Bird nests in museum collections 1
Feathers and eggshells for conserving genetic diversity
Bird nests in museum collections: a rich resource for research
Douglas G. D. Russella, Mike Hansellb and Maggie Reillyc
aBird Group, Department of Life Sciences, The Natural History Museum, Akeman Street, Tring,
Hertfordshire HP23 6AP, UK
bEnvironmental and Evolutionary Biology and cHunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of
Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK
Data-rich birds’ nests in museum collections are relatively rarely used in ornithological research but can be
valuable sources of scientific data. Materials, architecture, artefacts of utilisation and preserved nest fauna
all combine to make museum nest collections potentially excellent behavioural archives. Over recent years,
the Natural History Museum, Tring, and the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow, have cooperatively developed
their respective collections to deliver a combined research resource that is international in scope, increasingly
taxonomically representative and rich in time-series of nest specimens for British breeding species. Here
we review the role of museum nest collections in furthering avian research and explore how new research
techniques may potentially provide exciting opportunities. We also consider collection development and how
collections might be better tailored to the needs of avian biology researchers.
Keywords: bird nests, museum collections, artefacts
AVIAN BIOLOGY RESEARCH 6 (2), 2013 1–5
Data-rich bird nests are found in many major natural
science collections worldwide but continue to be relatively
underused in a research context. The reasons for this are
unclear, especially as avian nests can provide a wealth
of opportunities to investigate temporal and geographic
phylogenetic traits of research interest. The materials
used, methods of construction, structural changes due
to wear and tear, accumulations of organic debris from
parents and chicks, and/or presence of ecto-parasites all
combine to make nests in museum collections unique,
enduring, intimate records of behaviour.
Russell et al. (2010) outlined how the Natural History
Museum (NHM), London and Tring, and the Hunterian
Museum (University of Glasgow) have sought to
develop their nest collections in complementary ways.
The NHM collections seek to be international and
taxonomically comprehensive, whilst the Hunterian
focuses on establishing time-series of nests of British
breeding species. The purpose of this paper is to show
the current and potential role of museum nest collections
in furthering avian research. Existing research on these
collections has included study of aspects of functional
design such as thermal conductivity, evolutionary
studies and morphometric analyses. Recently developed
research techniques potentially provide new and exciting
opportunities to extract information from nests in
collections. For example, novel scanning and digitisation
technology may afford opportunities to study the structural
design of nests in a non-invasive way. New refinements in
DNA extraction may make nests in collections valuable
additional sources of DNA, both animal and botanical.
We also describe plans to enhance our collections
through engaging with relevant national and international
organisations, and to make them better known to, and
tailored to the needs of, avian biology researchers.
2. NEST COLLECTIONS AS A RESEARCH ASSET
Museums with natural science research collections may
hold two kinds of avian architecture. First, and certainly
most commonly, bird nests (i.e. structures built, excavated
or modified by birds in which eggs are laid, incubated
and hatched); second, and more rarely, other structures
built or modified by birds as dormitories (Skutch, 1961),
within courtship display, e.g. Ptilonorhynchidae bowers,
or as food stores, e.g. sections of ‘granaries’ constructed
by the Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus). It is
perhaps little known that European museums cumulatively
hold a research resource of at least 22,000 preserved bird
nests built by a wide variety of different species (Roselaar,
2003; Russell et al., 2010). The NHM holds ca 4,000
worldwide nests built by 450 species in 71 Families. The
Hunterian holds ca 1,450 nests of 85 British breeding
species in 28 families.
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2 Douglas G. D. Russell, Mike Hansell and Maggie Reilly
The use and development of museum nest collections
is certainly not new. The eminent British ornithologist
John Gould (1804–1881) built up a data-rich nest
collection in the late 1830s – 1840s to aid him in writing
his landmark work on Australian birds (Figures 1 and
2). An early pioneer of nest research using museum
collections was the equally eminent American naturalist,
Thomas Mayo Brewer (1814–1880). Brewer (1878) used
museum nest collections in studying adaptive processes
and intraspecific variation in nest architecture, a subject
about which we still know relatively little.
Some European museums simply hold localised series
of data-rich examples of nests built by Palaearctic taxa,
but some larger European institutions, such as the NHM,
additionally hold important series of nests collected in
other biogeographic regions (e.g. Afrotropic, Indomalaya,
etc.). Yet representation in many museums is undoubtedly
idiosyncratic and incomplete as collectors (museums?)
rarely set out to develop comprehensive nest collections.
However, both the NHM and Hunterian nest collections
continue to be actively developed; an overview of the
history and development of both collections and a
synopsis of the extant nest resource in Europe is provided
in Russell et al. (2010).
3. USES OF NEST COLLECTIONS
Data-rich nest collections provide research possibilities
and, specifically, the ability to study multiple dimensions
of information in nesting bird biology. Museums provide
opportunities to describe and investigate temporal and
geographic, inter- and intra-species differences in nest
construction in differing habitats and climates.
Questions of bird behaviour
A number of studies have used built structures as
taxonomic characters, with or without other characters to
construct phylogenies. Lanyon (1986, 1988) and Hansell
(2000) found that attaching nest design differences to
phylogenies established on other characters provides
evidence of flexibility of behaviour through evolution.
Clayton and Harvey (1993) identified nest building as
‘an excellent candidate for large-scale phylogenetic
analysis, possibly across all birds, thereby unravelling the
evolutionary development of a particularly complicated
behavioural process’. Similarly, Winkler and Sheldon
(1993) examined swallow and martin phylogeny via nest
Such analysis is not restricted to nests and can be
applied to bowers. For example, Kusmierski et al.
(1997) examined the evolution of bower diversity in
Ptilonorhynchidae by fitting the bower structure to a
molecular-based phylogeny. A few years later, after
Zyskowski and Prum (1999) commented on the evolution
of nest diversity in the Furnariidae based on museum nest
collections, Sheldon and Winkler (1999) revisited the
topic to give an overview of nest architecture and avian
systematics. Indeed research on this topic is on-going
and the nest collection at Natural History Museum of
Denmark is currently being used for similar purposes (J.
Fjeldså, personal communication).
Nests have, therefore, clearly contributed to studies
on behavioural radiation and speciation. However, there
is potentially a problem with ‘end product’, in this case
the completed nest, as a behavioural measure since it
only contains limited information on the total behaviour
Figure 1 NHMUK N/18126.96.36.199 Nest of Grey Butcherbird
(Cracticus torquatus cinerea; Gould, 1837). Collected on
Monday 8 October 1838 in Van Diemen’s Land [Tasmania],
Australia. Gould Collection © NHM.
Figure 2 NHMUK N/18188.8.131.522 Nest of Fuscous Honeyeater
(Lichenostomus f. fuscus; Gould, 1837). Collected in May 1849
by the naturalist John MacGillivray of H.M.S. Rattlesnake at
Moreton Island, south-east Queensland, Australia. © NHM.
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Bird nests in museum collections 3
needed to complete it (Stuart and Hunter, 1998; Hansell,
Researching function in nests often requires precise
identification of the components (often botanical), but
can be highly informative. The identification of botanical
material within nests was admittedly formerly limited as
often the parts of the plant best for identification purposes
were not present, i.e. seed heads, flowers, leaves, etc.
(L. Wolstenholme, personal communication). However,
evidence from other fields and impromptu experimentation
at the NHM has demonstrated that DNA can be obtained
from a variety of dead plant materials, including preserved
nests. The extraction of ‘ancient’ DNA has become routine
in the study of sub-fossil plant material, archaeological
sites and herbarium collections (Russo et al., 2008; Lister
et al., 2010; Sebastian et al., 2010; Palmer et al., 2012).
Attachment materials used to secure a nest to its site are
often absent for both suspended and supported nests, but
communication materials (camouflage/advertisement) can
be examined in museum nests to illustrate and examine
variation in use of materials with signal function. Sergio
et al. (2011) found that white plastic in black kite nests,
acting as extended phenotype signals, were reliable
indicators of both individual and territory.
Variation in the mechanical integrity of nests can
be examined by studying the use, amount and type of
materials. Certainly, such research will require more (than
what?) detailed descriptions of nest construction but new
technologies, such as X-ray computed tomography (CT
scanning) of museum nests may both prove an additional
source of valuable information and have the benefit of
being non-destructive. This technique has been used
in the study of animal-built structures, e.g. to obtain
three-dimensional images of interior spaces of ant nest
excavations (Halley et al., 2005) and termite mounds
(Perna et al., 2008).
Incubation has been a major topic of avian biology,
pure and applied, with increasing interest in the role of the
nest. Heenan and Seymour (2011) studied whether nests
are primarily designed as structurally secure or thermally
insulated environments for the clutch. Britt and Deeming
(2011) found evidence that in blue tits nest composition is
not stereotyped but apparently influenced by a variety of
Museum nests provide opportunities to explore aspects
of sanitation both temporally and geographically, e.g.
identification of plants with active secondary compounds
in nests, e.g. Clark and Mason (1985, 1988). Museum
collections can be reviewed as a prelude to field and
laboratory empirical studies (Wimberger, 1984). Hansell
recently provided data on 40 species from records made
in museum collections to Aubrecht et al. (2013) for
research into the use of the horse hair fungus Marasmius
as a possible anti-bacterial agent in nests. If possible, it
is also desirable that where research has linked specific
materials, either natural or anthropogenic (Igic et al.,
2009; Suarez-Rodrıguez et al., 2012), with a reduction
in the number of nest-dwelling ectoparasites, relevant
specimens be deposited in museums for future reference.
There has been little study of change in the operation of
the nest from egg-laying to fledging. Many historic nest
labels do not explicitly indicate the stage at which the
nest was collected, but where such data are available,
the operation and integrity of varius functional elements
can be tracked through the nest history and be related
to nest costs; another topic about which we understand
little. Nest records accompanying museum specimens can
supply useful nest development information, as well as
indicating whether chicks were successfully fledged or at
what stage a clutch failed.
The use of tools by higher vertebrates, such as birds
(some passerines) and mammals (particularly monkeys
and apes), has become a model system for the study of
cognition in behaviour (Kenward et al., 2006; Emery and
Clayton, 2009; Fragaszy et al., 2010). Since the same
reasoning can be applied to the construction of nests of
birds and mammals (Muth and Healy, 2011; Casteren et
al., 2012), the comparative study of nest building within
and between species is likely to be a subject of increasing
Non-avian ecological and environmental questions
As we have seen, nests are obviously potentially useful
in researching the taxa that built them, but may also
afford broader research opportunities via the flora and
fauna incorporated within them. A nest is essentially
a modification and/or accumulation of either a single
material or a range of differing materials. Materials
regularly found in nests include animal products (fur,
feathers), arthropod silk, mud, and most abundantly,
botanical materials (Hansell, 2000), but it is notable that
studies which fully document the composition of nests
are quite rare. Museum nest collections can be viewed
as data-rich samples of material (e.g. stems and leaves)
across space and time and consequently materials
included within nests might themselves afford research
opportunities in their own right. Research on nest
fauna is another area of potential interest. Whilst Mey
(2003) noted the importance of bird skin collections as an
essential resource for collecting ectoparasites (especially
chewing lice), nests in collections are possibly another
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4 Douglas G. D. Russell, Mike Hansell and Maggie Reilly
source of ectoparasites for research and illustrate the
potential importance of these collections in disciplines
4. THE CURRENT STATE OF NEST COLLECTION
An August 2012, enquiry by the authors that asked for
examples of contemporary uses of nest collections in
museums was sent via the electronic Bulletin-board for
European Avian Curators (eBEAC) and received by ca
140 staff at 112 European museums in 37 countries. Only
8% of recipients responded, of which ca 60% gave brief
details of limited internal or external research attention
in the last 10 years. Several respondents indicated their
nest collection was used, on occasion, by artists and/
or exhibitions. It is likely that a proportion of museums
contacted did not respond as they do not hold significant
nests collections; nevertheless, this indicates that bird
nests in museums are probably a largely untapped
research resource. The specific reasons for this underuse
are unclear but a combination of the aforementioned
eccentric representation, resource fragmentation, a lack of
awareness of collections in the wider research community
and relative inaccessibility are areas to be addressed.
Our knowledge of nest variation and breeding
behaviour is surprisingly poor, even in some otherwise
relatively well-known, taxa. Even in the Ploceidae,
amongst those families noted for their elaborate nest
architecture (Wallace, 1868), there remain species, e.g.
Weyn’s Weaver (Ploceus weynsi), Golden-naped Weaver
(Ploceus aureonucha), Yellow-legged Weaver (Ploceus
flavipes) and Bates’s Weaver (Ploceus batesi), some with
very large ranges, in which nesting behaviour has yet to
be described. In some cases, perhaps understandably, lack
of knowledge is a result of the taxa being poorly known
or rare endemics, e.g. the secretive and shy Plumbeous
Forest Falcon (Micrastur plumbeus) of Colombia and
Ecuador (Orta, 1994; BirdLife International, 2013). Given
the potential importance of understanding breeding
biology in ensuring successful conservation efforts, this
absence of knowledge is troubling. The dedicated work
of contemporary field ornithologists in describing nests,
eggs and breeding of poorly known taxa e.g. Harold F.
Greeney III and colleagues at the Yanayacu Biological
Station, Ecuador, remains extremely important (Greeney
et al., 2011, 2012). Museums can play a central role both
in assisting authors in writing descriptions and, where
appropriate, preserving cited specimens (or samples of
materials from nests where it is impossible or inappropriate
to remove the entire nest). The NHM recently received
the first collected and described nests of two species,
Margaret’s Batis (Batis margaritae) and Black-chinned
Weaver (Ploceus nigrimentus; Mills and Vaz, 2011; Mills
and Oschadleus, in preparation).
Both the NHM and Hunterian are acting to fully
database their nest collections. Our long-term aim is to
engage with the research community to ensure that the
data contained in museum nest (and egg) collections can
be used more proactively. For example, collections could
complement research data and information available from
established long-term projects, such as the British Trust
for Ornithology’s Nest Record Scheme. The NHM nest
collection of approaching 4,000 nests is now entirely data-
based and will soon be accessible online; the Hunterian
collection is fully data-based and available online via
www.huntsearch.gla.ac.uk. As a research community we
can also consider museum collections in the development
and use of new, innovative, web-based resources such as
PHOWN (PHOtos of Weaver Nests, see http://weavers.
adu.org.za/phown.php). PHOWN is a Virtual Museum,
citizen science project of the Animal Demography Unit,
University of Cape Town, to collect and monitor breeding
distributions and colony sizes of weaver birds globally.
Awareness of, and accessibility to, museum collections
in some sections of the research community is gradually
being improved, but bridging the divide between field
based and museum research will require long-term
engagement, cooperation and consideration of longer
term research needs. To this end the NHM, the Hunterian
and the BTO Nest Record Scheme aim to cooperate
and discuss mutual projects in the future. Increasing
engagement with the research community and researcher
awareness of collections is undoubtedly helpful and
increases utility. Ultimately, there is undoubtedly an
element of serendipity in all collecting and sampling;
there is clearly great research potential in examining nests
in museum collections and their true value is yet to be
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