Bird skin collections

Study skins of green broadbill

Study skins of green broadbill, Calyptomena viridis, held in the Museum's bird collection

The Museum's avian skin collection is the second largest of its kind in the world, with almost 750,000 specimens representing about 95% of the world's bird species.

The majority of specimens in this collection date from the early-to-mid 1800s through to the mid-to-late 1900s, though the oldest skins date back to Captain James Cook’s voyages in the mid-to-late 1700s. 

Many other important pioneering expeditions are also represented, such as the Antarctic voyage of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror (1839-1843) under James Clark Ross; the voyage of HMS Rattlesnake to northern Australia and New Guinea (1846-1850) under Captain Owen Stanley; the voyage of the Southern Cross, the first expedition to overwinter on the Antarctic continent, under Carsten Borchgrevink and the Zambezi expedition (1858-1864) of David Livingstone. 

The efforts of many remarkable collectors are also preserved in the collections, including prominent historic figures such as John James Audubon (1785-1851), John Gould (1804-1881), Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913), but also less widely known individuals such as Robert Swinhoe (1836-1877), Alfred Everett (1848-1898) and Dr. John Rae (1813-1893). 

The skin collection houses the largest single collection of bird type specimens in the world, relating to over 8,000 named taxa. It also includes a significant collection of specimens of extinct and endangered species, many of which were obtained while the species were still relatively common. 

The size and comprehensiveness of the skin collection results in it being one of the most heavily used of all the zoological collections in the Museum. Every year it is used by over 200 visitors from around the world for a wide variety of purposes. 

Researchers are not only interested in examining the skin and plumage, but also in the associated collecting data and are increasingly focussing on using tiny samples from specimens for molecular analysis.


The collection also houses a significant number of extinct and endangered species, most of which were obtained when the species were still relatively common.

Specimens are still being added to our huge collection today, but the majority date from the early 1800s through to the late 1900s. Some of the oldest skins date back to Captain James Cook’s voyages in the 1770s.

Major collections

Famous contributions

Remarkable collectors have contributed specimens to the Museum's bird skin collection and include prominent historic figures such as John James Audubon (1785-1851), John Gould (1804-1881), Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913).

Many lesser-known people have also contributed significantly to the collection, such as Allan Octavian Hume (1829-1912), Robert Swinhoe (1836-1877) and Alfred Everett (1848-1898).

Looking for a specimen?

The bird collection is being digitised

Senior curators

Hein Van Grouw

Mark Adams

Any questions ?

If you would like to use any specimens for research


Type specimen catalogue

Search or browse bird type specimens and access catalogue data on holotypes, syntypes, lectotypes and neotypes.


Explore the electronic Bulletin board for European avian curators, an online community of European bird curators and associates.

Useful references

Find what you're looking for with our comprehensive lists of ornithological references, and choose from a range of related websites.

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.