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Records of Birds from a Time Gone By

from the San Francisco Chronicle

At first glance, the contents of the 15 glass jars in Sam Droege's collection do not look like much--bivalve shells, twigs, a fishhook. But they hint at a story that would fill a vast ornithological library. In fact, they once did.

The jars are the remnants of the federal government's first major study of birds. From 1885 to the 1940s, scientists from the Division of Economic Ornithology in the U.S. Agriculture Department dissected at least 230,000 bird stomachs. The aim was to determine which species were helping farmers and which were harmful.

To do so, the government scientists went out shooting and recruited local hunters to donate birds' innards to science. At the dissection table, the scientists recorded the stomach contents of each bird in meticulous detail--for one mallard duck, a scientist estimated that it had eaten 72,710 seeds from various plants--and preserved many of them in jars at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland.

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