ASU bird collection gets its ducks in a row – ASU News Now


The room is dark at first, but once the lights are on, you see birds — absolutely everywhere. Gleaming glass eyes stare down at you from across the room. A row of ducks, swans and pheasants sits atop a set of storage cabinets. 
A golden eagle rests upon a stone near the doorway, as if it is just landing from a long flight, its wings stretched out, feet lightly touching the stone, frozen in time.
If you open a drawer to one of the many storage cabinets in the room, you’ll find that they too are filled with birds. Hundreds of bird skins — the term scientists use for stuffed birds with the original feathers, feet and beak — are lined up neatly in rows.
Where did they come from? How did they end up in this room?
This is no avian graveyard. Instead, this accumulation of birds represents Arizona State University’s Ornithology Collection, part of the Natural History Collections
Until recently, these birds lay disorganized and mostly forgotten.
That changed when the collections team hired Dakota Rowsey, a collections manager for the Vertebrate Collections. Rowsey and Jay Taylor, an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences, have truly turned the Ornithology Collection around — though work still remains to be done.
Natural history collections are important for research institutions. A collection documents the species that existed in a particular place at a particular time. The Ornithology Collection is used for research, the education of ASU students and public engagement.
A tray of tanagers, colorful neotropical birds. These are from various countries in the Americas. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU
The Natural History Collections facility is a long beige building about 2 miles from ASU’s Tempe campus, so it’s not surprising that many students and community members don’t know that it exists. But it contains a treasure trove of scientific information. There are nine different collections in total — including the Mollusk Collection, Mammalogy Collection, Herpetology Collection, Ichthyology Collection, Fossil Plant Collection, Hasbrouck Insect Collection, Lichen Herbarium and the Vascular Plant Herbarium. 
WATCH: Take a peek inside the ASU Natural History Collections
And of course, there is the Ornithology Collection. Currently, it contains over 1,400 skins from around 450 species belonging to 75 families. While birds from Arizona are particularly well-represented in the collection, there are also specimens from 26 U.S. states, as well as from Canada, Mexico, Ecuador, Samoa, Kiribati and Kazakhstan.
Taylor started his ASU career as a professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences in 2009. He is an evolutionary biologist who uses modeling, statistical analysis and genetic data to understand how populations and communities evolve. His research focuses on soil mites. So his interest in birds might seem surprising.
“Why birds? It happened more or less accidentally. In between my undergrad and graduate years, I was living in Maryland, and one day found a dead pied-billed grebe in the parking lot where I was living. That discovery got me interested in birding, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
LISTEN: The Lesson’s motmot song
Taylor holds a Lesson’s motmot. This bird skin was collected in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1962. They are one of the most common and widespread motmot birds in Central America. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU
Five years ago, he was asked to teach an ornithology class at ASU, and that’s when he learned about the state of the bird collection.
“I was given a big crate that was basically a pile of bird skins (that) was being used as a teaching collection, and that wasn’t very satisfactory,” says Taylor. “And so I started looking through the collection, and at that time, there were no written records. It was a mess. And so it was really because of that, that I started getting involved.”
How do birds come to be part of the Ornithology Collection? First, it’s important to note that the ASU team does not ever hunt or kill birds. Everything that comes into the collection is already deceased.
Much of the material in the Ornithology Collection was obtained prior to the 1980s, when there wasn’t as much regulation on collecting birds. 
“The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 2004 pretty much applies to all of our native migratory species, other than things like waterfowl or game birds that are managed for hunting. You can’t just go out and hunt those — I mean, in principle, you’re not even allowed to pick up feathers,” says Taylor. “We have salvage permits to collect dead birds — those that are window strikes, roadkill and the like.”
Before Taylor, very few people were involved directly with the Ornithology Collection.
“I don’t even know who specifically started it. Someone who worked here perhaps in the 1950s contributed skins that they had somehow acquired prior to joining the university. Maybe they had them in their house for years before moving them here. We have no idea,” says Taylor.
What Taylor does know, however, is where about a third of the collection came from. Robert Ohmart was a professor in the ASU Department of Biology — as it was called then — from 1970 to 2006. As a graduate student, he prepared a number of skins that he brought with him to ASU. Additionally, a former student of his, Bertin Anderson, donated a large number of skins from birds that he collected in the Midwest.
Other specimens arrive through generous donations from the community.
“We received a truckload of material four years ago, which came from a hotel … that had its own sort of natural history museum,” says Taylor.

The Buckhorn Baths Motel had a makeshift museum filled wall-to-wall with mounted animals of all kinds — from mounted deer to display cases of reptiles. The dusty animals were donated to ASU, and Taylor himself was one of the people to load the trucks with the sizable donations.
“The prep room here was filled with them for quite some time. The entire floor and tables were covered with this material. We did get some birds from them, but none of them had where the birds were from, which is really unfortunate,” says Taylor.
That golden eagle that sits near the doorway of the Ornithology Collection is just one of the specimens donated by the Buckhorn Baths Motel.
READ MORE: The Buckhorn Baths donation

The origins of the rest of the bird skins and prepared mounts, unfortunately, remain a mystery.
A lot of care goes into preserving a collection of organic material. If future generations of scientists are to be able to use the specimens, they need to be pristine.
“You need to maintain them in a location that’s not going to be too humid or dry, not too hot or too cold. And critically important — you need to keep it pest-free,” says Taylor.
For example, if a beetle that consumes dead tissues slips into a collection, it can destroy years of carefully curated material. 
Whenever something new comes into the collection, the staff must freeze it first. By freezing the specimens, they kill any pests long before they can be introduced to the clean skins.
Organizing the specimens is also important so that researchers and educators can find what they need easily. 
LISTEN: The Andean cock-of-the-rock’s song
Taylor holds a male Andean cock-of-the-rock, named for its similarity to roosters and its habitat of rocky cliffs and ravines. This bright orange bird has unknown origins but is likely from Ecuador. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU
When a collection is digitized, the information it contains is put into an online database. Information about the birds in the Ornithology Collection can be searched for and openly accessed through the Consortium of Small Vertebrate Collections
Savage Hess, a student worker on the collections team, has done a significant amount of the organizing and digitizing himself.
“After burning through the roughly 1,400 specimens, each held by me at some point or another, I held the responsibility of labeling our cabinets according to their evolutionary relationships,” says Hess. “It was also up to me to search through our digital records and place the birds into their relevant homes, creating something of a checklist of specimens.”
The digitized collection is organized in such a way that if someone wants to know where a particular bird is located in the physical collection, they can find that information online, as well as information about where and when the bird was found, its sex, general age and physical state upon death.
It is no easy task to organize a collection of specimens — especially when they have lacked real organization for decades.
“It was long and tedious, but one of the most satisfying experiences in my life,” says Hess.
The number of specimens might not grow significantly, but the collections staff feels it’s more important to increase the awareness of the Ornithology Collection. 
“Nobody has really made specific use of the bird collection, at least when compared to the other collections in the building. It’s newly digitized, so that’s part of it. But a lot of people simply don’t know it’s here,” says Taylor. 
The ornithology class that Taylor teaches is one way to get ASU students more involved with the collection. As part of the course, students get the opportunity to look at various specimens from the collection each week. Rather than learning about different species of birds through photos alone, they are able to hold them and look at their features up close.
People from other institutions can also use the digitized collection online or visit the facility to measure and photograph the specimens and compare them with collections at different institutions around the world.
By studying the skins, researchers can understand the differences in male and female birds, as well as regional variation in various bird species. They can use the skins to measure characteristics like bill size or depth, relative proportions and colors of the feathers. 
Researchers can even extract DNA from the specimens, which could provide more information on regional variation and the genetic composition of populations, and help scientists define subspecies with greater accuracy.
All of this information is crucial in allowing us to see the human impact on bird populations. By comparing birds that lived decades ago to those alive today, we can better understand how climate change and environmental degradation are affecting bird species around the world.
If we narrow in on a specific species and track its changes over time, we can then see how species adapt to those changing environments.
LISTEN: The keel-billed toucan’s song
Taylor holds a keel-billed toucan, a colorful Latin American member of the toucan family. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU
With the Ornithology Collection almost fully digitized, it’s more accessible for faculty and students at ASU, as well as other universities and the public as a whole. 
And it is already being used for outreach. A few years back, the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport borrowed some more exotic specimens to set up a tropical display. The community can also see the Ornithology Collection, as well as the other collections, at ASU’s annual Open Door event. 
A lot of collections in other institutions exist primarily for research. The public isn’t involved at all. But a rarity like the collections at ASU has a lot more to offer. Involving the public can spark interest in science and conservation, and maybe even inspire a new generation of researchers. 
Taylor and his collections colleagues also want to increase ASU student involvement.
“We’re certainly very interested in having students work out here. There are a lot of opportunities for undergraduates and graduate students to work in the collection if they’re interested. Not just the bird collection, but all of the collections,” says Taylor.
Interested in getting involved in the collections? Visit the Biodiversity Knowledge Integration Center to learn more about how they use their collections for research and education. You can also email Nico.Franz@asu.edu to request information.
If you happen to come across a deceased bird, email the location of the bird and a photo to Jesse.E.Taylor@asu.edu.
Identify a bird in the wild by its appearance, calls or song using the Bird Finder on ASU’s Ask A Biologist site. 
Written by Elise Lange
Fifty years later, we still can’t refuse the offer.“The Godfather” officially turns a half-century on March 14, and the Francis Ford Coppola mob epic still manages to capture our imaginations five decades later. Starting this month and stretching through the spring, we’ll see celebrations, retrospectives and the debut of a dramatic miniseries called “The Offer,” based on Oscar-winning …
Fifty years later, we still can’t refuse the offer.
“The Godfather” officially turns a half-century on March 14, and the Francis Ford Coppola mob epic still manages to capture our imaginations five decades later. Starting this month and stretching through the spring, we’ll see celebrations, retrospectives and the debut of a dramatic miniseries called “The Offer,” based on Oscar-winning producer Albert S. Ruddy’s never-before-revealed experiences making the picture. An HBO film called “Francis and the Godfather,” directed by Barry Levinson, started pre-production in 2021.
The film has also spawned several cultural godchildren and been spoofed and parodied in film, television and commercials. Rappers like Snoop Dogg, Chris Webby, Tory Lanez and others have turned to “The Godfather” for inspiration in their songs and videos. More recently, big-budget video games and podcasts have explored the family saga through these media.
The 1972 blockbuster was the biggest film at the box office in a year that saw “Deliverance,” “Cabaret” and “The Poseidon Adventure.” It was also nominated for 11 Academy Awards and took home hardware for best picture, best screenplay and best actor. The nearly three-hour iconic motion picture revived Marlon Brando’s flagging career while minting a handful of newer stars: Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert Duvall and Talia Shire.
Before these celebrations get underway, ASU News reached out to Kevin Sandler, an associate professor in Arizona State University’s Film and Media Studies programThe Film and Media Studies program is an academic unit within ASU’s Department of English., to discuss “The Godfather’s” impact on cinema, pop culture and society, and why cinema-goers can’t “fuggedabout” this love letter to the mob.
Kevin Sandler
Question: You’ve been teaching a class on the films of Francis Ford Coppola at ASU since 2008. What do you find interesting about the man and his movies?
Answer: While finishing my PhD in 1999, I was offered to teach a course on the Hollywood directors John Ford and Francis Ford Coppola. At that time, Coppola and his films were still larger than life. He had yet to be eclipsed by his daughter Sofia in terms of cultural awareness and popularity as her first feature film, “The Virgin Suicides,” premiered that same year. Coppola’s first two “Godfather” films and his 1979 film “Apocalypse Now” were epic in stature, a grandeur that still holds true for audiences today. Both “Godfathers” (1 and 2) won Academy Awards for best picture, while Coppola’s smaller gem, “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now” won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1974 and 1979.
A decade later, Coppola — the person and the director — still resonated for me. Here was a man who arguably was the most famous director on the planet in the 1970s, whose name above the credits guaranteed a distinction of the utmost quality, who ended up bankrupt after the 1982 film “One from the Heart.” To crawl his way to solvency, he made disposable films like “The Cotton Club” and “The Rainmaker,” but also the arty teen pic “The Outsiders” and the arthouse picture “Rumble Fish,” only to return with the gothic horror of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “The Godfather: Part III,” which many consider to be an embarrassing end to the Corleone family saga. That is quite a journey, and one I wanted to investigate as a film historian.
While Coppola is often hailed as an “auteur” — a term to describe a director whose body of work showcases a unique style or thematic focus — I find that term of little usefulness in understanding a director’s work, particularly in a highly industrialized and fickle system like Hollywood. If anything, Coppola’s films, apart from “The Godfather” trilogy, show no aesthetic or thematic coherence. “The Conversation” shares nothing in common with “The Outsiders,” for example. However, what Coppola’s work does indicate — and this is the opposite of this auteur theory — is his ongoing enthusiasm for experimenting with film form. “Finian’s Rainbow” interjects contemporary issues into a 1947 stage musical while “Rumble Fish” draws its avant-garde style from the French New Wave and German Expressionism. That’s just two of the many eclectic approaches that Coppola brings to each film.
Q: The 50th anniversary of Coppola’s tour de force, “The Godfather,” will be commemorated in several ways this spring. What was the initial cultural impact of the movie and its impact on cinema? 
A: “The Godfather” was a critical and commercial hit when it opened in March 1972, delayed three months from its intended Christmas release due to disagreements between Paramount production chief Robert Evans and Coppola over the film’s final cut. It soon supplanted “The Sound of Music” as the highest-grossing film of all time. “The Godfather’s” impact cannot be underestimated, particularly since 1969–71 turned out to be Hollywood’s worst financial stretch ever. 
The box office crisis that preceded the release of “The Godfather” was due to a number of issues, including rising short-term interest rates, a new rating system, an oversaturation of films in the marketplace and an inability of the major studios to comprehend what the late 1960s audience wanted to see. “The Godfather,” even more so than “Love Story,” the No. 1 film at the box office in 1970, also from Paramount, demonstrated that a single film — especially if it could be marketed as an “event” — could save a studio and, in a sense, save the industry. The film restored Hollywood’s faith in the mass appeal of a big-budget feature — though “The Godfather” was a modestly budgeted $6 million production — and confirmed that the industry’s profits would remain concentrated in a handful of enormously successful movies each season. 
Q: Along with the 50th anniversary of the film, audiences will come to better understand the backstory of the movie and Hollywood with a new dramatic miniseries called “The Offer” and the film “Francis and The Godfather,” directed by Barry Levinson for HBO. What was the backdrop of Hollywood at that time?
A: Hollywood’s long-time business model from the “studio era” was no more. The industry was in the midst of a deep recession, and almost all of the major studios were purchased by non-film conglomerates tasked with making Hollywood profitable again. Movies like “Star,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “Paint Your Wagon” were expensive old-fashioned flops made by the old Hollywood regime for older audiences. The young audience saw no need to partake in the so-called “truths” of classical Hollywood entertainment and were instead drawn to films like “The Graduate,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Easy Rider.” 
Out of this moment emerged a new Hollywood, or the “Hollywood Renaissance” — characterized by a series of personal, edgy, experimental, low-budget film styles across a number of Hollywood pictures from 1967 to the end of the 1970s. They were made by a gifted group of filmmakers from several realms — television, the independent world and film school — who crafted a politically subversive and aesthetically challenging body of cinema engaged with the larger social world. And armed with a newly formed rating system, directors like Coppola, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby and Terrence Malick could approach issues like sex, race, politics, language and violence in confrontational and candid ways never before seen in Hollywood.
Q: “The Godfather” is one of those films that has been enjoyed and watched by several generations since its 1972 release. Why does it continue to resonate to this day?
A: “The Godfather” came out of time in American history in which cynicism and disillusionment stood alongside a faith in the country’s traditional values and dominant social order. Such extreme divides in regard to notions of civil rights (race, gender, class, sexuality), reproductive rights, religion and democracy, among others, still exist as America still reckons with the social and cultural changes wrought by the ’60s and the Vietnam War. The popularity of “The Godfather,” I believe, partly likely lies in its ability to please both factions, to be read both subversively and prosocially, progressively and conservatively, as cultural critique or crowd-pleasing entertainment. That’s because Coppola did not have complete creative control over the film; Paramount did. As Coppola said shortly after the release of “The Godfather,” “The Mafia was romanticized in the book. And I was filming the book. To do a film about my real opinion of the Mafia would be another thing altogether.”
“The Godfather: Part II” provides none of the romanticization of the Corleone family and its exploits. Unmistakably, the sequel makes an analogy between the breakdown of the American family and capitalism. As Coppola said, “I had to fight a lot of wars the first time around. In ‘The Godfather: Part II,’ I had no interference. Paramount backed me up in every decision. The film was my baby, and they left it in my hands.” 
Q: This year’s Oscars nominations were just announced, and it has been noted that many of the nominated films, as has been the case in recent years, debuted on streaming platforms like Netflix — the most-nominated company for the third year in a row. What’s your view of this?
A: This is the new world order when it comes to the Oscars and motion picture exhibition. … The films nominated for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards showcase an industry in flux as their distributors used different release strategies across an array of platforms that gave viewers several options to experience the film. Warner Bros. released “King Richard” simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max for a one-month period. “Don’t Look Up” had a limited theatrical release before streaming on Netflix two weeks later. Twentieth Century Studios’ “West Side Story” is still only playing in theaters more than two months after its release. Outside the best picture category, films like “Cruella” had a different strategy: It was simultaneously available in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access for $29.99.
Widespread theater closings due to COVID-19 only expedited what was a deteriorating theatrical window (the length of time a film plays exclusively in cinema) in the movie business from 90 days down to zero days. That pandemic approach surely will continue moving forward, but we likely will see 45-day-or-less windows for many blockbuster movies and some independently-minded fare due to new agreements between the major Hollywood studios and exhibitors. In the case of a mega-hit like “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” a film may play in theaters for two months or longer.
Q: Any predictions for best picture?
A: “The Power of the Dog.” The film leads all contenders, with 12 nominations going into the 94th Academy Awards, and has received universal acclaim for director and screenwriter Jane Campion, her cast and her crew. Like several of her fellow nominees, “The Power of the Dog” had a limited theatrical release in the United States, and then premiered two weeks later on Netflix. 
Neither Netflix nor any other streaming service has won the Oscar for best picture. Netflix’s best chance came in 2019 when “Roma” was the front-runner. … Nevertheless, Netflix and other upstart streamers posed an existential threat to the way that movies would be produced, distributed, marketed and exhibited. Only a few COVID years later, and these fears now seem so quaint. The emergence of Disney+, HBO Max and others alongside Netflix and Amazon have made streaming the norm rather than the outlier. For this reason, “The Power of the Dog” faces fewer hurdles to overcome to win best picture.
Q: Coppola missed out on an Oscar for best director for “The Godfather” but made up for that loss with a win in the same category for “The Godfather: Part II.” From least to greatest, what would you say were the top five films under Coppola’s direction?
A: I believe that Coppola made four films that most people would agree are important works of art: the aforementioned films of his from the 1970s — “The Godfather,” “The Conversation,” “The Godfather: Part II” and “Apocalypse Now.” However, he is not alone among many directors during the Hollywood Renaissance (1967-1980) who produced their best work during this decade. … Coppola’s other films fail to reach a level of achievement like his four 1970s films due to studio interference, budget issues, casting concerns or simply a lack of good judgment on Coppola’s part. 
If I had to choose one film from Coppola to round out the top five, it would be a film that featured him but was shot by another Coppola, his wife Eleanor. “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” is the documentary record of the production of “Apocalypse Now.” Also narrated by Eleanor, the film was pieced together by directors Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper from Eleanor’s behind-the-scenes footage and post-production interviews with the cast and crew. It is one of the most revealing accounts of a movie ever produced: a 238-day shoot filmed in the Philippines and beset by typhoons, a civil war and Martin Sheen’s heart attack. More so, “Hearts of Darkness” gives great insight into the man and artist that is Francis Coppola: at once genius and fool, visionary and megalomanic, alchemist and hustler. From utter chaos emerged a film of operatic proportions.
Top photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures
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