The passenger pigeon diorama at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences is one of the finest I know of and one of very few that shows a bird with its wings extended. (Photo by Polly McKenna-Cress)

Philadelphia is a city of firsts. They opened the first zoo in the country a couples of months before Cincinnati. The Academy of Natural Sciences was founded in 1812 and was hosting visitors by 1828. “The first drudgery of settling new colonies is now pretty well over,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1743, “and there are many in every province in circumstances that set them at ease, and afford leisure to cultivate the finer arts, and improve the common stock of knowledge.” The scholarly society he advocated became a reality that year and the American Philosophical Society is still going strong. The Wagner Free Institute of Science was founded in 1855 by William Wagner, a notable merchant, philanthropist, and gentleman scientist of the time, who sought to offer free educational courses to all who would seek to learn about the natural world.  To illustrate the lectures, he drew on a collection of specimens he had gathered since his boyhood. All of the classes were offered with an open admission policy that allowed women as well as men to attend. (I can not help but think how innovative he was and how backwards some of our contemporaries are: the vicious attack being mounted on the public schools would leave Wagner appalled.)

Philadelphia is also home to the University of the Arts, a fine institution of much more recent vintage. It offers one of the premier museum studies programs in the country and Professor Polly McKenna-Kress decided to have Project Passenger Pigeon be the theme of the annual charrette for graduate students. She divided the students into four groups, each assigned to one of the above mentioned institutions. I was invited to join the event and it proved to be an exciting and enjoyable experience. A charrette is a brainstorming session usually associated with artists and architects to come up with planning ideas in a very short time. So the students, from all over the world by the way, were provided with written and spoken information (from me) on Thursday morning and then spent a few hours at their assigned venue before getting together again. At least one group stayed up until 2 the next morning working on the presentations they would make Friday afternoon.

Students working on their charrette assignments.

The plans that they came up with were really wonderful. For the zoo, there was a house of extinction, where you remove pieces to make the point that if enough elements are removed the ecosystem/house collapses. For the Wagner, where space is particularly limited, the proposal incorporated the nest-like structures of artist Patrick Dockery, who enlists the community to construct them. The mother nest would be at Wagner with satellite nests acting as kiosks with information scattered through the city. The academy has a display on disappearing fish and one idea would be for origami pigeons leading the way to the exhibit- and visitors would be asked to pluck a paper pigeon so that time lapse photography would show their disappearance. And the APS has a strong interest in Thomas Jefferson who had an ongoing debate with the French zoologist Georges Cuvier as to whether extinction was even possible (extinction would mean god goofed). The team suggested an exhibit centered on that controversy.

One charrette team presenting their exhibit and programming designs.

All inspiring stuff and I hope that much of it gets implemented but like so many other things, it probably depends on the availability of funds.

When I knew I was going to Philly, I contacted my friend Rich Horwitz, who holds a singular place in my life. On a cold Saturday morning in November 1967 he followed through on a promise he had made earlier and called me to ask if I wanted to go birding. This was my first time, and he showed me a flock of long-eared owls ensconced in a spruce on a front lawn in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook. I have, of course, been hooked ever since. As for Rich, he graduated from Cornell and then moved back to this area where he entered the University of Chicago’s Evolutionary Biology program and graduated four years later with his doctorate. He has spent his career at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences as an aquatic ecologist but one who is also expert in such terrestrial taxa as birds and plants. It was fun staying with him and his wife Jane, and I was able to hang out at the academy and soak up their wonderful bird collection, which possesses some of the rarest of specimens, including those of great auks and Labrador ducks.

Unlike the passenger pigeon, there are very few specimens of the great auk (?-1844) and Labrador duck (?-1875).

Clare Flemming, Archivist of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and Rich Horwitz, ecologist extraordinaire in front of original Audubon plates.

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