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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department of Vertebrate Zoology

Division of Birds

Labrador Duck
Labrador Duck
Christina Gebhard © Smithsonian Institution
Preserving Tissue Samples
Tour in the Divison of Birds
Christina Gebhard © Smithsonian Institution

The Division of Birds' vast collections of research specimens and library are used by scientists, graduate students and others from around the world. On average we host between 200 and 400 visitors annually. The collection is primarily used for basic research on birds. The collection and library are not open to the general public for tours, general browsing, artistic ventures or other activities that might disrupt the scientific users.

All visitors are requested to arrange visits in advance by contacting one of the following staff members. Visitors interested in North American species should contact Dr. Terry Chesser. Other visitors should contact Brian Schmidt (Point of Contact) at ContactSmithBirds[at]si.edu, Dr. Gary Graves, or Dr. Helen James. Due to reductions in our staff size, we may not always be able to accommodate unannounced visitors.

The Division of Birds is open 8 a.m. - 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Arrangements to arrive earlier or to work later must be made in advance. The collection is not staffed and thus not open on weekends and federal holidays. Long term visitors can discuss the possibility for after hours and weekend access with the curatorial staff.

Visitors are reminded that parking at the museum is very limited or nonexistent. You are encouraged to use public transportation whenever possible. The Metro subway stops at Smithsonian, Archives, and Federal Triangle are within easy walking distance to the Natural History Museum. There are a number of commercial parking garages within 5 blocks of the museum.

Visitors should arrive at the 10th and Constitution Avenue entrance. All visitors to the research collections must sign in with the Visitors Services office located in the Constitution Avenue lobby. From the Visitors Services office a staff member will escort you to the division.

Use of Collection Guidelines:

  • Short-term visitors must obtain a day pass from Visitor Services to gain access to the non-public areas of the building, each and every day they enter the restricted area.
  • All Visitors must sign in the division guest register. Please provide complete information as requested.
  • Handle study specimens with care. Please use paper trays or drawers to transport specimens to the work area. Return specimens to their original location after use.
  • No smoking or eating is permitted in the research collections. Smoking is not permitted anywhere within the museum.
  • Specimens may not be altered in any way without prior permission.
  • Dissections, removal of feathers, skin samples or removing ectoparasites are not permitted without an approved destructive sampling request.
  • Emendation of specimen, case or drawer labels is forbidden without prior permission.
  • Do not leave specimens out after use or overnight. Close cases immediately when not in use.
  • Specimens removed from collection for study for more than two days must have a removal slip prepared and placed in the collection.
  • Please be advised that most of our study skins were treated with arsenic trioxide. Gloves are available for your use.
  • Please turn off lights over work tables when you are not using them.
  • Access to types and specimens of certain rare species is restricted. Please ask the collections management staff for assistance if you need to look at this material.
  • Requests for hand-carried loans must be made at least one day before departure.
  • For publication purposes, the correct museum acronym for the National Museum of Natural History is "USNM", regardless of the label heading. We request a reprint or .PDF file for all publications resulting from use of our specimens.
  • Do not leave cameras, purses, or wallets unattended in a work area, even for a short time. Conceal them in a nearby closet or case. Ask a collections staff member for assistance.

If you have any questions about the use of the specimens or the collections, please feel free to ask the collections management staff. Please bring misidentifications or damaged specimens and labels to our attention. Thank you.

Off-Site Collections

The bulk of our collections are housed at the museum located at 10th and Constitution, NW. However, a portion of the collection has been moved to our Museum Support Center in suburban Maryland. The museum provides a regular shuttle bus to and from the Museum Support Center.

Visitors wishing to examine specimens at the Museum Support Center must make arrangements with our staff prior to your visit, as a staff member must accompany you in order to sign you in and provide access to the collections. Visitors should also plan extra time for their visit to accommodate travel time to and from this facility.

The Museum Support Center maintains strict inventory control over specimen movement in and out of the building through its shipping office. Visitors planning to bring comparative material into the MSC facility must let the Collections Management Staff know in advance. A list of specimens being brought into the building must be presented, along with the specimens, to the shipping officer.

Collections located at the Museum Support Center include our holdings of eggs and nests, taxidermied mounts, and larger fluid-preserved specimens.

In addition, parts of our study skin collection (approximately 11,000 specimens) from taxa in which we have large holdings are stored at this facility. This includes various penguins (Aptenodytes, Pygoscelis and Eudyptes), pelagic Pacific seabirds (Diomedea, Fulmarus, Calonectris, Puffinus, Oceanodroma, Phaethon, and Sula), Ardea herodias and Ardea alba, Egretta caerulea, selected Anseriformes (Cygnus columbianus and Cygnus buccinator, Anser caerulescens, Anas platyrhynchos, Anas rubripes, Anas crecca, and Anas acuta, Aythya affinis, Somateria, and Melanitta), various Falconiformes (Accipiter, Buteo, Aquila, Haliaeetus and Circus), Meleagris, Grus canadensis, Larus argentatus, Sterna fuscata, Bubo virginianus, Nyctea scandiaca, Buceros bicornis, Turdus migratorius, and Agelaius phoeniceus.

For most of these taxa, less than 50% of our holdings are stored off-site. The exceptions are Diomedea nigripes (51%), Ardea alba egretta (53%), Cygnus columbianus (65%), Cygnus buccinator (52%), Anser caerulescens (74%), Aythya affinis (75%), Somateria spectabilis (76%), Melanitta fusca (67%), Melanitta perspicillata (66%), Accipiter cooperii (66%), Accipiter striatus (63%), Nyctea scandiaca (91%), Turdus migratorius (92%) and Agelaius phoeniceus (88%).

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