Bird collections

A black bird sits on an earthy nest on a high cliff with the ocean beneath it

A sooty albatross sits on its nest © Alex Bond

With over one million specimens and representing 95% of bird species, the bird collections are amongst the largest and most comprehensive in the world.  

Our bird collections span the entire history of the Natural History Museum, from rare survivors of Hans Sloane’s collections that formed the foundation of the British Museum in 1753, to specimens currently in preparation in our beetle colonies.  

Since the early 1970s, the collections have been located at the Natural History Museum at Tring, in Hertfordshire, where they are housed in part of Walter Rothschild’s original museum complex and in a purpose-built collections facility.  

A diverse range of specimen preparations make up the collections, including study skins, mounts, skeletons, spirit specimens, eggs and nests.  

With some 9,000 types, the type collection is the largest single collection of bird types globally.  

Additionally, the combined collections are especially strong in historic, extinct and endangered taxa, many of which are globally rare or even unique in collections.  Individually, each specialist collection area also has key strengths that make them internationally outstanding.  

The Museum also holds one the finest ornithological libraries in the world with over 80,000 volumes, including unpublished manuscripts, field notebooks and paintings, many of which are linked directly with the bird collections.

A team of specialist curators are responsible for looking after the collections. From maintaining existing specimens or preparing and accessioning new ones, to documenting and digitizing, their stewardship ensures that even the oldest specimens are potentially available for research, outreach and exhibitions.

Facilitating research is one of our core activities. Behind the scenes, the combined resources of the bird collections are consulted by researchers throughout the world across a wide range of subjects including; taxonomy, comparative anatomy, ecology evolution, genomics, osteology, zoogeography, ecology, conservation, art, archaeology and palaeontology. 

In a typical year, some 250 visitors use the collections in person, while staff help many more researchers with loans and other enquiries. In addition, a broad programme of projects is carried out in-house by the birds’ team of curators, researchers and scientific associates. 

Our group works on birds not only across the whole planet, but also across thousands of years, with particular themes being evolution, conservation and human/bird interactions.   

Geographic range

Worldwide, all continents and oceans, many islands.

Key strengths: Europe, Africa, South-East Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Antarctic region

Temporal range

Excepting archaeological and palaeontological specimens, most specimens fall within the range 1850-1950.  Our oldest specimens are from the early-mid 1700s and we continue to add hundreds of specimens each year.

A few key collections

  • Thomas Horsfield (1775-1859)
  • John Gould (1804-1881)
  • Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
  • John Henry Gurney (1819-1890)
  • Boyd Alexander (1873-1910)
  • Allan Octavian Hume (1829-1912)
  • Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913)
  • Osbert Salvin (1835-1898) & Frederick du Cane Godman (1834-1919)
  • Lionel Walter Rothschild (1865-1937)
  • Gregory Mathews (1876-1949)
  • Voyage of HMS Beagle, 1831-1836
  • Voyage HMS Erebus & H.M.S. Terror, 1839-1843
  • Voyage HMS Challenger, 1872-1876
  • ‘Heroic Age’ of Antarctic exploration, 1898-1922
  • ‘Modern’ Antarctic exploration, including British Graham Land Expedition, Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, British Antarctic Survey.

Bird collections

Looking for a specimen?

This collection is being digitised

Senior Curator in Charge

Alex Bond

If you would like to use any specimens for research, please get in touch

Researchers

Martin Stervander, Marie Curie Post-doctoral Fellow

Joseph Razzell-Hollis, Marie Curie Post-doctoral Fellow (from February 2022)

Scientific Associates

Nigel Collar

Clem Fisher

Julian Hume

Steve Portugal

Robert Prŷs-Jones

Pamela Rasmussen

Gavin Thomas

Guy Kirwan

Electronic Bulletin Board for European Bird Curators (ebeac)

  

Accessing the collections

Scientists and collections management specialists can visit the collections and borrow specimens for research.

Collections management

Our duty is to provide a safe and secure environment for all of our collections.

Collections on the move

We have set out on an ambitious programme to develop a new science and digitisation centre. As we prepare for the move, access to some collections will be affected. 

Find out more and sign up to our newsletter to receive updates on changes to collections access, relevant news and opportunities to get involved.