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Nesting Instinct – Outreach

The Nests of Lindsay Wildlife Museum –

This is the third  installment of a three part series on the Nests of Lindsay Wildlife Museum.
Part 1, “First Encounter” tells how the author-photographer first became a part of the museum’s conservation efforts. Part 2, “Behind the Scenes” takes a look at how the nests are collected, categorized, conserved and studied before display.

This final photographic essay is accompanied by the text “Outreach”, an interview with the museum’s Natural History Curator, Marty Buxton.


Naomi Pitcairn: Can you walk me through the creative process of preparing an exhibit?

Marty Buxton: The process can be quite variable, but essentially it involves choosing a theme and tweaking it enough to fit the space available ( little information for very small spaces and more information and specimens for larger spaces) and the audience. Here we usually assume an audience of elementary age students, but sometimes we will assume younger or older. Then we look for available specimens and any special ideas we particularly want to develop. The next step is to research the topic including the specimens and refining it down to labels. Once the labels are written, they need to be edited several times, finally going to others for their input also. The specimens need to be examined to see if any special prep needs to be done. To install the exhibit, we need to assemble background materials such as fabrics, plants, rocks, cases, shelving, etc and fastening materials as well as labels and specimens.

NP: You are the person that calls with questions about insects, spiders, snakes and bats. Tell us about why you love these creatures that some think of as “bad.”

MB: I don’t think I love these creatures any more than many others; I just think they get a bad rap. Often my answer will include education on the role of that animal in the environment and why it should be allowed to live, but I will also include any information on dangers from the animals. I often also include ways to mitigate annoyance from the animals, such as properly sealing cracks to keep wildlife outside.

NP: How do you manage a collection of items that are so fragile and prone to attack from moths, beetles, mold, all kinds of destructive pests?

MB: Sometimes I think the insects are winning. To protect a collection requires careful housekeeping, monitoring, treatment as needed, repairs and vigilance. When we can afford money and space for individual cases that helps a lot. We also need to protect specimens from light and moisture.

NP: Nests are only a small part of the collection you manage. Can you describe to me what kinds of items the museum has and what they are used for?

MB: The collection is used for educational purposes including use in classes, docent presentations, rentals to teachers, students and artists, and for display. It covers all of local natural history. It is also used to assist in identification of found items the public brings in. Often they want to know what they found, if it might be a risk to their family or pets, and what animals actually might be found in their neighborhood.

NP: What’s it like teaching taxidermy? It must take a special kind of person to do it and a unique combination of skills.

MB: I am not sure I am a special kind of person, but taxidermy takes a special set of abilities. The very best taxidermists combine the knowledge of a scientist, the observation of a bird watcher and the skill of an artist. Since the goal in taxidermy is to take a carcass, remove all parts that might rot or decay, replace them with new fake parts and make the resulting object look alive again, this is a huge challenge that takes all the skills mentioned and quite a bit of patience. My volunteers have varying levels of success, but even specimens that are far from perfect make good teachers since we also need items that can be touched.

A lot of the mounts in the museum are exhibited in some really interesting interactions with their environments, the acorn woodpeckers with their section of acorn-riddled tree trunk, the dusky footed wood rat in it’s little bower, the sea otter floating on his back. You and your fellow-creators seem dedicated to more than just educating people on what these animals look like but immersing them in the animals life-styles. That must add to the creative challenges and call for an even wider range of artistic skills.

Of course this presents challenges. Since our specimens are used by many people, they must be quite stable and as easy to carry as possible while showing information about the animal. That means that that “tree” the acorn woodpeckers is on in not solid, but carefully crafted to be as light and durable as possible (no real tree trunk). There are many tricks used to reduce “baggage” to a minimum while showing maximum information about the specimens in these situations. We have learned that sometimes what is wanted is a simple clean animal only and sometimes habitat information is desired. Various poses can assist educators in getting their message across, so we try to have no duplicates of the species in the same pose.

NP: The purpose of the collection, of the exhibits and other educational outreach, how does that tie in to the museum’s efforts to “connect people with wildlife to inspire respect for the world we share?”

MB: All of our classes, school programs, exhibits, animal displays, hospital activities are designed to help the public understand the wildlife around us all and understand that wildlife needs human assistance. While many people don’t realize it, we all benefit from knowing more about wild animals around us also. There is a clear educational mission in the classes, programs, exhibits and live animal exhibits. The hospital cares for such a small proportion of the wildlife around us that they have little direct effect on local wild animal populations, although they certainly impact individual animals. But giving the public a place to bring injured and orphaned animals and learn more about them allows people to care and not get frustrated because there is now something they can do.

NP: The entire natural world. That’s a large subject for one person to be an expert on. How does a naturalist manage inform themselves on such a broad topic. It’s one of the most generalized fields I can think of and yet it deals with detailed specifics. How did you get interested? This was not your first career. Are you self educated? Where and how would you suggest a person new to the interest get started? What is the best way for someone to educate themselves about these fascinating topics?

MB: Who is an expert? I am convinced that an expert is someone who knows more than you do and that no one is really an expert. We’re all just at different points of learning about whatever the subject is. I learned what I do know from various sources – classes, books, TV, internet, other people, outdoor experiences, etc.

NP: What are some of the ways you would recommend to people who love nature to enjoy it while learning more about it?

MB: Each person should start with their own interests. If a person likes hiking, fishing, museums, books, TV shows or any other active or passive way of enjoying nature, that is a good place to start. Then start trying to find information whenever they have questions. Self taught is not a bad idea. Then one is learning what is interesting. As one learns more, one often wants to know more and more. If taking a class seems like fun, then do so. If reading books is fun, then do that.

Please click to enlarge to observe the arresting intricacies of these nests.

Left: Spotted Towhee —Taxonomists have decided that the Rufous-sided Towhee is actually two species: the Spotted Towhee and the Eastern Towhee. The Eastern Towhee, indeed, does not have the white spots on its otherwise black wings, although they both have gorgeous rust colored sides, that contrasted with their red eyes, black backs and white breasts make them the flashiest of earth toned birds. Like their duller relative, the California Towhee, they also spend a lot of time on the ground foraging for insects. Unlike the California Towhees, Spotted Towhees nest on the ground, or near to it and their nests are more likely to include either shreds or strips of bark.

Right: Chickadees Are cavity nesters, which explains this nest’s apparent lack of form. They like to start with pine chips on the bottom of their holes and then create a springy cushion of something soft and fluffy like hair, cedar bark, or lint on top. These tiny birds with their big personalities, have always been one of my personal favorites, from their funny calls “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee” that give them their name, to their cheeky willingness to take mixed seeds from a patient hand and then peck it when their favorites are gone.

Last spring we were lucky enough to have a pair of Chestnut-backed Chickadees accept the nest-cam box that we had hooked into our CCTV system. First the male staked the cavity out, sleeping there at night while during the day he would go out in search of a girlfriend. When Mr. Chickadee got lucky, the pair busied themselves bringing materials to the nest, wiggling their round around bodies to form a cup for the eggs. There was the un-enviable process of laying, and then, 2 weeks later, the first hatchling. We watched them, eight in all, eat, sleep and also raise their little butts up for a parent to remove their feces, thus finally explaining to me why nests I found weren’t full of poop. All of them fledged, after lots of practice flying and fluttering inside of the cavity to strengthen their wings. As soon as they are strong enough, the parents then chase them away, thus keeping the species strong by promoting genetic diversity.

Left: Goldfinch — City dwellers can enjoy birds like Goldfinches without attracting a hoard of pigeons or sparrows by putting out thistle instead of sunflower or other seeds. Gold finches have complex and interesting vocalizations and the males  are a brilliant yellow during breeding season. They travel in flocks, and one of the most gorgeous things I have ever seen was a large flock of these tiny, bright yellow and black birds rising up from a green field, dotted with purple thistles. Being seed-eaters, they do not migrate. The males feathers will turn a drab, ochre though, similar to that of the female for half of the year. Unlike the more widespread and predominantly yellow American Goldfinch, the Lawrence’s Goldfinch has a pale gray body, highlighted by black on the face and yellow wings and breast. You can see that this particular female (the male contributes materials but does not build the nest) used oak flowers as well as leaves and grass to construct her nest.

Right: Mockingbird — From the family Mimidae, Latin for mimic, Mockingbirds get their names from their habit of repeating the sounds of other birds, insects and amphibians. One of the ways that a birder can decide that it is not a Cardinal he is hearing, but actually a Mockingbird, is the Mockingbird’s habit of repeating his calls in groups of three. Say, cheer, cheer, cheer, when imitating a Cardinal, peep, peep, peep if a frog. They are a medium sized grey bird but will show  white tail feathers when flying away. Their nests are described as untidy which might imply that this particular mockingbird nest, with its delicate lining of pine needles, is something of an aberration.

Left: Purple Finches —Looking a lot like the, red House Finches, that are partially displacing them, the Purple Finch is a little bit larger and the male’s head is more raspberry red than the orangey red of the male House Finch’s. Like all finches they are seed eaters and so, have strong, stocky beaks, capable of breaking into seeds. The females are a plain speckled brown. Both House and Purple Finches also resemble the House Sparrow, (really an introduced European finch) which has displaced both of the native finches to some extent. Purple Finches prefer to nest in trees in coniferous forests, while House Sparrows nest in small cavities and seem to thrive on junk food, which makes them particularly adaptable to city dwelling.

Right: HummingbirdsNot only eat nectar but need to consume protein, frequently in the form of spiders. Spider webs are an important material in their nest construction as well, which relies on the sticky elastic fibers to hold together a flexible but strong cup of embedded lichen and moss and plant down. As fierce as they are tiny, hummingbirds defend their territories to the death, males often stabbing each other with their lance-like beaks. The flashy bits of color, or gorgets, that all hummingbirds display (a deep, iridescent pink in the case of the Anna’s Hummingbird) are semaphores of love, as the photos of Douglas Morgan clearly illustrate.

Hummingbirds legs are small and weak. They cannot walk or hop, only kind of shuffle sideways along branches, and they court in the air, with impressive flying dances. They are one of the only birds that can fly backwards, as well as forwards and I have been entertained, more than once by a hummingbird flying circles around an increasingly annoyed hawk zapping at him from all directions.

Above Left: Stellar Jay, Right: Scrub Jay— As I have already mentioned in my earlier nest articles, Jays are intelligent birds who form close family bonds, evident in the distress they expressed when my cat, Bubba, caught and killed one the other day. I try to keep Bubba inside for this reason. As charming as Bubba is, and as much as he likes to kill birds, I love the native California birds as much as I love him, and house cats are one of the most serious threats to many species survival, especially ground nesting birds like road runners, quail and warblers. Several organizations including American Bird Conservancy have endorsed programs that aim to encourage cat lovers to keep their pets inside. Not only this better for the birds, but ironically, cats can actually fall prey to hawks and owls as well as hit by cars or contract diseases and parasites. Bubba clearly does not agree with me, but I do my best to thwart the murderous and occasionally foolhardy expeditions that he clearly enjoys so much.


  1. Mona Houghton says:

    sending these to my birder buddies.

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