Texas A&M Bird Collection Influences Future Of Ornithology, Conservation
Each time Gary Voelker opens a drawer inside rows of crisp white cabinets represents an unveiling of sorts.
Solemn beauty lies inside. Curated winged fragments of Mother Nature sit frozen in time. Some are as tiny as a human thumb, while others are long and lean. The colors on display range from white and drab earth to a vibrant spectrum of tones and shades artists spend years learning to imitate.
The Collection of Birds at the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections (BRTC) is a curated collection of thousands of avian specimens from around the state, nation and world. It is a part of the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology at Texas A&M University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Voelker, a curator of birds, professor, ornithologist and evolutionary biologist, said the collection represents decades of collection, curation and utilization by birders, researchers and students the world over.
“Our job is to preserve the material and make the data and materials available to the interested public and researchers,” he said. “We’re not a museum in that these birds are not on exhibition. We just have lots and lots of preserved material for research and education.”
Texas is home to other bird collections, but the Collection of Birds at BRTC represents the most active receiver, processor and seeker of new avian material in the state, Voelker said. More than 27,000 birds spanning 1,702 species from 59 countries have been prepared and assigned unique numbers in the collection.
The collection also contains 400 egg sets, 1,500 skeletons, 3,000 wings and more than 9,000 tissue and blood samples.
Specimen data within the collection can be accessed by anyone interested via VertNet. Preserved genetic specimen materials kept in cold storage are curated and available to researchers upon request.
Voelker has provided tissue samples and loaned material to researchers around the globe to further avian science.
Most birds in the collection are from the U.S. and Mexico. Many have been gathered through active collection expeditions around the state, nation and other continents, including Africa and Europe.
The collection’s diversity reflects the desire to expand the range of data that can be made publicly accessible for research, education and conservation purposes.
Voelker said the online specimen data can help birdwatchers interested in learning where and when to find specific species of birds throughout the state. He recently provided a tour of the collection to the Houston Audubon Society, whose members in turn delivered salvaged materials for addition to the collection.
The collection is also used as a teaching aid for more than 500 students at Texas A&M University taking classes such as ornithology, herpetology and mammalogy, and pre-requisites like the natural history of vertebrates, Voelker said. Ornithology students benefit from being able to see and touch the breadth of bird diversity around the globe.
“For ornithology classes, most places have a small teaching collection of birds from around their state, but we are able to do a pretty heavy-duty ‘birds of the world’ lab where we pull 200-250 birds from the research collection and use those in teaching,” he said. “So, students are seeing what birds are doing and what they look like all over the world.”
The collection also supports targeted research by Voelker and others. One of Voelker’s projects is focused on the microbiome of five bird species found in Texas – cardinals, mockingbirds, bobwhite and scaled quail, and the golden-fronted woodpecker.
By studying matter in a bird’s digestive system, Voelker hopes to identify how species interact with encroaching agriculture. For instance, he has taken quail samples from areas in and around cotton fields in places like Matador, Stamford and Lamesa, and a ranch between Presidio and Marfa that has never been in agriculture production, to assess whether pesticides used in agriculture production are affecting overall avian health.
Genetic information can also show how species are related to one another and how lineage can play important roles in bird biology, physiology and health, today and in the past, Voelker said. Samples can also represent as an important ornithological survey that can relate to human health and the potential spread of zoonotic diseases.
“You’re building a time series when you add to a collection like this,” he said. “It can reveal genetic differences linked to changes in the ecosystem through time, and that becomes important when you are talking about things like climate change or habitat going from native flora to ag production or vice versa.”
Collection Of Birds Continues To Expand
The collection’s samples date back to 1936, but its range continues to expand.
Over the past 13 years, Voelker said the collection has experienced 90% growth due to research expeditions and an extensive, statewide salvage network that includes birding and conservation groups.
Salvagers provide Voelker pertinent information including the date found and location for each specimen. The collection received around 400 birds salvaged by volunteers walking urban grids in Dallas during the fall 2020 migration alone.
Those volunteers belong to Lights Out Texas, a consortium of bird conservationists that advocate for reducing light pollution as a way to decrease bird mortality rates during annual migration periods.
In all, Voelker said the collection has received 500 birds that have yet to be curated and prepared for the collection. The collection will continue to accept good specimens.
“We’re always excited to see samples come in, especially birds we rarely see,” Voelker said. “Salvaging specimens is important from a conservation standpoint. We are finding more and more ways to use them as technology and science improves. Scientists are always creatively thinking about ways to answer questions about birds, whether it be migration, physiology or genetics.”
Lights Out Texas
The annual spring and fall migrations unfortunately provide plenty of salvage for Voelker, his students and interns. Window strikes and other accidents associated with man-made structures or vehicles occur as nearly 2 billion birds migrate through the state.
Texas is a major migratory flyway for birds, according to the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute (NRI). One quarter to one third of all bird species on the continent migrate through the state in the spring and fall.
Up to one billion birds die each year in the U.S. from colliding into buildings, according to the NRI, a partner in the Lights Out Texas program, which is led by a coalition of conservation nonprofits, universities, governmental organizations and Texans dedicated to bird conservation.
Lights Out programs were initiated to curb bird losses stemming from light pollution. Birds become disoriented by lights at night, which makes them vulnerable to collisions.
Lights Out Texas asks that residents and businesses do their part to protect birds during these migrations by turning out non-essential lighting from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. between now and Nov. 30, with the priority and critical peak period from Sept. 5 to Oct. 29.
“Every light turned out at night helps save migrating birds by reducing collisions with brightly lit buildings along their Texas flyways,” said Brittany Wegner, NRI project specialist. “As an added bonus, turning off nonessential lights also saves energy and money for cities, local businesses and homeowners. It’s easy to participate — simply turn off all nonessential lights from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. during the migration seasons.”
How To Collect, Preserve Salvage Birds
Voelker said anyone hoping to contribute to the collection should first make sure the bird meets salvage standards. Essentially, the bird should look “fresh” and not show signs of deterioration or being attacked by ants.
Salvagers should take note of important data, including the date and location found. They should place the bird in a freezer bag, write the information on the bag, then place the specimen in the freezer and contact the collection, Voelker said.
“We’ve got people around the state accumulating material,” he said. “If we are not making an effort to preserve bird specimens when the opportunity is there, then we are losing out on a lot of potentially valuable information.”