Last year, a mysterious collection of stuffed birds was found at the Laramie high school. It was a discovery that was perplexing at the time, but that would end up being a goldmine for scientists at the University of Wyoming.
It all started last summer, when a biology teacher was packing up her classroom to move to a new building. In the process, she came across some boxes of stuffed birds.
Nobody at the school knew anything about them, and none of the teachers wanted them. So they offered them to the University of Wyoming.
“I’ve heard this before,” says Brian Barber of UW’s Biodiversity Institute. “I’ve worked with museums for almost 15 years now. And usually when someone calls and says they have some specimen they want to donate to the museum, it’s invariably something like some piece of a deer in a shoebox.”
In other words, useless from a scientific perspective.
But when Barber went out to the high school to take a look, he was in for a big surprise. A pile of cardboard boxes awaited him, and when he opened one, he says, it was “kind of like Christmas.”
This wasn’t some piece of a deer in a shoebox. This was a whole bird, stuffed, mounted, and in remarkably good shape.
As Barber opened box after box, he got more and more excited.
“We just kept finding more and more of these,” he said. “There were ducks and falcons and even small passerines like robins and bluebirds.”
And what was truly exciting was that each of these specimens came with a bunch of information. Whoever had prepared them had painstakingly recorded all sorts of details about where and when the birds were found, their sex, how big they were, etc.
“That’s very valuable for us from a research perspective,” Barber says, “because this serves as a voucher. This is a real, tangible piece of data that says this animal was found here at this locality at this time and place.”
It’s kind of like finding a driver’s license on a dead body. It gives you real, solid information about what you’re looking at. And when you have that kind of information, a specimen becomes more than just a stuffed bird; it becomes something you can actually use for science.
For example, one of the birds in this collection was a ruby-throated hummingbird, a bird that doesn’t usually exist in this area. Without the information attached to it, you might assume it was collected somewhere else, hundreds of miles away. But because it was carefully labeled, you know that this bird really was here, at a specific point in time.
Suffice it to say, this collection was a wonderful find. And Barber was more than happy to take it back to the university.
He was still baffled though. Who was the mysterious benefactor who had collected all these birds?
Finally, one day, he got his answer. Completely by accident.
It happened because a woman named Diane Trotter was taking a tour of the Biodiversity Institute, saw the birds sitting out on a table, and recognized them.
“I said, ‘Where did these come from?’” Trotter recalls. “And the gal doing the tour said, ‘Yeah, we got these from the high school.’ I said, ‘You have got to be kidding. This is my dad’s collection.’”
Sure enough, Trotter is the daughter of the man behind the bird specimens.
Her father, Dave Tyndall, is a former biology teacher. He still lives in Laramie, and he made the collection back in 1964.
It all started because he had convinced the high school to let him create – and teach – a new upper-level biology class. But he didn’t have any materials for that class – not even textbooks. So he decided to make a bird collection, to use as a teaching aid.
“I’d shoot the bird, and skin it, and treat the hide, and then stuff it with clean old mattress stuffing that I’d get out at the dump,” Tyndall says, adding that he prepared the birds at his house, skinning most of them on the kitchen table.
Tyndall collected and prepared more than 100 birds that summer, and he used them in his classes for the rest of his teaching career. But after he retired, they got packed away into a storage room.
Now that UW has them, the specimens are housed in a slick, modern facility on campus. Brian Barber says they’re already being used to teach undergrads. And they could be valuable from a research perspective, as well.
With the use of fancy DNA technology, specimens like this could help scientists figure out how different species are related, or how bird populations have changed over time.
And down the road, Barber says, researchers could find even more uses for them – things we can’t even imagine now.
“We don’t always know what the future holds as far as research,” Barber says. “So we collect specimens under the idea that technology will improve and somebody in the future, hundreds of years from now, or maybe some kid in fifth-grade class right now, will be able to do some analysis that we never imagined.”
If that happens, Dave Tyndall’s collection – birds that were prepared one summer on a kitchen table – could help unlock scientific secrets decades or centuries down the road.
The original version of this story first aired on Out There, a podcast hosted by Willow, which explores big questions through intimate stories in the outdoors. You can find it at OutThereShow.com, or wherever you get your podcasts.