My journey as a junior curator in the bird collection of DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History

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My journey as a junior curator in the bird collection of DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History

By Mahlodi Tlhako, Junior Curator, Ornithology Department, DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History

In 2010, I was appointed as an education assistant at DITSONG: Museums of South Africa (DMSA). Part of my duties was to present educational programmes and to conduct museum tours to visiting learners and the public. This included guiding visitors through the Austin Roberts bird’s exhibition hall, where I presented a variety of ornithology related information. Furthermore, on several occasions, I would accompany visitors into the ornithology collection rooms for “behind the scene” tours with the curators. It is through these talks and visits that my interest and appreciation for birds grew.

I was officially appointed as a junior curator in the ornithology section at the DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History (DNMNH) in 2020. My initial expectation of the transition process from the public programmes section to the ornithology section was that it would be a relatively easy process to follow due to my natural appreciation for wildlife, particularly birds. Although my journey thus far has been great, transitioning from being a tour guide to junior curator has been a challenging learning experience.

My first impression of the ornithology collection was the large storage rooms, filled with bird specimens. The ornithology collection consists of dry and wet specimens. The dry collection consists of bird skins and skeletons housed in separate collection rooms (Figure 1, 2 and 3). The wet collection consists of avian (bird) tissue specimens and organs stored in preservative alcohol (Ethanol).

In retrospect of my experience as a junior curator over the past year, I have interacted with research visitors, students and authors. Interacting with experts in the field gave me the opportunity to learn more about birds. Some of my duties as a curator include locating and withdrawing specimens for collection visitors. I will also be in charge of a collection and assist with exhibits in the Museum as well as assisting the Public Programmes Department in content development for educational programmes and exhibitions. In addition, I will have to conduct research and fieldwork. It is prudent that I be knowledgeable about bird’s scientific classifications in order to locate specific specimens in the large collections. Additionally, I have to maintain care of the collection, and be certain that the specimens are returned to their rightful storage locality at all times. I also monitor threats to the collection such as infestations and report it to the conservation specialist. 

Figure 1: Shelving storage in one of the store rooms where some of the bird specimens are kept. (DNMNH collection)

Growing up in a rural area, birds are a common occurrence. Some are perceived as nuisance, some are considered as important and others as an indication of time. While growing up, my grandmother used to tell the time based on the crows of the roosters. A rooster would crow in the morning, at midday and in the afternoon. One would wake up to serene bird melodies in trees. 

The first specimen that I observed in the collection was an African goshawk (Figure 4) mainly because I wanted to touch one. It is called Pekwa in Sepedi and its scientific name is Accipiter tachiro. The Pekwa is widely distributed across Southern Africa, south of the Sahara in woodlands, forests, alien plantations and wooded urban areas. During my childhood I would often spot this bird in my home province of Limpopo as it hovered up in the sky looking for prey. Pekwa was regarded as a nuisance bird, as it feasted on chickens. Its presence was always accompanied with screams from the community to deter the bird from claiming its prey.

Although I had previously seen a Pekwa in my home province and on display in the bird hall, touching the actual specimen gave me a different perspective in terms of its physical attributes. The Pekwa has a strong curved beak and it feasts mainly on birds, bats, small mammals and insects (Chittenden et al., 2016).

Having spent the past year in the ornithology collection, and being exposed to the scientific classification of organisms, I now understand that birds are classified according to their physical characteristics using the Linnaeus classification method. In the collection rooms at DNMNH, bird specimens are stored according to the Austin Roberts bird numbering system as well as specifications such as, families, orders and genus. For example, the African goshawk belongs to the order Accipitriformes. Accipitriformes include most known diurnal birds of prey such as eagles, hawks, ospreys, kites, harriers, secretary birds and vultures. These are typically medium to large-sized birds, with strong talons, strong curved beaks and excellent eyesight.

Under the order Accipitriformes, the birds are divided into three families. Hawks belong to the family Accipitridae (including eagles and vultures). The specimens are then grouped into genus and species.
The African goshawk classification can be illustrated as follows:
Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Accipitridae
Genus: Accipiter
Species: Accipiter tachiro

Birds are exceptional species. They are colourful and melodic. I have come to appreciate them more than the stories they tell in exhibition halls. I am very excited about this journey I am embarking on in the world of birds. I am learning daily in the collection and it is indeed a wonderful experience. Working as a junior curator is a continuous learning experience, which I am keen and excited to be embarking on. It is such a pleasure to work with these beautiful specimens and remarkable to have so many of them in the collections. To see and work with them up-close and spend time with the specimens is a great privilege. .

* Chittenden, H. Davies, G. Weiersbye, I. 2016. Roberts bird guide. Illustrating nearly 1,000 species in Southern Africa. 2nd Ed.
* List of Birds of the Waterberg, Limpopo, South Africa. Date accessed. 31 August 2021.
* P.A.R. Hockey, W.R.J. Dean, P.G. Ryan.2005. Roberts Birds of Southern Africa – 7th Edition.

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