Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute bird keeper Chris Crowe with Walnut, a white-naped crane (Photo: Mehgan Murphy/Smithsonian)
It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that everyone who works within the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, 9 research centers, 3 cultural centers, zoo, and countless other facilities has a different version of “and other duties as assigned” appended to their job descriptions. Our experts really do have some of the most curious specialties, which we will highlight in this occasional “behind-the-scenes” series Strange and Curious Jobs at Smithsonian. To kick things off, meet two scientists who study birds in unexpected ways. Tony Cohn, host and co-producer of Smithsonian’s Sidedoor podcast, leads the conversations.
Carla Dove, a forensic ornithologist at the Natural History Museum, is an expert on snarge, or the remains of dead birds. Working in the feather identification lab, Dove studies snarge for clues to the birds’ behavior and flight patterns. She does this by comparing remains to specimens in the museum’s collection or by DNA analysis. Her mission is to learn how to prevent mid-air aviation—and avian—accidents and improve safety conditions going forward. Dove talks about some of her more unusual and challenging identifications and what it’s like to be a forensic ornithologist.
About 70 miles from the Mall as the crow flies, a bird keeper at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Front Royal, Virginia, has a most unusual story. It begins in 2004 when Chris Crowe met Walnut, a white-naped crane. Walnut was a very aggressive 23-year-old female who had never produced any chicks of her own. Attempts at mating her with males of her species had ended badly (she killed two of them). This trait is particularly unfortunate because the cranes are endangered. Walnut was brought to SCBI because of their successful artificial insemination program for animals unable to reproduce on their own. Walnut bonded so well with Chris that he was able to train her to accept artificial insemination without any physical restraint. And happily, Walnut became a mom, and then a grandma crane.
Walnut’s lack of tolerance of other cranes means she lives alone, but she enjoys visits from her “mate,” Chris. And because cranes can live to be 60 in captivity, Crowe can count on some very unconventional job security.
More than 154 million treasures fill the Smithsonian’s vaults, but where public view ends, Sidedoor begins. With the help of biologists, artists, historians, archaeologists, zookeepers, and astrophysicists, host Tony Cohn sneaks listeners through Smithsonian’s side door to search for stories that can’t be found anywhere else in a special Podcast series. Also, follow the series on Twitter at @SidedoorPod for updates and bonus content.