Natural History Museum targeted in tropical bird theft

Press release - 13 August 2009

The Natural History Museum has been targeted by thieves who have stolen a number of bird ‘skins’ from the ornithological collections held at the Natural History Museum at Tring in Hertfordshire. They were found to be missing following a break-in on Wednesday 24 June 2009.

The specimens stolen comprise a number of brightly-coloured tropical birds, some of which are uncommon in collections and, therefore, of especial scientific concern. The Museum is working with the police and the Wildlife Crime Unit on the matter.

Professor Richard Lane, Director of Science at the Natural History Museum, comments ‘The birds that were stolen formed part of the nation’s natural history collection, painstakingly assembled over the last 350 years. The 70million specimens looked after by the Natural History Museum are a resource of international importance in the development of scientific knowledge. 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. The knowledge gleaned from these collections can help protect endangered species and answer questions about the biodiversity of the world around us.

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. 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’.

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.’

The ornithological collections of the Natural History Museum 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.

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.


Notes for editors

  • The Bird Group and ornithological research collections of the Natural History Museum are located in Hertfordshire 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.
  • The ornithological specimens are used in studies of comparative anatomy, osteology, zoogeography, ecology, conservation, art, archaeology, taxonomy, evolution and a variety of other subjects. For example, much of our knowledge of bird distributions in Africa is derived from these specimens.
  • Hundreds of enquiries a year are received from all over the world requesting measurements or data from the specimens, identification of specimens, bones, feathers or asking for advice and information on ornithological matters. Enquiries are received from scientists, members of the public, local authorities, public health officers, law enforcement agencies, government departments, archaeologists, schools and many others.
  • The public part of the Natural History Museum at Tring, in Hertfordshire, opened in the late 1800s to house the collections of Lionel Walter, second Baron Rothschild and offers outstanding examples of nineteenth-century taxidermy at its very best. The Museum was bequeathed to the nation and became part of the Natural History Museum in 1938. The public galleries were modernised, but the fascinating character of the Museum has been retained.
  • More than 120,000 visitors a year enjoy a glimpse into the fascinating world of a Victorian collector, where they can see a huge variety of wild, weird and wonderful specimens from across the animal kingdom – from armadillos to zebras.

For more information or to speak to a spokesperson please contact:
Natural History Museum press office on 020 7942 5654 or or
Laurel Smithson, Western Area Assistant Press and PR Officer at Hertfordshire Constabulary, on 01707 354039.