Evolutionary Biology

What are the feathers in those Amazonian headdresses?

Working at the Field Museum, I get to see some pretty special things. Whether it's because of rarity, antiquity, or something that's just plain weird, the museum provides surprises in abundance. Today was one of those days where routine gave way to surprise when Dylan Lott, a graduate student in Anthropology at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC), showed up needing help identifying feathers. These weren't just any feathers, they were feathers attached to incredible artifacts that a UIC professor had collected from an Amazonian tribe called the Parintintin in the late 1960s.

Things seen in the Bird Division #8 (or: A once-sacred ibis)

This taxidermied specimen of Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) has been on display the Field Museum's Ancient Egypt exhibit for about 27 years. Indeed, its name derives from the fact that ancient Egyptians considered the birds sacred (ironically, Sacred Ibis no longer occurs in Egypt). The exhibit's department decided it was time to do some repairs. It needs some clever work to make it look just right again; that's the job of Chief Preparator Tom Gnoske.

Things seen in the Bird Division #7 (or: Same bird, different stripes)

As long as the bird that we know as Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) has existed, they've had a charming yellow stripe across the tip of their tail. The yellow pigment actually comes from carotene in their fruit diet, and that diet has been changing as humans have brought different fruit-bearing trees into their native range. Now, a small percentage of Cedar Waxwings have orange tail tips instead of yellow, probably the result of eating certain types of non-native honeysuckle berries when their tail feathers are developing.

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