Aug 15, 2013

Invasive birds in Bulawayo: Then and Now

I've always been fascinated by museums, their specimens and their collections. I've also always been fascinated by history and loss. So I was excited to spend a morning in the depths of the Natural History Museum, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, earlier in April this year.

As a young child (probably too young to be surrounded by so much death) I nagged my parents to take me to the museum far too frequently. As a teenager I'd wonder around imagining all the hands that the specimens had passed through and all the eyes that had seen the living animals before they were taxidermied. You'd think the exhibitions would have changed since then but they haven't. Not even since my earliest memories of the place in the early 1980's.

As an adult I now walked the corridors remembering, reminiscing and thinking about that child who was me. But that's a whole other story... .

What brought me into the catacombs of the museum was pure interest, but I did want to try photograph some of the early collected specimens. It is a sad reality that many of Africa's collections struggle against little to no government funding. This means the museums are poorly staffed and their operations, from administration to field trips, are severely hamstrung.

The following incident illustrates this point well, and also illustrates my fascination with history and loss, as alluded to above.

Walking into the ornithology section, order and meticulousness were not immediately apparent. Neither did they become so. On a side board, next to a plate of chicken bones and a mealie cob lay a great and dusty White Backed Vulture. It was thought to have been collected in the 1950s, but the tags had come off (or not been put back on) so who was to know now? Next to it lay a small brown wreck of a bird amongst its attendant debris and dust.  Soon after, or perhaps sometime during the first world war negotiations had begun between Germany and what was then Rhodesia. The cause of the collaboration was a species of bird recently arrived in Bulawayo bearing a striking resemblance to a native from Europe, the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). I immediately recognised this specimen, despite its poor state, as a female of the species.

The bird's tags said it was collected in April 1913, almost 100 years ago to the day, and belonged to "Museum A. Koenig Nr." So what was it doing perishing in the corner of a crumbling museum? I thought I'd ask. The response was straight forward and matter of fact. The curator had no idea. Nothing else was offered. I asked where she had got it from and she said "Germany".  I needed to be more specific so I tried to ask the right question. "Why do you have it? She replied helpfully that it wasn't hers, it was the museum's, and that museums sometimes collected specimens for science." (Sigh!) "Where did you find it?" I asked, trying not to sound desperate. And then all was revealed. She was sweeping a few months back, she said, and had found it behind a cupboard. Clearly she didn't know what to do with it, which is why it still sat on the side board. I wondered how long it had lain there and if "Museum A. Koenig Nr." had a blank space in one of their 'Passer domesticus' drawers. Trying to find out was too much to bear so I moved off to another section.

On top of another set of collection drawers I noticed a strangely out of place specimen. It was out of place, not because it was a brilliant Norwegian Blue in a dusty African Museum that had seen its heyday, but because this bird was neat and new. It almost sparkled it was so new. I flinched as I recognised it as an Indian or Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis). These birds began to proliferate and spread in Africa, it is thought, after aviary birds escaped in 1902. Fast forward to about 1980-something, where, if you were attending the monthly Matabeleland Wildlife Society meeting, like I was, you would have heard the energetic young Doctor of ornithology, Kit Hustler warning "They're coming. Make no mistake they're coming!", a finger stabbing toward the audience in  emphasis.

And he was right because now in front of me lay one of the first recorded specimens from Zimbabwe, collected from Gwanda about 120kms south east of Bulawayo. Common Mynas have now been declared  by the IUCN Species Survival Commission as one of only three birds in the world's 100 worst invasive species. House Sparrows on the other hand have the honour of being the most widely distributed wild bird in the world.

One hundred years, almost to the day separated the deaths of these two specimens and I wondered. I wondered whose eyes had seen these two birds flapping about. I wondered whose hands they had passed through and where they might be in 100 years time. I wondered what titles their species would hold a hundred years from now....

Then I saw the chicken bones and wondered if it was chicken after all.

On the left, a House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) collected in April 1913 and used to help describe the new arrivals in Bulawayo at about the same time. On the right, another invasive species, the Indian or Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis) collected in November 2012. This is one of the first specimens to be collected in the Bulawayo area and continues to signify the ever expanding range of the species.

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