Mystery bird collection finds new home at Laramie museum
LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — A couple years ago, in preparation for moving to the new Laramie High School, science teacher Erin Klauk began cleaning out old storage rooms in the science wing.
“There was tons of storage, and it was filled with really old, kind of disgusting things,” she said.
She found boxes of old teaching materials and odds and ends gathered and discarded by past teachers — detritus that hadn’t been touched in decades.
“I got really into seeing what was in all of these storage areas, because nobody had looked for 20 years or longer,” she said.
In one room, she found stacks of cardboard boxes, and when she looked inside, she found dozens and dozens of preserved bird specimens. They were affixed to pieces of plywood, legs and heads extended, wings tucked. She pulled the boxes into the hallway and set the pieces out.
“When I laid them out, there was one of every bird I had heard or seen that lived in the local area,” she said. “It was this super-complete collection of really well-preserved birds.”
Some of her colleagues encouraged her to throw the collection out — indeed, the entire building was slated for demolition in coming months — but Klauk demurred. Instead, she contacted Brian Barber, director of science programs at the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute.
Barber came by expecting to find a few random specimens that he would probably take off her hands to throw away himself. Specimens without a date or location don’t have much value for teaching or research.
What he found, instead, was a meticulously gathered collection of local bird species gathered in the 1960s, each labeled with details about when and where it was found, plus measurements. Someone named “D. Tyndall” was named on the label as the collector.
“It was like Christmas for a biology geek,” Barber said.
Like strands of DNA broken apart, people come and go, boxes gather dust, memories fade and knowledge is lost. But a chance discovery in a back room of the 60-year-old high school reconnected a thread by which we pass along knowledge.
A second chance encounter happened soon after.
Barber and Klauk transported all the boxes to the Berry Center, which is home to the UW Museum of Vertebrates. The museum houses a research collection of vertebrate fauna mainly from Wyoming, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains.
The museum accepts reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals, which it preserves either by saving the skeleton or by skinning and stuffing the animal.
Elizabeth Wommack, staff curator and collections manager of vertebrates, said the ideal research collection contains multiple representatives of a species from different locations and time periods. Specimens from 50 years ago with meticulous records, then, are a priceless addition.
“It’s really valuable to have a historic collection like that,” she said.
The collection had some surprising elements. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are an extremely rare sight west of the Mississippi River, and good luck getting a permit to legally take an osprey. Both were part of the group brought to the Berry Center in boxes.
Before Berry Center scientists could integrate the bird collection into the larger museum collection, which is not open to the public, they had to make sure the specimens were free of insects and parasites. So, they laid the specimens out on tables in an upstairs lab room for a few weeks.
“We had to partition them for a while and go through a quarantine process,” Barber said.
During that few weeks while the collection was sitting out in a classroom, Diane Trotter happened to take a tour of the Berry Center. At the time, Trotter, who is now retired, worked for UW Libraries.
As the tour passed the classroom, she glanced through a window and saw a sight that sparked memories from her childhood. She stopped the tour and asked to go in the room to look at the bird collection.
“I said, ‘That looks really familiar. Can you tell me what’s going on here?’” Trotter said.
Informed that the museum had just received a new collection, she informed the museum that this new collection had been made by her father, Dave Tyndall.
“That was unreal,” she said.
Even better, Dave Tyndall and his wife, Connie, still live in Laramie, and they came by soon after to see the collection for themselves. The day they visited the museum, Barber spotted them as he was heading to teach. In his hands were several of the specimens, which he planned to use in that day’s lecture.
“I was taking his 50-year-old specimens, that he used for teaching, to teach college freshmen in 2017,” Barber said.
Dave Tyndall, who grew up in Ethete and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UW, was excited to land a job teaching at Laramie High School in 1959.
“I was very glad because we wanted to live here, and we have since that very time,” he said. He lives with Connie at the end of a cul-de-sac near Laramie Middle School.
His career dates back to a time when the term “new high school” refers to a building on 11th Street that’s no longer standing.
Tyndall started his teaching career with a first-year biology class. Soon after, he decided he wanted to teach an advanced biology class and petitioned the administrators for permission.
He created the class from scratch, incorporating elements of his entomology background and college lab experiences. Students gathered insects from LaBonte Park. They learned how to identify weeds, trees, birds and bugs. They dissected rats and mounted their skins.
Carolina Carter, who graduated from LHS in 1970, said Tyndall was ahead of his time in teaching about conservation and stewardship.
“There was a lot of field work to get you to see and understand nature firsthand, which is a great approach,” she said.
Trotter, who took her father’s class along with her three siblings, said she regularly hears from classmates sharing their memories from that biology class.
“It was all very hands-on, things you would use the rest of your life,” she said.
Tyndall was soon teaching four sections of Biology II, each with about 24 students, a pace he maintained for the next 20 years. That adds up to almost 2,000 students.
After a couple years of developing the class, he decided he wanted a collection of local bird specimens for teaching purposes, something he’d never heard of being at any other high school.
“I thought it would be very worthwhile to make a collection, because there are none,” he said.
In 1964, he requested and was granted state and federal permits to make a collection that would remain at the high school. His letter from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department was signed by state game warden James B. White.
The successful permit requests initiated a project that would consume hundreds of hours over the next year, mostly on weekends and evenings and during the summer.
Being careful not to collect duplicates beyond a male and female of each species, he traveled the region, often with his family in tow, looking for birds.
“They were all collected within a reasonably short distance of Laramie,” he said.
With the 1941 edition of “A Field Guide to Western Birds” in his pocket, he found a bufflehead duck, mallard and blue-winged teal on the Laramie Plains lakes. He found a yellow warbler near the Laramie River. In the sagebrush, he found a loggerhead shrike, green-tailed towhee and prairie falcon.
He killed the birds using several types of shotguns loaded with bird shot and ended up with 120 species, which he estimated was about half the number that pass through the Laramie region. They were as small as a hummingbird and as large as a Canada goose.
When he came across a dead cow in the Laramie River while fishing one day, he collected a turkey vulture that was feeding on it. Its bald head was covered with an oily substance, and it reeked.
“It smelled so bad I couldn’t bring it in the house,” he said.
He could only work on skinning and mounting the vulture in short bursts because of the smell. When he was done, he left it outside in the sun until smell was gone. In the same way, sunlight kills bacteria on the birds’ heads after they eat carrion, he said.
When preparing the specimens, he skinned them, cleaned them with Borax, stuffed them and mounted them on plywood with a label. He got stuffing for free by pulling it from old mattresses at the dump. As he worked, he spread the specimens across the house. By his recollection, his wife never complained.
“My table ended up with birds being mounted on it,” Connie said, laughing.
After a year of collecting, Tyndall decided he had enough species to use in class. Students learned to identify their physical characteristics, habits and preferred habitat. For some species, such as the meadowlark, he made students learn the bird’s song. Students were under strict orders not to touch the birds themselves, just the plywood they were mounted on.
“I really enjoyed teaching the kids about birds because it’s a lifelong pleasure,” he said. “There are no age restrictions, and there’s very little equipment needed.”
Carter, his former student, who now lives in Virginia, said she borrowed Tyndall’s hands-on style for teaching scientific thinking when she later taught overseas.
“Those were skills he developed — learning to observe, coming to conclusions and then trusting the conclusions that you come to,” she said.
She still remembers his care in preparing the collection and the experience of holding the specimens in her hands.
“It’s so important that more people learn and understand and get close to seeing real birds, so that you can really appreciate them,” she said.
When Tyndall retired in 1984, he left the collection at the high school, as required by his permits. Thirty years later, it had been forgotten in a storage room.
“We had no idea what had happened to it,” Connie said.
By the time it arrived at the Biodiversity Institute, some of the pieces were beyond repair from their decades in cardboard boxes. Most, however, are now part of the vertebrae museum.
Barber uses museum specimens regularly for teaching, as they’re are useful for learning species identification and about structural features such as bills, feet and feathers. He brings them to ornithology classes and natural history seminars. Art students use them to make sketches.
“There’s a lot of field guides and you can see pictures, but nothing beats having something in your hand and being able to physically look at it and compare things side by side,” he said.
In addition to teaching, Tyndall’s collection has value for scientists. That ruby-throated hummingbird he collected is likely the only record of the species in this area, for example.
And back when Tyndall collected his birds, he didn’t know that 60 years later, scientists would be able to extract DNA from a feather clipping and use it to learn where a species migrated and what it ate. Who knows what technology will come along in another six decades?
“That is one of our tools in defense of collections,” Barber said. “Why keep acquiring specimens? We don’t know what we’ll be able to do in 15 years.”
Tyndall’s specimens are stored on a series of shelves in a bright, climate-controlled room. During a recent visit to see them, he and Barber traded birding stories as two scientists speaking the same language.
“I’m very pleased that they’re going to be preserved,” he said.
Information from: Laramie Boomerang, http://www.laramieboomerang.com