Ornithology Collection at the Burke Museum

In the heart of Seattle’s U-District lives the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, which celebrated its 125th anniversary this year. It began as a club of young naturalists with a passion for collecting all types of specimens; over time it became a tangible catalog of natural history, a conglomerate of objects that help us see Earth and its creatures over a timeline much longer than our own.  Today the Burke is a hub of research and public education.


Before my visit I didn’t realize just how important museums are for preserving natural history and contributing to scientific discovery. What we see in the displays as we browse the aisles is only a tiny percentage of what the museum actually holds. The Burke has one of the largest tissue sample collections in the world, specifically avian tissue samples. With so many specimens at hand, scientists are able to understand how the tissue of, say,  a  modern Pileated Woodpecker differs from that of a 100 year old woodpecker, and so on. Beyond public education, museums are vital in preserving history so that we might study it and understand how our world and the creatures on it change over time.

The Burke focuses on the idea of collecting things, and the significance of collections. The first exhibit asks visitors about their own collections and why they are important. It seems most people do collect something.


It occurred to me that if this museum began as a few guys collecting samples of just about everything they could find, labeling and dating the vials and storing them away, then it meant that I, too, could be a scientist to a certain extent. If I wish to learn more about birds, why not begin collecting samples, why not collect, say, feathers, which I could reference whenever I need to.

The Burke’s Ornithology collection was the most interesting to me. It was eerie to see so many dead birds in one place, however intriguing to see such close detail of birds I only ever see briefly when they flutter by.

This exhibit (photos above) shows just how similar these sparrows appear to be, however genetically speaking they are quite different. Without this somewhat eerie collection of sparrows across the United States, scientists would still believe that they were all closely related.


The plaque in the photo reads, “These sparrows in the genus Ammodramus have a lot in common: they all live in North American grasslands or shrublands, have a nondescript appearance, and under their feathers they all look pretty similar too. So it’s not surprising that scientists have long assumed they were closely related to one another. Burke ornithologists John Klicka and his graduate student Garth Spellman used DNA analysis from these specimens (and many others) to show that members of this genus are NOT as closely related to each other as we thought. Indeed, the Ammodramus group is divided into three very different groups, each more closely related to other species of sparrows. Their similar body shapes and coloration (morphology), and lifestyles (ecology) represent a good example of convergent evolution”

Overall, the Burke exists to inspire discovery and to help naturalists gather data for the many questions that need answers. The Burke’s avian collection consists of 41,000 study skins, 26,000 spread wings, 17,700 bird skeletons, 3,100 egg sets, and 26,000 avian tissues.

I enjoyed my visit immensely and hope to carry with me the same sense of discovery that founded this museum.

What do you collect? Why is it important?


Photo credit: Burke Museum front, courtesy of Wonderlane / feature photo courtesy of National Museums Liverpool / All other photos by me.

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