- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) - In a dark-green room infused with the scent of moth balls, Randolph College Biology Professor Doug Shedd pulled out a crown jewel among the school’s natural history collections.

It’s a Carolina parakeet, a unique, tropically-colored North American bird that’s been extinct since the early 20th century.

“They were, up through the beginning of the 1800s, a very common species, even up through Virginia,” Shedd said. He explained the fruit-eaters flew in flocks and were known to circle round to check on a downed flock mate - not so great when dealing with gun-toting humans.

This particular bird, shot in 1893, is one of about 300 avian specimens recently given to the college by Toni Piggot, daughter of noted wildlife illustrator Walter A. Weber.

The gift enriches the school’s Natural History Collections Project, an enterprise born of the hard work and vision of former student Emily Smith, now natural history collections manager.

All told, the natural history collections house 30,000 specimens, including 15,000 plants. They’ve got everything from rocks to rodents, and human remains from the 6th century.

She explained some parts of the collections date back as far the beginning of the college. Across the years, different professors would collect certain specimens, but the various collections remained apart and often unorganized.

“Nobody made comprehensive lists of anything which I find hilarious because it’s scientists,” she said.

Smith set out as a student almost three years ago to try and bring the collections together.

Soon, Smith recruited the help of other students for what turned into an epic undertaking of inventorying, cataloging, photographing and publishing records online. Today, she is paid for her work and has the help of roughly 30 students per semester.

“This is like the coolest place ever, so obviously you are going to get a lot of people,” said student Danielle Ochoa, a junior and Spanish major who has been helping with the insects. “The other day I was like, ‘I’m going to treat myself to three hours working here.’”

Smith and Shedd said they’d known for a while what Piggot had in her possession based on reputation. Weber was, at one time, the staff illustrator for National Geographic magazine and he used specimens from his collection to inform his drawings.

Some of the birds he collected himself and others, such as the Carolina parakeet, he acquired from other collectors. The bulk of his collection went to Sweet Briar College but Piggot held about 300 specimens, including some of her father’s favorites.

Shedd and Smith got to know Piggot and helped her become acquainted with their efforts. This summer, she gave them the birds.

The Weber collection, like Randolph’s other bird specimens, resides in big metal filing cabinets. To show it off, Shedd pulls out various wooden shelves, each with its own array of birds.

There’s a drawer for shore birds and another for falcons. All the Weber specimens are stuffed so that they lie flat.

One of Shedd’s favorites is the loggerhead shrike, a hook-beaked gray songbird about the length of a man’s hand from head to tail. The loggerhead shrike, he said, is a predator without talons. After it kills a small bird or rodent, the shrike often impales them on the thorns of bushes - hanging them up before devouring them.

Students have completed an inventory of the Weber collection, but there’s plenty of work ahead in terms of cataloging everything and getting it online. Collections like this have value not just for student learning but for various types of scientific and historic research, including population genetics based on DNA testing.

Shedd said he feels part of the attraction for students who work on the Randolph Natural History Collections is they understand the purpose behind their work.

“It’s not an assignment,” he said. “It’s real and it’s important, it matters scientifically, it matters from the perspective of conservation. It just matters.”

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Information from: The News & Advance, https://www.newsadvance.com/


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