Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Walrus as you Never Knew Him

Conrad Gessner's Walrus. 1558. Historia Animalium.

Conrad Gessner desired to reconcile ancient knowledge about the animal kingdom with the modern discoveries of the Renaissance. This endeavor spurred him to produce his magnificent Historia Animalium, a work synonymous with the beginning of modern zoology. This five-volume masterpiece covered the subjects of "live-bearing four footed animals" (mammals), "egg-laying quadrupeds" (crocodiles and lizards), birds, fish and sea creatures, and a fifth posthumous volume on snakes and scorpions.

Compiling knowledge from Old Testament, Greek, Hebrew and Latin sources, Animalium boasts a rich collection of woodcut illustrations - something uncommon in other contemporary natural history publications. Gessner repurposed images from many famous researchers of his time, including Olaus Magnus, Guillaume Rondelet, Pierre Belon, Ulisse Aldrovandi, and Albrecht Durer. Their existing images were carved into woodblocks by craftsmen, which were used to "stamp" the reproductions onto designated pages within the text blocks.

Though Gessner intended to produce an authoritative encyclopedia of scientific knowledge about the natural world, his five volumes do include mythical beasts and fancifully-rendered factual creatures. Many of the more exotic of the species he depicted were based on textual or second-hand accounts, explaining the sometimes substantial divergence from reality.

Case in point: The Walrus.

Olaus Magnus' Walrus. 1555.  
Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus.
Gessner's Walrus comes from descriptions by Olaus Magnus in his work on the northern European ocean: Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (1555). Basing his description on Albertus Magnus' thirteenth century accounts of walrus hunting and reports from two more recent travelers to Russia (Maciej z Miechowa, 1517, and Paolo Giovio, 1525), Olaus recounted the walrus as "a mighty fish, as big as an elephant, called morse or rosmari" that was capable of climbing mountains. The rendering he provided for the creature depicted a beast with legs and tusks in its lower jaw.

Gessner voiced some hesitations about Magnus' representation of the Walrus. Writing that he believed Olaus based many of his creatures on sailors' accounts rather than life studies, Gessner reasoned that "fish don't have feet." Since common wisdom of the day, and even Olaus himself, grouped Walrus with fish, it was an understandable concern. Nevertheless, Olaus was a well-respected authority, with a good family lineage and a travel resume that had brought him further north than any of his intellectual European contemporaries. Thus, Gessner included two illustrations in his work, one closely resembling Olaus' beast and another more recognizable as the pinniped we know today.

Gessner Walrus, resembling Magnus' image. 1558. Historia Animalium.
The inaccurate renderings of Magnus and Gessner's Walrus, and many other Walrus depictions of the time, may have originated in part from confused reports on ivory sources. The ivory trade in China consisted of a combination of elephant, walrus, and narwhal tusks. Practically no documentation was kept regarding the source of the ivory, and while the European ivory trade was more segmented among source types, the Scandinavians, Russians, and Nenets that supplied the western trade did not share information readily. Thus, natural historians like Olaus Magnus likely tailored their depictions to reconcile the vague second-hand accounts they received with the appearance of other animals they knew produced ivory tusks - elephants. Indeed, many other Walrus portraits of the day (such as those by Waldseemüller and Fries) portray the animal in a much more elephant-like manner, complete with long legs, floppy ears, and, in the case of Fries, even a trunk.

Thus, all things considered, though we today may look at Gessner's Walrus and giggle, his was actually a much more accurate representation of the animal than many alternative sources in his time. Despite the factual deviations it may contain, "for an understanding of the history of zoology and a peek at some truly fascinating and five-hundred-year-old illustrations, there is no better historical guide than Conrad Gessner's Historia Animalium." (Ellis, pg. 2).

And, come on, Gessner's Walrus is pretty adorable!

Grace Costantino
Outreach and Communication Manager | BHL


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Latest News from BHL!

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

BHL Welcomes Two New Affiliate Members

We are pleased to announce that the Research Library at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the Lenhardt Library of the Chicago Botanic Garden have joined the Biodiversity Heritage Library as BHL Affiliates. The addition of these libraries not only expands BHL’s presence within the research community, but will also greatly strengthen our library through the incorporation of literature unique to these affiliates’ collections.

The Research Library at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC) holds over 200,000 books, journals, maps, rare books and Special Collections materials pertaining to a variety of natural history fields. With such a rich collection of biodiversity-related materials, and a research staff that already makes heavy use of BHL resources, an active partnership with BHL was a logical step for NHMLAC.

“I was very excited to attend the BHL Life and Literature meeting in Chicago a few years ago and realize that so many librarian and other colleagues of similar institutions were there,” said Richard Hulser, Chief Librarian of the NHMLAC Research Library. “I believe participation in BHL will help heighten awareness of NHMLAC unique resources to a wider audience and enable my institution to contribute to the exciting new digital library and big data initiatives currently transforming the study of natural history.”

Within its affiliate capacity, NHMLAC aims to contribute missing volumes for existing titles within BHL, as well as other works not yet part of BHL. Hulser will also leverage his existing relationships in the natural history and library communities to help increase awareness about BHL, as through his scheduled presentation for Internet Librarian International in the UK in October 2014.

The Lenhardt Library of the Chicago Botanic Garden holds 125,000 volumes pertaining to gardening, botany, plant conservation, and landscape design, with formats ranging from rare books to e-books. As part of its affiliation, the Lenhardt Library plans to contribute digitized rare books and journals to BHL, as well as missing issues from titles currently in our collection.

“I am so pleased that the Lenhardt Library has the opportunity to share its unique digitized botanical literature with a subject-specific audience of biodiversity researchers,” said Leora Siegel, Lenhardt Library Director. “BHL is innovative, and I look forward to learning more about its offerings and other potential avenues for contributing resources.”

With the addition of NMHLAC and Chicago Botanic Garden, BHL now recognizes four affiliate institutions. BHL Affiliates are institutions or organizations that wish to participate in BHL outside of the membership dues-paying structure. Affiliates can contribute content, provide technical services, and participate in BHL committees, task forces, and working groups.

In addition to its affiliates, BHL currently consists of 16 member libraries. BHL Members may contribute content to BHL, participate in appropriate groups and committees, provide technical services, contribute financial support, vote on strategic directives, and generally help govern the BHL program. Visit BHL to learn more about BHL Members and Affiliates.

We are excited to welcome the NMHLAC and the Chicago Botanic Garden to the BHL family, and look forward to the valuable contributions they will make to our library. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook to receive updates about BHL Member and Affiliate contributions and events.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Happy Moth Week!

Happy Moth Week! National Moth Week is an annual event that celebrates the diversity and magnificence of moths. By partnering with online biological databases, National Moth Week encourages everyone to become a citizen scientist by helping map moth distributions and provide information about these amazing species.

BHL is celebrating moth week by highlighting select species gleaned from one of our favorite BHL books: Butterflies and Moths: Shown to the Children (1910), by Janet Harvey Kelman, with descriptions by Rev. Theodore Wood.

Satisfy all your moth curiosity with free moth images from BHL in our Flickr Moth Collection and books on moths in BHL. Learn more about Moth Week and find out how you can get involved.
Death's Head Hawk (Acherontia atropos)
There are three species of Death's Head Hawk moths, but the European species is the best known. Characterized by the skull-shaped markings on its thorax, these are very large moths, with wingspans of 3.5-5 inches. The moth is capable of "squeaking" vocalizations, and commonly raids beehives for honey. By mimicking the scent of bees, it is able to prowl through the hives unmolested. 

The moth's association with death extends to its name. The genus name, Acherontia, is derived from the river Acheron in Greek mythology - one of the five rivers of the underworld associated with pain. The species name, atropos, comes from the name of one of the Greek Moirai, goddesses of fate and destiny. 

Fun Quote from Butterflies and Moths
"And if you meet with [the Death's Head Hawk], and pick it up, you will be surprised to find that it can squeak quite loudly! Stranger still, the chrysalis can squeak too, and so can the moth ! Indeed, if you pick up a Death's Head Hawk Moth it will go on squeaking very much like a mouse all the time that you hold it in your hand!" (pg 39)
Wood Leopard (Zeuzera pyrina
Though found primarily in Europe and northern Africa, the Wood Leopard was introduced to America prior to 1879 and can now be found from Maine to Pennsylvania. With a wingspan measuring from just over 1 to just over 2 inches, this species boasts a distinctive, fury white thorax with six black spots and Dalmatian-esque black and white wings.

Fun Quote from Butterflies and Moths
"You may sometimes see [the Wood Leopard] resting on the trunks of trees in July and August. Then, if you examine the tree-trunk carefully, you are almost sure to find the entrance to the burrow out of which it came; for the caterpillar of this moth is one of those which feed on the solid wood of trees. The female moth lays her eggs in the crevices of the bark, and as soon as the little caterpillars appear they nibble their way into the trunk with their powerful jaws, and there live for several months, burrowing backwards and forwards, day after day, till sometimes the wood is almost honeycombed with their tunnels." (pg 50)
The Puss Moth (Cerura vinula)
Found throughout Europe, North Africa, and temperate Asia, the Puss Moth has a 2-3 inch wingspan and feeds on willows and poplars. With a flight period extending from April to August, the pupa winters the cold months in a wood-reinforced cocoon. The light green caterpillar exhibits a defensive pose that involves rearing its bright-red head and extendable flagellae on its rear (as seen in illustration). If a predator fails to regard this warning, the caterpillar will squirt formic acid.  

Fun Quote from Butterflies and Moths
"This fine and handsome moth is called the 'Puss,' because, when its wings are closed, it looks rather like a brindled cat. And there are two or three smaller moths which are a good deal like it; so these are known as 'Kittens.'" (pg 79).
The Old Lady (Mormo Maura)
Found throughout northwestern Africa and Europe, the "Old Lady" or "Black Underwing" moth measures about 2-2.5 inches in wingspan. Found mostly near water, it hides by day and is not particularly attracted to light. It is, however, attracted to sugar, and feeds on the leaves of various fruit trees.   

Fun Quote from Butterflies and Moths
"If you were to ask me why this moth should be called the 'Old Lady,' I am not quite sure that I could tell you. But I think the reason must be that old ladies mostly dress in dark grey, or dark brown, or black, which are just the colours of the wings of the moth." (pg 88)

Be sure to check out Butterflies and Moths: Shown to the Children in BHL for more fabulous moth (and butterfly) facts and images. Don't forget to find out how you can become a citizen scientist as part of Moth Week this week!

Privet Hawk Moth (Sphinx ligustri), which will hiss at you if you make him mad.

- Grace Costantino
Outreach and Communication Manager | Biodiversity Heritage Library

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Growing Globally: Digitization Developments in Africa

From left to right: Cindy-Lee Daniels  and Lidia Swart (staff at the Digitization Office, Library Services, University of Pretoria); Gemma Waterston (IA Satellite Coordinator) and Robert Miller (Director of Global IA)
On April 15, 2013, during a ceremony hosted at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) at the Pretoria National Botanical Garden in Pretoria, South Africa, BHL-Africa officially launched as our sixth global node. Working within the BHL consortium, BHL-Africa aims to provide open access to the valuable information held in Africa’s biodiversity institutions. For the past two years, SANBI and the University of Pretoria in South Africa have been working with Internet Archive (IA) to contribute content to BHL through existing protocols and workflows.

In April, 2014, two Internet Archive scanning machines, called “scribes,” were shipped to the University of Pretoria to facilitate local digitization efforts. To help install the machines and provide operational training, Robert Miller (Director of Global IA) and Gemma Waterston (IA Satellite Coordinator) traveled to the University of Pretoria in June. The trip culminated in the successful scanning of the first BHL-Africa book digitized through an IA machine. Scanned in just 40 minutes, the 500-page book represents the first of many contributions soon to come. These contributions will be incorporated directly into the existing BHL corpus, expanding our extensive collection of over 43 million pages.

Following the South African trip, Miller journeyed to Nairobi, Kenya, where he presented to a coterie of our Kenyan colleagues vested in the BHL-Africa initiative. During a presentation at the Louis Leakey Auditorium, Miller highlighted collaborative opportunities for digitization that would allow Kenyan content to be incorporated into the BHL collection.

We are excited about these developments, and look forward to many more contributions from our colleagues in Africa! In celebration, enjoy this collection of BHL images highlighting African biodiversity.

Get the flash player here:

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

From Billions to None: The Story of the Passenger Pigeon

Ohio, 1854. A dense, black shadow begins to creep across the northern edges of the horizon, slowly but incessantly blotting out a bright cerulean sky. Residents take notice, and pour out of their homes and businesses to stare in wide-eyed awe and trepidation at the phenomena edging towards them.

Hours pass, and the sky is hurled into unwavering darkness. Finally, as the day fades, the sun itself succumbs to this nameless power.

Men and women fall to their knees in prayer, begging for deliverance from the Revelational apocalypse. A thundering roar, like the beating of a million drums, assaults the kneeling petitioners, and their fingers turn icy as an arctic gale whips around their bodies.

A lone figure, hunting rifle in hand, stands atop a hill and stares at the pitiful scene before him. Shaking his head, he lifts his muzzle, peers straight and true through his sights, and pulls the trigger. Dozens of shapes, like tiny meteors, break away from the mass overhead and plummet towards the earth. Swinging his weapon over his shoulder in satisfaction, he picks up a burlap sack and swaggers towards the fallen celestial bodies. As he stoops and retrieves one of the mysterious figures, a pair of slate wings unfurls. He stuffs the Passenger Pigeon unceremoniously into his bag and moves on to the next bird.

Mark Catesby's 1754 illustration of the Passenger Pigeon is thought to be the first published depiction of the species. The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. v. 1. 1754.

Ohio, July 1914. A ten year old boy sidles through a mob of men, women, and children ogling exotic animals at the Cincinnati Zoological Garden. Desperate to find a quite haven to escape the crowd, the child slips around the corner and finds himself staring directly into a pair of bulging eyes. Startled, he jumps back, and the eyes tilt sideways in response, as though curious about this new creature.

The Passenger Pigeon amongst some of her relatives. Pigeons and Doves together constitute the bird clave Columbidae, containing about 310 species. A Book of Birds. 1908.
Brow furrowed, the boy takes a timid step forward, mesmerized. What he had momentarily mistaken for the glare of some ferocious predator he realizes is simply the quizzical stare of a rather drab looking bird. Her feathers, ever so slightly ruffled, are an unimposing brown dotted with gray and black. She stands with her back to him, her head facing him atop a neck turned 180 degrees like a broken porcelain doll.

"So I see you found Martha," a deep voice rumbles behind him.

Startled again, the boy turns and finds a gray-haired, mustached zoo keeper standing behind him.

"Martha?" he responds, confused.

"Martha, our passenger pigeon. She's the last of her kind, you know. When she dies, a whole species will go extinct."

Frowning, the boy turns again to look with new appreciation into the eyes of this modest animal. Unexpectedly, he is filled with sorrow. She may not be as exciting as a dinosaur or as fierce as a saber-tooth tiger, but she looks very innocent and very lonely.

A surge of purpose rises up in his chest.

"Can't we do anything to help her?" he asks fervently.

The man shakes his head sadly.

"It's too late. Maybe we could've done something forty years ago, when people first realized they were in trouble. But now, there's nothing we can do."

The boy turns back despondently. She was the very last of her species, and it was too late to do anything to save her. Why hadn't anyone done something when there was still time?

Losing interest in the boy, Martha turns her head, puffs up her chest, and tucks her beak tightly into her breast. She'd had enough of humans for one day.

The Fall of a Mighty Empire: The Passenger Pigeon

Two hundred years ago, the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) was the most abundant bird species in North America. A population numbering in the billions, as much as 40% of all land birds on the continent shared the same genome as Martha. Migrating flocks were so large that they literally blocked out the sky, stretching up to a mile wide and 300 miles long and taking 14 hours to pass a single point. Flocks were so densely packed that a single shot could bring down dozens of birds. The beat of up to 3.5 billion pairs of wings literally created its own cold front below, and those unaccustomed to the marvel feared the end of the world was upon them.

So many Passenger Pigeons would pile into a single tree that branches would snap off or entire trees would tumble to the forest floor. The one in this picture looks to be leaning precariously...
The Birds of North America. 1903.
Nesting colonies were just as large, covering several hundred square miles of forest. A single tree often contained up to 100 nests, causing many to topple over at the sheer weight of an aviary kingdom. By the end of the nesting season, blankets of pigeon droppings several inches thick saturated the forest floors. However, while colonies were staggeringly massive, a mating pair of passenger pigeons produced only one, occasionally two, eggs per season.

The Passenger Pigeon was nearly twice as large as the common city pigeon, with males averaging 16 inches in length and up to 12 ounces in weight. Frames built for speed and maneuverability, the birds could reach up to 60 mph, making them ideal targets for not only hunting parties but simple target practice. The onset of large-scale commercial hunting and railroads for distribution turned a sustainable hunting practice into a frenzied genocide. In 1869, Van Buren County, Michigan, alone shipped 7.5 million passenger pigeons to the east, where they sold for mere pennies.

The dangerous decline of the species was noted as early as the 1850s, but cheap meat and a seemingly endless supply of birds dampened any resolve to implement hunting restrictions. In 1896, a majority of the last wild flock of 250,000 birds were killed during a sporting event heralded as the "last chance to shoot the passenger pigeon in the wild." On March 24, 1900, a 14-year old boy killed the last known wild Passenger Pigeon in Pike County, Ohio.

From billions to none in less than 100 years.

Remembering Martha

Martha is ready for her close-up! The Smithsonian Institution has created a 3D scan of Martha and made it available as an interactive 360 view online. Image author: Donald E. Hurlbert, 6/23/2014. Image copyright Smithsonian Institution. 
Martha the Passenger Pigeon is perhaps one of the most famous animals in the world, for she is a tangible reminder of the human capacity to decimate biodiversity. At nearly 30 years old, Martha, the very last of her species, died at the Cincinnati Zoological Garden at about 1pm on September 1, 1914. Immediately after her death, she was entombed in a 300 pound block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian, where she was taxidermied.

In remembrance of the centennial of her death, Martha is on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History until October, 2015, as part of  the joint BHL/Smithsonian Libraries exhibit: "Once There Were Billions." The exhibit documents the tragic histories of four extinct North American birds: the Passenger Pigeon, Great Auk, Heath Hen, and Carolina Parakeet.

Millions of people have rallied to commemorate the Passenger Pigeon this year, and help raise awareness about endangered species, extinction, and the impact of human activity on healthy ecosystems. The "Fold the Flock" initiative is an effort to recreate the staggering passenger pigeon flocks of the 19th century through origami pigeons. "The Lost Bird Project" has created a film and book to investigate extinction and memory. Also as part of the project, Todd McGrain has crafted stunning bronze sculptures of extinct birds, including the passenger pigeon, which are on display across America.

Join the cause to recreate the Passenger Pigeon flocks of the 19th century with Fold the Flock

Other initiatives like Project Passenger Pigeon, the film From Billions to None, and a multitude of exhibits nationwide are working to raise awareness about extinctions and excite action to prevent future biodiversity calamities.

Finally, as always, BHL is here to help! Find books about the Passenger Pigeon and illustrations of the species for free from BHL.

How Can Historic Literature Help Modern Scientists Save Species?

Male (lower) and female (upper) Passenger Pigeons. As with most bird species, the male is more brightly-colored than the female.
The Birds of America. v. 5. 1842.
Reports, illustrations, and photographs in historic literature and taxidermied specimens are the only remaining record we have of extinct species. Thus, preserving this knowledge is important simply as a means of documenting the biodiversity we have lost. But retaining and providing access to this legacy literature is not just about creating a memorial for extinct species. It's also about helping to prevent future extinctions.

Historical records allow scientists to study the morphology, behaviors, habitats, diet, and breeding patterns of species, which help determine where those species might be vulnerable and inform strategies for rehabilitating endangered populations. Similar information about extinct species, and an evaluation of the circumstances that led to their demise, can help scientists identify threats to similar species. Records of migration pathways and changes in distribution patterns allow scientists to provide educated recommendations to policy makers about the lands and species to protect.

Without a concrete evaluation of earth's biodiversity history, and an understanding of the mistakes we have made in the past, we are doomed to repeat our darkest moments. But just as humans have a capacity to annihilate a species, so have we the power to save one (take the American Wolf, for example). Supporting initiatives like the Biodiversity Heritage Library gives scientists, policy makers, and concerned citizens the information they need to protect life on earth. Take a look at what your donation can do, and we hope you'll consider giving a tax-deductible gift today.

- Grace Costantino | BHL Outreach and Communication Manager

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Once There Were Billions: Heath Hen

To help tell the story of four extinct bird species, BHL and the Smithsonian Libraries co-curated an exhibition--Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America--at the National Museum of Natural History.  The exhibit runs through October 2015 and provides insights into the fragile connections between species and their environment.  If you're not in the area, you can still enjoy the online exhibit or browse digital versions of the select exhibit books in BHL. You can also follow along here on the BHL blog where we're showcasing each of the four species, starting with the Great Auk and the Carolina Parakeet.  This week, we're highlighting the Heath Hen.

Feathered Game of the Northeast. Walter Herbert Rich,
New York: T.Y. Crowell & Co, 1907
Heath Hen: Early Signs of Trouble
During colonial times, Heath Hens (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) flourished among the heathland barrens of coastal North America from Maine to Virginia. Tasty and easy to kill, they were popular among early settler, and their numbers quickly declined from overhunting, habitat loss, and disease.

In 1791, the New York State legislature introduced a bill calling for the preservation of Heath Hens and other game, but it couldn't be enforced.  After the birds disappeared from the mainland, a Heath Hen sanctuary was established on Martha's Vineyard in 1908. The sanctuary was home to the entire Heath Hen population--50 birds in all. By 1915, they numbered 2,000. But when a fire destroyed the sanctuary's habitat in 1916, their numbers dwindled. The last one died in 1932.

Extinctions are often most visible to us when they affect a highly visible species in our communities, especially if there are repercussions for our food sources or income. But extinctions can also have far-reaching impacts that may not be as immediately visible.

Understanding Biodiversity and Supporting Research
One way to foster a better understanding of biodiversity and its significance is to support organizations like the Biodiversity Heritage Library. BHL is a global project that is changing the way research is done, by digitizing and providing open access to biodiversity literature.  BHL makes more than 44 million pages and over 90,000 scientific illustrations--of animals and plants, living and extinct--freely available to scientists and others around the world. BHL relies on donations from individuals to support scanning of the biodiversity literature held in some of the world's most renowned natural history and botanical libraries. To learn more about how your donation supports the continued growth of BHL, please visit  We hope you'll consider making a donation today!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

BHL at the 2014 American Libraries Association Annual meeting, Las Vegas, NV

A number of BHL staff attended the 2014 Annual meeting of the ALA in Las Vegas, Nevada. BHL Program Director Martin Kalfatovic and BHL Program Manager Carolyn Sheffield attended and met with various vendors.

Kalfatovic also participated in a panel, along with Sandra McIntyre (Mountain West Digital Library) and Maura Marx (Institute of Museum and Library Services), "Librarians as Digital Leaders: Collaborating on the Development and Use of Digitized Collections". It was a very well attended session with well over 200 attendees. Kalfatovic's talk was "The Biodiversity Heritage Library: Collaborating Globally, Scanning Locally".

The National Library Board of Singapore (NLB)--one of BHL's Member institutions-- was also represented with an energetic session, Singapore Libraries: Trend Setters in Community Engagement and Collaboration, presented by NLB's Assistant Chief Executive & Chief Librarian Tay Ai Cheng.  The session also provided an opportunity for Kalfatovic and Sheffield to catch up with Stanley Tan, Deputy Director for Public Services who was among a delegation of NLB representatives who had visited the Smithsonian Libraries in November.

Also attending ALA from the BHL family were Kelli Trei (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), Richard Hulser (Natural History Museum, Los Angeles County), Ronnie Broadfoot (Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University), Suzanne Pilsk, and Gil Taylor (both Smithsonian Libraries).

Also attending was the “Martha”, an origami passenger pigeon that is helping promote the Smithsonian Libraries exhibition, Once There Were Billions (in which the “real” Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, and a National Museum of Natural History specimen, has a starring role!). Martha is posing here with comedian Paula Poundstone at the "Laughs on Us" event at ALA.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Once There Were Billions: Carolina Parakeet

At this time of year, those of us in the U.S. often find our eyes turned skyward to admire a brilliant array of colors lighting up the night sky in celebration of America’s independence.  Up until about a hundred years ago, a colorful display of another kind filled the North American skies, and not just on the fourth of July. Jewel-colored Carolina Parakeets (Conuropsis carolinensis) traveled in huge, noisy flocks from southern New York and Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico, favoring old forests along rivers. Although they looked tropical, Carolina Parakeets didn’t migrate south in the winter but weathered the cold.

The Birds of America: From Drawings Made
in the United States and Their Territories
John James Audubon
New York: J.B. Chevalier, 1840–44
As their forests were cut to make space for farms, the parrots were shot for feeding on crops and orchards. Trappers captured them to sell as pets, and hunters sold them as colorful decorations. Hat makers and clothiers prized the Carolina Parakeet’s brilliant plumage, using feathers or entire birds to decorate ladies’ hair, hats, and gowns. In 1886 alone, the hat trade claimed an estimated 5 million birds of various species—victims of fashion. By 1904, they were gone in the wild. The last Carolina Parakeet died in captivity in 1918.

While we can’t bring back the species and subspecies that have gone extinct, we can preserve and share our knowledge of them to help avoid future extinctions. The plight of the Carolina Parakeet is highlighted in Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America, a new exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH).  Co-curated by BHL, Smithsonian Libraries, and NMNH, the exhibit includes illustrations from BHL and specimens from NMNH.  Research on extinct species—and extinction itself—depends on the taxonomic literature and natural history specimen collections to understand the morphology, distribution, and behaviors of lost species. Having access to this information can help scientists understand not only how different factors led to one species’ extinction but also how those same factors may impact other species.

The BHL currently provides access to over 44 million pages and over 91,000 images and is changing the face of research methodology. Scientists around the world are using BHL to identify and classify species, facilitate further scientific research, and support conservation efforts to prevent extinctions.  The ongoing growth of BHL is supported in part by our dedicated patrons whose gifts support the digitization of additional literature, and technical development of the program, and improvement of data curation.  To learn more about how your donation supports the continued growth of BHL, please visit  We hope you'll consider making a contribution today!