Focus: Fossil Birds - History

As with all of Field Museum's paleontological collections, the Fossil Bird Collection began with specimens from the Wards Natural Science Establishment exhibit at the Columbian Exposition of 1894.   This initial collection was an assemblage of large fossil moas from the Ice Age of New Zealand including a mounted skeleton.

In the teens, a consortium of benefactors arranged for Field Museum to get a collection of Ice Age fossils from the tar pits at La Brea.  This collection included mostly carnivorous species as is typical of the La Brea fauna.   Raptors and scavengers were attracted to all the dead and soon-to-be dead animals trapped in the tar. Another La Brea collection came to us from the Northwestern Dental School in the mid-1950s.  In all, our tar pit collection includes almost 150 bird fossils.

One of the most studied portions of the Fossil Bird Collection was collected by collecting parties led by Elmer Riggs, our first paleontologist.  Riggs was a mammal specialist and spent years collecting in the Cenozoic (65 myo to the present) of South America during the 1920s.  Most of his finds consisted of the mammals he was looking for, but occasionally his team would find some spectacular bird fossils including the wonderful collection of Phorusrhacids or terror birds.  Here is photo from one of his expeditions showing the holotype of Andalgalornis being collected.

In the 1930s, 40s, and early 1950s, Bryan Patterson led Field Museum Expeditions to Colorado looking for Eocene mammal fossils.  Along the way his team discovered a few rare bird fossils to make the collection trip even more valuable.

John Clark, another Field Museum curator specializing in the study of fossil mammals led many expeditions into the Badlands of South Dakota.  He also found a few bird fossils.

A very interesting and rare collection was made by archaeologists from the Oriental Institute working in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.  The Braidwood Expeditions from the mid-1960s collected not only archaeological artifacts, but bone fragments from animals being kept and/or eaten by the early peoples of each site.  This latter assemblage, a "zooarchaelogical collection" came to Field Museum and through it is mostly represents bones from mammals, there are birds in the collection as well.

Some very important Cretaceous birds from Madagascar have been collected by field parties of Stony Brook University in New York, led by Dave Krause.  Through a collaborative project between Stony Brook and Field Museum some of these fossils have been deposited in our Fossil Bird Collection.

One of the most striking collections of fossil birds has been amassed through the efforts of Lance Grande and his teams working in the Eocene Green River Formation of Wyoming.  Lance is quarrying primarily for fossil fish, but once every few years a fossil bird is found.  Because fossils from the Green River Formation are often complete, many of the Green River birds are spectacular.  A couple even include fossilized feathers!