Museum volunteers Sue Jones and Pablo Donado write:
In these strange days of lockdown, the museum has been trying a new way of working with remote volunteers to describe and transcribe a collection.
One of the many hidden treasures in the Museum stores that needed time and attention was a cabinet of bird nests. This collection was put together by a great nerd (or many nerds?) who noted when they collected the nests, where they were, and often provided a photo of the nest in situ and what vegetation was around. As well as the common name, they gave the latin species name, often to subspecies level, and which book or source they were following. They even usually typed their notes rather than leaving us with indecipherable handwriting (although there are a few notes in the bottom drawer that were either written leaning on a brick, written by a child, or by someone who just broke their normal writing hand – but even these are still quite legible). What could possibly be difficult about transcribing this information? We set about the task.
As it turns out, what is a comprehensive set of notes for collectors is not quite museum standard information. We’re really glad that they described what some of the nests are made of – we could’t quite tell from the photos the difference between fine rootlets, grasses or vegetable down. We didn’t even know that vegetables had down. It is also near-impossible to tell how many eggs are in a nest from just one photo. We solved that by the lovely Matt Lowe (Museum Collections Manager who, when he was in the stores, took photos for us), also noting on his iPhone notepad how many eggs he could see in the nests. So far, so good.
Now given this collector was really good at labelling, there are still a few mysteries to solve.We’re sure that they knew exactly where the elder bush by the hen run in Surrey was that they collected a Linnet nest, but we’re a little less sure exactly which bush that might be. Was that near the goldfinch nest in an apple tree in the orchard in Surrey, collected on the 7th May? We think they must have live in in the South as the spotted flycatcher’s nest (made with string and sewing materials) was “opposite the housekeeper’s window” in Wiltshire, which is a familiarity that we don’t have with many places except where we live.
Then there is the question of the years the nests were collected. We’re sure that the collector remembered which year they were collecting in various places, so just noting “15th May” was all they needed for themselves. But, given that they collected nests in June in Surrey, Wiltshire, Scotland, Cambridge, Norfolk and Northumberland we had to conclude that this was in June of different years. We noted only two objects collected from Lyme Regis – a chiffchaff nest from Uplyme at the “end of May”, and a thrush anvil taken from the nearby Lyme Regis undercliff in 1916 – with fragments of tourist chips still stuck to it from the snail slime – a lovely detail! Can we guess that these were the same, and only trip to Lyme Regis? They also picked up a grey wagtail nest on the 12th May and a wood warbler nest on the 25th of May from the edge of Horner Water in Exmoor – which may be nearby but with a fortnight between those collections, we would guess it was a different trip?
Some records have more accuracy. The yellowhammer nest found “two feet from the ground in a low thorn scrub mixed with the rank growth of the grass verge of a minor road. Near Barton, Cambs. 4 6 22.” is wonderfully precise. Cambridge and the Norfolk coast are particular favourite haunts, but many of the nest records are frustratingly vague or focussed on other details. For example, a spotted flycatcher nest “of soft materials giving no inherent strength, so always built on a ledge or in a hollow. Here the nest was on a window ledge opposite a sequoia sempervirens from strips of the soft bark of which nest is made.” But where and when it was collected is a mystery.
We did note the extreme diligence of collecting nests that aren’t nests. The Rock Pipit was just one. The Little Tern nest which they noted as “no true nest, eggs in hollow in small shingle” dutifully collected and brought home the small shingle to place in a box with a label, and the blown eggs on top. Similarly the Common Tern nest made of bivalve shells, shingle, driftwood and man made inorganic debris. Now forever preserved in the museum collection.
This work reflects the importance of having universal recording guidelines and terminology when it comes to specimens intended to be scientifically studied. As the academic study of the animal world has evolved, so has the way in which information about species and their environment is collected and managed.
Although a lot of the information needed for the correct cataloguing of the nests was missing in the texts and labels of some boxes, it was precisely this that pushed us to do our own research, to try to fill in the blanks. It may not seem so, but this work is demanding. However, if you pay attention, it also provides knowledge about diverse areas of zoology.
This type of project also acts as a window to the past. It is fascinating, and a privilege, to have access to these historical archives; photographs and texts that, through small details, reflect different aspects of society, certain expressions that are not used anymore, allusions to areas and names of places that have hardly changed, and others that we have not even been able to locate…
It seems fitting to end with a final note from the collector, who not so much collected as wrote a mini-biography of a black redstart that nested in Cambridge City Centre: “After nesting in 1936 and a successful nest in the Eaden Lilley yard in 1937, they made a new nest (this one) in a hole in unfinished top floor of Victorian Cinema in 1937. It was found in 1938 close to the new 1938 nest materials typical of those freely available in and on the soot begrimed roof gutters, chimney stacks and top garret window ledges – of the smoky Cambridge of those days!”