parrot had not given in without a fight.
Other peculiar specimens include some of the nests held in the collection. They are arresting due to the manner in which they are built, or else because of the unusual locations in which the bird has constructed the nest. For example, the collection contains a number of magpie nests constructed of wire, a Willie Wagtail's nest built on an old horse bit and a swallow's nest built on the skull of a dead eagle. And this Grey Shrikethrush nest in a boot!