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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
Composite image of Passenger Pigeon, feather, Great-horned Owl skull, rail drawing, Sword-billed Hummingbird, and Common Murre eggs.
Composite image of Passenger Pigeon, Kori Bustard feather, Great-horned Owl skull, rail drawing, Sword-billed Hummingbird, and Common Murre eggs.
Christina Gebhard © Smithsonian Institution

National Bird Collection

The Division of Birds, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, houses and maintains the third largest bird collection in the world with over 640,000 specimens. Our National Collection, known in the ornithological literature by the acronym USNM (referring to our old name of United States National Museum), has representatives of about 80% of the approximately 9,600 known species in the world's avifauna.

This collection supports scientific research by resident staff and associates, as well as numerous visting scientists. Specimens are made available to researchers worldwide through collections visits, loans, and through our online database.

In addition to the Smithsonian staff, zoologists from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, U.S. Geological Survey are permanently stationed in the division and work closely with colleagues and specimens at the Museum. These specialists focus primarily on North American birds.

News and Featured Highlights

Linking  Sources and Specimens

Linking Sources and Specimens: Dr. Mearns’s Birds

Edgar A. Mearns was an army surgeon and ornithologist who collected thousands of birds for the Smithsonian in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But these specimens aren’t all that remain of Dr. Mearns’s collecting. Here we bring together Mearns’s birds and his field notes as a way to explore the rich context and varied stories behind the specimens in the museum — and the collectors who carefully preserved these materials for research and education. Read more...

Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon

Centenary of Passenger Pigeon’s Extinction

Martha, the last living individual of the Passenger Pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. To honor the centenary of her death, we have placed her back on exhibit and scheduled special programming, and we offer new 360 degree imagery of her here. Read more...

PDF of Great Gray Owl Invasion

Historic invasion of Great Gray Owls ended in starvation

The most spectacular irruptive migrations observed among Holarctic birds are arguably performed by the Great Gray Owl, a rare resident of boreal forests. The largest invasion since the 1830s occurred in 2005 when more than 5,200 individuals were recorded in Minnesota. Analyses showed that as many as one third of the individuals killed in vehicle collisions was emaciated and near starvation. Read more...

PDF of Specimen-Based Modeling, Stopping Rules, and the Extinction of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.

Extinction of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

The reported rediscovery in 2004 of the presumably extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas triggered a multi-year effort of search activities funded by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, NGOs, state conservation agencies, and birders. Millions of dollars were spent in the unsuccessful to find the woodpecker in its historical range the United States. Should more money and manpower be invested in the search? A recent paper published in Conservation Biology suggests that the Ivory-bill survived no later than the 1950s. Read more...

Bird Division Hall of Fame

Bird Division Hall of Fame

Who were the Smithsonian historical 'movers and shakers' in Ornithology? In 2011, Museum Specialist, Christina Gebhard, created a physical gallery in the Division of Birds to honor these individuals, and now it's available online.

Bird Division Hall of Fame

How do you identify a bird from a feather?

Zoologist Carla Dove explains in this Ask Smithsonian video how the microscopic structure of a bird's feather can help identify the species and at the same time, make air travel safer for humans.

Honeycreeper Family Tree

Phylogeny of the Hawaiian Honeycreepers resolved.

The Hawaiian Honeycreepers are one of the most strikingly diverse and endangered bird families in the world. Learn how Smithsonian researchers were able to solve the riddle of their ancestry and reveal the pattern and timing of their evolutionary diversification. Read more...

Helen James, Curator of Birds

Meet Our Scientist: Helen James

Meet Smithsonian Scientist Dr. Helen James, whose job it is to dive into dormant Hawaiian volcanoes to find bird fossils.

Carla Dove, Program Manager

Meet Our Scientist: Carla Dove

Meet Smithsonian Scientist Dr. Carla Dove, whose job it is to identify the remains of bird airstrikes for military and commercial aviation.