National Treasure: Townsend’s birds
Bird specimens gathered during an illustrious expedition nearly two centuries ago only grow more valuable to science
IN MAY 1835 IN Willamette Falls, Oregon, an eager young Philadelphia naturalist named John Kirk Townsend collected a female California condor. It’s one of the oldest specimens among the Smithsonian’s 625,000 preserved bird skins, the third-largest collection in the world. A bouquet of tags attached to the condor’s legs, along with the original label in Townsend’s copperplate handwriting, shows it has become only more valuable to science over the decades.
Every natural specimen is full of information about the time and place from which it came, but it also suggests a story about the people who discovered or collected it. Townsend’s condor, as well as more than 130 other bird specimens that he pre