The Owl That Fell from the Sky: Stories of a Museum Curator

The Owl That Fell from the Sky: Stories of a Museum Curator

by Brian Gill


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Natural history museums contain many thousands of zoological specimens and each specimen’s tale often involves extraordinary people, daring explorations, unquenchable scientific curiosity, and strange coincidences. This book features engaging pictures, provides rich stories, and unveils the many secrets that have shaped contemporary museums. This is a perfect gift for museum-goers, animal-lovers, and anyone with a curiosity about the natural world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781877551130
Publisher: Awa Press
Publication date: 01/01/2013
Pages: 152
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 6.60(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Brian Gill is the curator of land vertebrates at the Auckland Museum in New Zealand. His research has included studies of New Zealand cuckoos, song birds, and extinct birds. He has also completed field surveys of reptiles and birds on the Pacific Islands. He received the Ornithological Society of New Zealand’s Robert Falla Memorial Award in 2010 and is the author of New Zealand’s Extinct Birds and New Zealand’s Frogs and Reptiles.

Read an Excerpt

The Owl that Fell from the Sky

Stories of a Museum Curator

By Brian Gill

Awa Press

Copyright © 2012 Brian Gill
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-877551-49-9


The owl that fell from the sky

Towards the end of 1955, a man and his young son were driving along a road a couple of kilometres from the mouth of the Haast River in south Westland, a remote and isolated part of the South Island of New Zealand. Suddenly, ahead of them, a bird with a rat in its talons rose up from the road and they couldn't avoid hitting it. The pale bird was so unusual that they kept the body for a few days to show people. Nobody in the small town of Okura where they lived, not even the schoolmaster, had seen its like.

A couple of years after the death of the pale bird, the boy, then fourteen, visited Wellington with a friend and the two of them went to the Dominion Museum to give further details to Dr Falla. Bob Falla — later Sir Robert — was the museum's director, and New Zealand's best-known ornithologist through his newspaper articles and radio programmes. The out-of-town visitors were no doubt a little nervous walking up the hill to the imposing museum building, where they were ushered into the staff-only precinct, but the legendary Dr Falla, tall and lanky, would soon have put them at ease with his broad smile and pleasant manner.

In a back room where the museum's bird reference collections were stored, Falla first showed them some study-skins of the morepork, the common New Zealand owl, which the boy knew. Then came specimens of the larger laughing owl, one of New Zealand's many extinct birds. Finally, he produced a selection of foreign owls, and from among them the boy did not hesitate to pick out the specimen of a barn owl.

Common barn owls — Tyto alba — are one of the world's most widely distributed land-birds, living on all continents except Antarctica. In most parts of the world, people grow up knowing these pale ghostly owls but not in New Zealand: it is one of the few places from which they are absent. The 1955 Haast River bird was only the second ever recorded: one had been shot at Barrytown in north Westland in 1947.

Birds fairly regularly straggle from Australia to New Zealand, carried across the Tasman Sea by the prevailing westerly winds, so it was not surprising that these owls — assumed to be Australian — fetched up on the West Coast. In 1960 a third would be found dead in a disused house at Runanga, also in north Westland.

* * *

An unexpected telephone call or visitor, heralding what may be a rare or unusual find, adds spice to the natural history curator's day. Amid routine interruptions there will sooner or later, and quite at random, be an event to write home about.

In March 1983 Graham Turbott, an ornithologist and the former director of Auckland Museum, rang me to say that a schoolgirl from Papatoetoe in south Auckland had found a strange white bird. She had been walking through the grounds of her school when she had seen the bird huddled on grass under a tree. She had thought it was dead, but then it flew off weakly. She caught it and took it home. However, despite care and attention, the unfortunate bird died in the night.

Graham Turbott brought the corpse to the museum, and when we unwrapped the package on the workbench it was immediately clear it was some sort of barn owl. I had never seen a fresh one before, but obvious at once were the soft pale plumage, the facial feathers arranged in a characteristic large heart-shaped disc, the long legs with talons, and the small, sharp beak. A creature superbly adapted for night-time hunting, with acute hearing and silent flight, it was also beautiful, with feathers of white, grey and ochre, many of them barred or spotted.

From the museum library upstairs we brought down bird books from around the world and studied their photographs and drawings of owls. From the museum's reference collection of bird specimens we pulled out the handful of study-skins of tytonid, or barn, owls. Museums need natural history collections from their own country and region, but representative examples of key foreign animal groups have their uses as well.

We took standard measurements of the dead owl, including the length of the wing, tail and beak, and soon confirmed from its size, and the colour and pattern of its plumage, that it was the widespread common barn owl and not one of the several other species of barn owl that live in Australia. The common barn owl also lives on many of the island groups in the south-west Pacific just north of New Zealand, so the bird's geographic origin was uncertain.

* * *

This was, then, the fourth record of a barn owl in New Zealand. The bird may have flown across from Australia, or from a Pacific island, although this was less likely. Or it could have been smuggled in as a captive and subsequently escaped or been released. However, the girl's father had mentioned a third possibility. The suburb where the bird had been found was close to Auckland International Airport and, depending on the wind direction, lay immediately under the flight path of jets as they came in to land.

The museum's reference collection was not extensive enough to include representative samples of barn owls from the Australian and Pacific island populations against which we could compare the mystery bird and come to a conclusion about its place of origin. The differences between these populations are not dramatic anyway, and the measurements we took, and then compared to published dimensions, were in the region of overlap and hence inconclusive.

I now made a post-mortem examination. By locating the gonads inside the body cavity, I discovered the owl was a male. There was considerable fat around its stomach and large intestine, and a large mound of fat lay just beneath the belly wall. Inside the intestine, along its length, there was merely a paste-like residue of digested food remains. However, the gizzard, or muscular part of the stomach, contained a dark ball of matter. When I teased this out, I discovered a quantity of hair and small bones that proved to be the remains of a house mouse. This was no help to establishing what country the bird had come from, since the introduced European house mouse is found in Australia and most Pacific islands.

In the gizzard, however, I also found a tiny insect head about one millimetre across. I consulted the museum entomologist, Keith Wise, who said this was probably from an ant.

On Wise's advice, I sent the tiny specimen to a curator at the Australian National Insect Collection in Canberra, who was able to identify it as belonging to a species of ant unique to Australia and common in grassy areas in and around cities of the south-east. The ant, presumably eaten accidentally while the owl was swallowing the mouse, pinned down the bird's geographic origin.

* * *

We next approached the New Zealand Meteorological Service for information on wind strength and direction in the days leading up to the owl's discovery. Winds had been strongly from the west and the conditions suggested that a bird at low altitude could have flown to Auckland from south-east Australia in under two days. But even after such a relatively short flight from Australia a bird would be expected to be lean, with an empty stomach, empty intestines, and little visible fat in its abdominal cavity. Given the fat condition of the owl, and the presence of food in its gut, it seemed far more likely that it had been foraging around an Australian airport, had roosted in the undercarriage bay of a large jet as dawn broke, and had become trapped there when the plane took off.

Several types of Australian birds survive cold nights in the Outback by entering a physiological state of torpor: their metabolism slows until sunrise and the return of warmer daytime temperatures. The extreme cold in the jet's unpressurised undercarriage bay may have forced the owl into some sort of torpid state and come close to killing it outright. When the wheels went down three hours later over Papatoetoe, the owl fell out and came to ground fatally sickened.

A taxidermist transformed the owl's body into a permanent dry study-skin by skinning it, meticulously cleaning and de-fatting the inside of the skin and the remaining attached bones (skull, and outermost wing and leg bones), replacing the separated body with an artificial form of the same shape and size, and sewing the skin back together along the incision lines. After drying and labelling it joined 5,000 other bird skins in Auckland Museum's collection, a testament to the important role of the public in reporting unusual finds.

* * *

As a postscript to this story, in April 2008 a pair of barn owls were found breeding in farmland near Kaitaia in New Zealand's far north. The birds were thought to be unassisted vagrants, most likely from Australia. If a population establishes, it will represent the barn owl's colonisation of one of its last unoccupied corners of the world.


The Kaikoura moa egg

One day, probably some time between about 650 and 750 years ago — during the earliest period of Maori settlement of New Zealand — somebody collected an egg from a nest of a South Island giant moa, Dinornis robustus. Female giant moa, much larger than their mates, reached three metres tall in an upright standing position, making them the tallest known birds. (The ostrich, the tallest living bird, stands about 2.5 metres tall.) The largest giant moa are estimated to have weighed well over 240 kilograms and had neck vertebrae almost as big as a horse's, although other extinct birds — such as Australia's mihirungs, or giant runners, and Madagascar's elephant birds — were heavier.

The giant egg was not an easy thing to carry home: it was 240 millimetres long, 178 millimetres wide and weighed about four kilograms.

Exercising great skill and care, someone in the family group then used a stone drill-point, rotated by the string in a bow, to make a small round hole about ten millimetres in diameter at the pole of the moa egg's narrower end. What a meal was had: the contents of the giant egg were the equivalent of at least five dozen hens' eggs. But the reason for the great care in opening the egg was that the empty perforated shell made a handy container with a liquid capacity of nearly four litres — a prized possession in a society with no pottery or glass.

Time passed and someone in the Kaikoura settlement where the egg had been collected, or received in trade, died. As was customary, a moa egg — in this case the egg in question — was placed in the grave beside the dead person. The body rested in peace for about 500 years with the egg beside it. Then one day in 1857 a workman was digging foundations for a building close to George Fyffe's house at the whaling station on the northern side of the Kaikoura Peninsula. At each swing of the pick into the ground the workman expected the usual resistance. Then he hit something hollow and stopped. Crouching down to scrape away loose soil and rubble he found that his pick had pierced a large egg and broken away one side of it. A human skeleton, a black stone adze head and other artefacts were at the same spot.

The Kaikoura egg was the first whole moa egg found following European settlement, and larger than any other egg found since. It was destined to excite much interest, to be displayed occasionally and be seen by thousands — and to embark on a risky journey around the world that would take one hundred years to complete.

* * *

Given the fragility of birds' eggs, it is not surprising that only about thirty-six whole, or partially whole, moa eggs are currently known. Many are imperfect, with a large section or several smaller sections missing. Others have been reconstructed, sometimes poorly and inaccurately, from broken fragments found together as an isolated group. Most are ivory-coloured, but there are a few green eggs that were laid by a species of moa in the South Island. Moa eggs range in size from 120 to 240 millimetres long. They have been found at about sixteen sites throughout the North and South Islands and nearly all the eggs are now in publicly owned museum collections, mostly in New Zealand. Thirteen are from archaeological sites — graves or middens — but most are from natural sites: alluvial deposits, mudflows, swamps, sand dunes and rock shelters.

George Fyffe kept the Kaikoura egg, with the Maori skull and adze head, in a candle box, until a visitor suggested it would be safer to keep the heavy stone adze head separately. By now the egg was attracting considerable attention. The ornithologist Walter Buller stated that it had been submitted to him for examination "soon after its exhumation". Charles Clifford, a politician and speaker of the House of Representatives, had accidentally broken off a bit while handling it.

By September 1864 the egg had been taken on the schooner Ruby to Wellington. There Fyffe allowed it to be displayed in the offices of Messrs. Bethune and Hunter, auctioneers and shipping agents. It was shown — damaged side down — in a box made of New Zealand wood, with a small drawer beneath to hold the broken fragments. From January 12 to May 6, 1865, Fyffe exhibited the egg in the same box at the New Zealand Exhibition in Dunedin, where it was in the Wellington Court as exhibition item 220. This event was the first of the big exhibitions held in New Zealand to showcase the colony's natural resources and its agricultural and manufactured products. During its one hundred and two days it attracted more than 30,000 visitors.

The Ravenscraig, a fast sailing ship of 800 tonnes, was in Wellington Harbour in late May 1865 to collect cabin passengers and make up the last of its consignment of wool bound for Britain. On Queen's Birthday holiday all public offices closed, private businesses halted, and the ships in the harbour displayed their best bunting. At noon the Ravenscraig fired the royal salute. When the ship finally left Wellington on June 21, 1865, it carried not just wool and passengers but also the Kaikoura egg — sent, presumably by Fyffe, for sale in London.

* * *

With Captain D. B. Inglis in command, the Ravenscraig headed east for Cape Horn. There were gales and on July 3 the ship encountered a tremendous sea that swept its deck and did much damage. On July 14, in the Southern Ocean near the Cape, the second officer James Faddie fell overboard and was drowned. Fortunately the Kaikoura egg survived, and after the ship called at Pernambuco in Brazil the egg arrived safely in London in the middle of October. It was said to have been insured for £2000.

On November 24 at two in the afternoon, after having been examined by the great comparative anatomist Richard Owen, the egg was put up for auction at Stevens' Rooms, 38 King Street, Covent Garden. Owen's contribution to New Zealand's natural history had already been significant: in 1839 he had correctly deduced the presence of gigantic flightless birds in New Zealand from examination of a section of a thigh bone.

An ornithologist, George Dawson Rowley, bid 100 guineas for the egg but the vendor wanted £200. After negotiating for three years, Rowley finally acquired it for £100. Meanwhile George Fyffe had died after falling from a jetty at Kaikoura.

The egg was kept at Rowley's ornithological museum at Chichester House in Brighton's East Cliff. A large lithographed image was published in the third volume of Rowley's 1878 book Ornithological Miscellany and repeated in Richard Owen's Memoirs on the Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand the following year.

Large eggs are difficult objects to measure — I have used special forestry callipers made for measuring tree diameters at chest height. Contemporary newspaper accounts put the moa egg at between nine and ten inches long and seven inches wide. The nine and a half by seven inches (241 × 178 millimetres) of one newspaper story was fairly accurate. Owen's book confused matters by incorrectly stating that the egg was ten by seven and a half inches (254 × 191 millimetres).

George Dawson Rowley died in 1878. An obituary in Nature noted that "he sank in his fifty-seventh year, dying, by a singular coincidence, on the very same day as his father, who had long been an invalid".

In 1886 the fame of the Kaikoura egg was boosted by its display in the New Zealand Court of the spectacular Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London. The event showcased natural products, manufactures and local objects and curiosities from the territories of the British Empire to encourage trade among them and foster cultural ties. The exhibition catalogue listed the moa egg after a "Native Chief's Carved Wooden Mere" and before maps from the New Zealand Mines Department. The exhibitor was given as G. T. Rowley of Morcott Hall, Uppingham, so the egg was apparently still in the family's possession and in central England.


Excerpted from The Owl that Fell from the Sky by Brian Gill. Copyright © 2012 Brian Gill. Excerpted by permission of Awa Press.
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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A gently digressive collection where slivers of autobiography weave through clearly articulated scientific explanations."  —Weekend Herald

"An informative and entertaining collection of stories about some of the weird and wonderful things that have ended up in museum collections around New Zealand."  —Kia Ora magazine

"Delightfully whimsical. . . . You won't find a whiff of ponderous pedantry or academic plodism in the pages of this small but perfectly formed book."  —Waikato Times

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