Skeleton collection

Our bird skeleton collection, also called the avian osteology collection, is the largest of its kind in the UK and one of the twenty largest such collections globally.

We hold around 16,600 osteological specimens, including complete and partial skeletons and skulls. The collection includes material from about 65% of the world’s bird genera and 33% of all bird species.

Notable collections

The skeleton collection includes some of the oldest and most famous specimens in the Museum's collections, including a number of domestic birds from the collections of Charles Darwin

Two of our hornbill skulls were originally part of the collections of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), which formed the basis of the British Museum in 1753.

Sub-fossil material

In addition to the collection of modern birds, we hold some Holocene subfossil material. This includes specimens from the Chatham Islands, New Zealand, some Atlantic islands and Puerto Rico, and additional material of key taxa, such as the dodo (Raphus cucullatus). 

The main palaeontological bird collections, including moa and elephant birds, are held in the Department of Earth Sciences, South Kensington.

Fossil bird collections

  • Fossil pigeon remains from a cave in Puerto Rico.
    Who uses the collection?

    From archaeologists and biologists to engineers and computer animators, find out more about our visiting researchers.

  • Mounted specimen of great white pelican, Pelecanus onocrotalus.
    Curation

    Our curators look after thousands of osteological specimens, adding around 100 new specimens to the collection each year. Read about our current curation projects.

  • One of Charles Darwin’s domestic pigeon skeletons, donated in 1867.
    Darwin specimens

    The collections include around eighty domestic bird skeletons assembled by Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Find out how his work on these specimens influenced our ideas about the processes of natural selection.

  • Adult and larva Dermestes haemarrhoidalis.
    Skeleton preparation

    Find out more about the preparation process and meet the forty-year-old beetle colony at Tring that plays a central role in preparing new bird skeletons.

  • Scarlet macaw time-lapse video.
    The secret life of beetles

    Watch time-lapse films of our dermestid beetles preparing a range of whole bird specimens.