Tropical bird theft at Natural History Museum

13 August 2009

The Natural History Museum has been targeted by thieves who have stolen a number of tropical bird ‘skins’.

They were taken from the ornithological collections held at the Natural History Museum at Tring in Hertfordshire and were found to be missing following a break-in on Wednesday 24 June 2009.

The specimens stolen include a number of brightly-coloured tropical birds, some of which are uncommon in collections and, therefore, of special scientific concern. 

The Museum is working with the police and the Wildlife Crime Unit on the matter.

The nation's collection

Professor Richard Lane, Director of Science at the Museum, comments ‘The birds that were stolen formed part of the nation’s natural history collection, painstakingly assembled over the last 350 years.'

'It is very distressing that we should have been deliberately targeted in this manner.' 

'We take the security of our collections extremely seriously and are working closely with our internal security team and the police in thoroughly investigating this incident.' 

Scientific knowledge

The 70 million specimens looked after by the Museum are a resource of international importance in the development of scientific knowledge. 

For example, much of our knowledge of bird distributions in Africa is derived from the Museum's ornithological specimens.

The ornithological collections are among the largest and most comprehensive in the world. There are approaching 750,000 bird skins representing 95% of known extant species, with type specimens for over 8,000 taxa.

They are used in a huge range of studies varying from anatomy, ecology and art, to archaeology, taxonomy and evolution. 

'The knowledge gleaned from these collections can help protect endangered species and answer questions about the biodiversity of the world around us,' says Prof Lane.

Studied by the world's researchers

The Bird Group and ornithological research collections are looked after at the Natural History Museum at Tring. The collections were moved out to Tring in the 1970s into a purpose-built building which is separate from the public museum.

Hundreds of enquiries a year are received from all over the world requesting information from and about the specimens. Whether it be requests for help identifying specimens, bones and feathers or getting bird measurements or advice.

'Our ornithological collections are amongst our most heavily used and are consulted by researchers throughout the world, who either visit Tring or request loans from us,' says Prof Lane.

Enquiries are received from scientists, members of the public, local authorities, public health officers, law enforcement agencies, government departments, archaeologists, schools and many others.

Police appeal

Detective Inspector Fraser Wylie, investigating from Hertfordshire Constabulary, said: ‘This is a very unusual crime and we are keen to recover the bird skins, which are part of a national heritage, as well as of course apprehend those responsible for their disappearance.' 

'We are appealing for anyone who may have seen any suspicious activity around the museum in the time around when the break-in was, before it or subsequently.' 

'Also, we would ask any collectors of such specimens to keep a watchful eye out in case they are offered anything resembling them.’

Prof Lane adds, 'Our utmost priority is working with the police to recover these specimens to the national collections so that they can be used by future generations of scientists.'

Anyone with any information on this crime should ring DI Wylie via the non-emergency number 0845 33 00 222, citing crime reference number D3/09/450. Alternatively, call Crimestoppers (an independent charity) anonymously on 0800 555111.

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