Living birds are warm-blooded vertebrate animals that have:

  • feathers
  • forelimbs modified as wings
  • scales on their legs and feet
  • a bill without teeth
  • lay hard-shelled eggs

The Australian Museum has one of the largest ornithological collections in the Southern Hemisphere. A recent count puts the total specimen count for the bird collection at 90,000 registered specimens, including 360 Type specimens, all of which are stores both onsite at the museum in the Sydney CBD and at the Castle Hill Discovery Centre. The collection contains a large variety of bird skins, mounts, skeletons, eggs, nests, spirit specimens and tissue samples, representing approximately 95 percent of the world's bird families and 75 percent of all living bird species.

While the main emphasis is on species from New South Wales, almost all species that breed in Australia are well represented. The collection also contains around 3,500 non-Australian species, many of which hail from New Guinea, New Zealand, the south-west Pacific. The collection has great historical and scientific significance. It contains many rare, endangered and extinct species plus a significant number of Type specimens, primarily from Australia and the Pacific Islands. As many specimens date from the mid-1860s, some even earlier, the collection affords us an insight into avian biology, morphology, anatomy and geographical distributions over time. The Australian Museum’s egg collection is very large, rivalling other large world collections like the American Museum of Natural History.

The collection is historic and dates back to the inception of the AM. Important collectors or figures associated with the collection include G. Krefft, AJ North, G. Masters, EP Ramsay (Dobroyde Collection), E. Troughton and FG Waterhouse; notable Scientific officers and Collection staff include T. Iredale, JA. Keast, KA Hindwood, J. Disney and WE Boles.


Collection highlights

Some of the most important specimens in our collection are the types. Types are original specimens on which the first description of a particular species or subspecies is based. We hold about 340 type specimens of birds across around 180 taxa. Most of them are Australian species; for example, the skin of a Princess Parrot (Polytelis alexandrae) that John Gould used when originally describing this species. Other types are species that were collected in the Pacific Islands, such as the holotype of the New Britain Kingfisher (Todiramphus albonotatus).


The Birds of Australia : in seven volumes / by John Gould.

The Princess of Wales Parrakeet Polytelis Alexandrae The Birds of Australia 1840 to 1848

Image: Leone Lemmer
© Research Library

Many specimens have a special place in history, such as more than 700 Antarctic birds and eggs collected by Douglas Mawson and his team on their historic Antarctic expedition (1911-14). These range from large King Penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) to dainty Wilson's Storm-petrels (Oceanites oceanicus).


King Penguin Aptenodytes patagonicus

This King Penguin and egg were collected by Sir Douglas Mawson, as part of his Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911–14. These biological specimens are scientifically invaluable as they are some of the earliest from the region and provide comparisons to current populations. The penguin was found on Macquarie Island, a subantarctic island located between Australia and Antarctica, and is one of more than 700 specimens of birds and eggs that Mawson and his team collected during their research trip.

Macquarie Island

Collected on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911–14 Registered 1914

AM ornithology Collection

o22034

Penguin

96 (long) x 25 (wide) x 13 (deep) cm

Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

King Penguin Aptenodytes patagonicus

The King Penguin is the second- largest of all penguin species, standing at 70–100 centimetres tall, and weighing up to 16 kilograms. It has an unusually long breeding cycle and lays one egg each year, which is incubated by both parents in shifts that last for several days.

Macquarie Island

Collected on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911–14 Registered 1914

AM Ornithology Collection

o22144

Egg

9.3 (high) x 7 (diameter) cm

Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

S_1364_Pagodroma_nivea_skel_labels
Australian Antarctic Expedition 1912-1913 specimen S.1364 (Pagodroma nivea). Collection and preparation referenced in C.F. Laseron's Collecting Notes. Image: -
© Australian Museum

Among the extinct species is the beautiful Paradise Parrot (Psephotus pulcherrimus), which holds the dubious distinction of being the only Australian mainland bird to have become extinct since the arrival of Europeans. Of the 12 Paradise Parrot specimens in the collection, one of the most beautiful is a mounted specimen in a glass dome, presented to the Museum by the estate of Sir Edward Hallstrom.


Paradise Parrot Psephotellus pulcherrimus

The Paradise Parrot holds the dubious distinction of being the only Australian mainland bird to have become extinct since the arrival of Europeans in Australia. There are very few specimens of Paradise Parrots in museums around the world.

44 (high) x 35 (wide) x 17 (deep) cm

Donated by the estate of Sir Edward Hallstrom, 1970

Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

Other species, such as the Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis), represented in the collection by five specimens, have not yet slipped into extinction but remain very rare and endangered.


A_9308 Pezoporus occidentalis Night Parrot - ventral
Ventral view of A.9308 Pezoporus occidentalis Night Parrot skin. Image: Jaynia Sladek
© Australian Museum

Some birds are known only from a single representative. Captain Blood's Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea bloodi) is the only known specimen of a hybrid between Raggiana's Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea raggiana) and the Blue Bird of Paradise (P. rudolphi). It is named after the collector, Captain Neptune B. Blood, who collected the specimen from Mount Hagen area in Papua New Guinea in 1944. As well as being the only known specimen in existance, it is also the type of Paradisaea bloodi.


Captain Blood’s Bird-of-Paradise. Paradiseae bloodi
Type name: Paradiseae bloodi; Holotype u000dCommon Name: Captain Blood’s Bird-of-Paradise u000dAuthor/ Scientist described: Thomas Iredale u000dDate: 1948 u000dLocality: Papua New Guinea, Mt. Hagen district, Minyip u000dBrief description / story: The only specimen in existence. u000dThe Birds-of-Paradise are undoubtedly some of the most visually stunning birds in the world. This remarkable specimen is the only known hybrid of its kind. Collected in 1944 by Captain Neptune Newcombe Beresford Blood (who served in the New Guinea armed forces during the Second World War), this specimen is a hybrid between the Raggiana Bird of Paradise (P. raggiana) and the Blue Bird of Paradise (P. rudolphi). Image: Abram Powell
© ©Australian Museum

Another example is the Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda). While widespread in the New World, this is the only record for Australia. The bird was collected at the Randwick Swamps in 1848. It was sent on loan by the Museum to John Gould, in order that he could illustrate it for his book series, 'The Birds of Australia'.


PA.8563 Bartramia longicauda (Upland Sandpiper)
The only Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda) to have been collected in Australia. Although this species is widespread in the New World, this is the only specimen of an Upland Sandpiper to have been collected in Australia. It was collected from the Lachlan Swamps in Centennial Park, Randwick, in 1848. The Museum loaned the specimen to John Gould so that he could illustrate it for his book "Birds of Australia'. Image: Jaynia Sladek
© Australian Museum

Some specimens offer a fascinating insight into the lives of birds. In 1903, a specimen of the very uncommon Grey Falcon (Falco hypoleucos) was donated to the Museum. This specimen is of particular interest as it still has the head of its last meal, a Mallee Ringneck Parrot (Barnardius zonarius barnardi), clamped firmly to its leg by the beak. The Falcon had been shot by a farmer in Condobolin, who was no doubt surprised to see that the parrot had not given in without a fight.


O.13172 Falco hypoleucos and skull of Barnardius zonarius barnardi

Falco hypoleucos (Grey Falcon) with skull of Barnardius zonarius barnardi (Mallee Ringneck) clamped onto its leg.

Image: Jaynia Sladek
© Australian Museum

Other peculiar specimens include some of the nests held in the collection. They are arresting due to the manner in which they are built, or else because of the unusual locations in which the bird has constructed the nest. For example, the collection contains a number of magpie nests constructed of wire, a Willie Wagtail's nest built on an old horse bit and a swallow's nest built on the skull of a dead eagle. And this Grey Shrikethrush nest in a boot!


O.74250 Grey Shrikethrush nest in a boot April 2017 BE005

Grey Shrikethrush nest in a boot. April 2017 BE005

Image: vanessa pitt
© Australian Museum