In the Hall of Birds

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We’d heard that the Field Museum had redone its Hall of Birds, so we had to see it.

The museum is an amazing, cavernous, somewhat eerie place.  Many of its astonishing holdings were acquired in the early decades of the 20th century, making the museum a true cabinet of curiosities.  The Hall of Birds is no exception.  It contains hundreds and hundreds of preserved birds of all varieties, painstakingly arranged in a way that is at once beautiful, engrossing, poignant, and surreal.

Once, this museum was an almost unvisited place.  It was a collection the public didn’t need.  Rapid planetary change has since increased Americans’ appreciation for what it has to offer: a glimpse of species we would otherwise never see, many of whose habitats are crumbling, drying up, melting, sinking, heating up, toppling; being burned, bulldozed, polluted, eaten up; or otherwise vanishing.  Change in the natural world is giving the museum’s holdings new relevancy.

All the specimens in the Hall of Birds have been cleaned, their displays updated and rethought—over a thousand specimens from all over the Americas and other parts of the world.  There are even birds that became extinct back in the 19th century, like the Labrador duck, a bird with beautiful black and white plumage.

The specimens are so lifelike they’re almost disturbing.  I had to remind myself that even the great naturalist painter John James Audubon relied on hunting and taxidermy for his models.  Looking at these carefully frozen animals is a means of learning.

Some of my favorites were the Eider duck, which plucks down from its own breast to make a nest for its eggs; the petrel (I think it was) that flies the seas without ceasing; and the prairie chickens, once abundant in these parts but growing rare today.

Visiting the Hall of Birds made me glad and proud to live in this city.  I have a feeling I’ll remember it for decades.

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