A few weeks ago, Laura wrote about the importance of multiple research specimens in a museum collection. This past weekend I prepared a juvenile Western Screech Owl (Megascops kennicottii) that is a good follow up to the previous blog post for two different reasons – the color morphs or variations and juvenile versus adult plumage.
In the case of the Collared Towhees mentioned in Laura’s blog post, plumage differences sometimes are as subtle as the width of color on the neck. With other birds such as this Western Screech owl, sometimes the color difference can be a bit more extreme. Western Screech owls have a few different plumage variations that range from grayish to brownish depending on the location.
If our collection were to only have a few specimens of Western Screech owl, the full range of these color morphs may not be represented. It’s not always clear why some species show a variety of color throughout their range. Perhaps it is due to environmental factors that allows birds to either stand out or blend in better. Perhaps it’s a random genetic mutation that has just persisted over time and has no purpose. We can’t always know the answer to these types of questions until more time has passed and our research collection can provide historical context.
We can also use this specimen to highlight the life stages of the Western Screech owl. Juvenile plumage is often more subtle than their final adult colors.
This provides the young birds camouflage at a time when they are more susceptible to predation. The more this juvenile Western Screech owl looks like tree bark, the less likely it will be spotted by a hungry hawk.
Whether we know for sure the reasons why bird plumage can change over time or over geographic space, the research collection can provide a baseline that tells a story of how these birds have lived over long periods of time. The more data provided, the more accurate the research will be and there’s never any shortage of questions and answers these study skins can provide.
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology & Mammalogy Department