Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.


RARE: Firing back against extinction!

Although many of the most popular endangered species roam the arctic poles or scour the savannah, vulnerable species can be found in the most ordinary places—even your own backyard. Meet the black-capped vireo, an endangered songbird that once whistled around Norman, Oklahoma. But don’t worry! Unlike so many conservation stories, the inspirational tale of the black-capped vireo will leave a smile on your face.

A black-capped vireo in the wild 

Here’s the situation. In the 1980s, this species suffered a major population decline due to habitat modification. Black-capped vireos rely on dry scrubland habitats, which often are maintained by fires. When these fires are suppressed, scrublands grow into extensive wooded areas and are no longer suitable to the black-capped vireo. Other threats include agricultural development and a parasitic enemy—the brown-headed cowbird.

A brown-headed cowbird

The female brown-headed cowbird notoriously lays her eggs in the nest of other birds, abandoning her young to foster parents. This comes at the expense of the host’s own chicks since the cowbirds hatch much earlier. At their peak, roughly 80 percent of black-capped vireo nests in Oklahoma and central Texas contained these parasitic eggs, radically limiting their reproductive success.

A black-capped vireo nest with vireo eggs (white) and a cowbird egg (brown)

 What’s a poor bird to do? In 1991, affiliated research associate Joe Grzybowski developed a black-capped vireo recovery plan for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. With strategies for prescribed burns by land managers, plus new cowbird-trapping techniques, the black-capped vireo population has grown from 50-70 pairs to 4,200 pairs in the Wichita Mountains. Bravo!


Joe Grzybowski doing a bit of field research

Despite this inspirational success, Grzybowski’s work is not done. He is currently serving as a co-principal investigator with colleagues from Texas A&M University on a grant from the Joint Fire Science Program of the Bureau of Land Management. Through this grant, scientists hope to develop models of habitat changes created by fires to maximize the effectiveness of fire management strategies. If these strategies are fruitful, it will mean greater reproductive success for the black-capped vireo and other similarly endangered bird species.

See this Norman native for yourself in RARE: Portrait’s of America’s Endangered Species, running through Jan.19. This exhibit features both famous and lesser-known endangered species of North America, including the black-capped vireo. Supplemented with museum specimens from five collections, this exhibit offers you a glimpse of this world’s rarest residents—both near and far.

Black-capped Vireo, Vireo atricapilla

Photographed at Fort Hood, Texas

c. Joel Sartore, RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species

Ornithology Bands Together

If you’ve driven by the Sam Noble Museum at any point since November, you may have noticed a rectangular, grass prairie sitting just behind the museum. No, no – we aren’t slacking on our chores. The tall brush houses several species of birds, some of which are extremely difficult to observe and track. That’s why a team of ornithologists hit the field last week to do a bit of bird banding before the March mowing.


Volunteer Robin Urquhart holds a Lincoln’s Sparrow

It all began last fall, when Joe Grzybowski, ornithology research associate, discovered several species of sparrows hunting for food in the tall brush. One of these species, the LeConte’s sparrow, is an exceptionally secretive animal that researchers seldom stumble upon. In fact, only 3,000 LeConte’s sparrows have ever been banded, only one of which was recaptured at a later time.


A LeConte’s Sparrow outside the museum

 Ornithologists engage in banding as a means of tracking species migration and monitoring populations. Each metal band, issued by the US Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory, contains a serial number and is sized for each species. Fortunately, Grzybowski has a banding permit and was able to lead the team through the process.

“A small conscious change in landscaping practices can help support a variety of wildlife,” said Tamaki Yuri, ornithology collection manager. “For example, the hawks we have seen around the field this winter are evidence of healthy populations of grassland birds and small mammals in the field.”


The team bands sparrows outside the museum

 In just two hours, the team banded six sparrows of four different species – two LeConte’s, two Lincoln’s, one Song and one Savannah sparrows. Given the high winds and limited time, Yuri says she is pleased with the results. The team will use this information to track population growth for the area in coming years.

 “If these birds know that the grasses exist, they will come back next year,” said Yuri, “and it is important to have more research on the LeConte’s Sparrow.”


Yuri holding a LeConte’s Sparrow

Birds of a Feather


White Gyrfalcon by George Sutton, Date Unknown

Wait, art AND science?

Art and science are often viewed as polar disciplines, pursuits that seldom overlap and engage opposite ends of the brain - but it’s unlikely that George M. Sutton, exceptional illustrator and accomplished scientist, would agree. Throughout his lifetime, Sutton made invaluable contributions to both ornithology and art through his unbelievably realistic sketches of wildlife, which are currently available for public viewing.

So, what should I expect?

To be amazed. The Sam Noble Museum houses 3,500 of Sutton’s 20,000 paintings and has selected 75 astounding watercolor portraits for the George M. Sutton: Exploring Art and Science exhibit, which transforms the simplistic, streamlined gallery space into a lush, exotic hub of dazzling plumage. The exhibit primarily features artwork from Sutton’s Mexico, Arctic and United State’s expeditions and a few personal items of Sutton’s, including his treasured paint box.

What kinds of birds did Sutton paint?

Although this collection features a dazzling array of species from several exotic destinations, the exhibit is bound together by the passion of one extraordinary man. You can expect to see a diverse array of species in nearly every imaginable landscape, from arctic tundra to Mexican jungle.

Who is George Sutton, anyways?

George Miksch Sutton, a renowned artist, writer, explorer and teacher, followed his love of ornithology to the University of Oklahoma in 1952. During his lifetime, Sutton traveled on many expeditions in the continental United States, as well as to the Artic north, Mexico and South America. By the time of his death, he had written 12 books, over 200 scientific journal articles and illustrated at least 18 books. Impressive, right? Additionally, the George Miksh Sutton Avian Research Center was founded in 1983 to aid in aviary conservation.

Is it really worth a trip to the museum?

Absolutely. It isn’t everyday you get to see top-notch watercolor paintings alongside state-of-the-art science education, and that’s not something you want to miss. The exhibit will be on display from Jan. 18 to April 20, so there is plenty of time to plan your family daytrip. Author H. Jackson Brown Jr. once said, “Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity.” He’s right, you know. Don’t wait – flock in today.


Black-bellied Plovers by George Sutton, Aug. 1966

Inside the Treasure Box: Week Eight

On Monday, we asked our Facebook friends to solve a little ITTB teaser in preparation for today’s post: “This type of bird is also the name of a county in central Oklahoma.” Think you know what it is? Our Facebook friends certainly do. Today we’re talking about the wildly-plumed, internationally known kingfisher.

Kingfishers are a group of brightly colored birds that are famous for catching fish by swooping down from a perch, as shown in the video above from BBC Wildlife. They are found all over the world, but the largest number of species is found in Africa. The Giant Kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima) is the largest kingfisher in the world, usually between 16.5 and 18 inches, and is a resident breeder over most of Africa south of the Sahara Desert. 


A Giant Kingfisher from the SNOMNH ornithology department

For comparison sake, the African Pygmy Kingfisher (Ispidina picta) is the second smallest kingfisher, usually measuring in around 4.75 to 5.11 inches. This species is only slightly bigger than its closest relative, the African Dwarf Kingfisher (Ispidina lecontei). Unlike most kingfishers, they are insectivorous and found in woodland and savanna terrains away from water. 


An African Pygmy Kingfisher from the SNOMNH ornithology department

Both of these specimens were donated by Jack Hill II, a student of curator Gary Schnell. When he was a child, he and his father collected these birds in Ethiopia in the 1970s. How’s that for father-son bonding? What’s so unique about these specimens is that, thanks to Jack Hill II, the Sam Noble Museum now houses the largest and second smallest species of kingfisher in the world. What do they look like side by side? We’re glad you asked.


Giant Kingfisher and African Pygmy Kingfisher side by side

So, what’s in store for next week, you ask? Well, dust off your time machine because we’re going back 455 millions years. That’s right, 455 million years. Just let that sink in for a moment. Though it may come from a long-gone era, this specimen was actually found not so far from home. Any guesses as to where? Tune into Facebook Monday and tell us what you think for this week’s teaser!

Museum Adopts Orphaned Collection

Orphaned collections are a growing concern for natural history institutions worldwide.  An endangered or orphaned collection is any considerable body of material, which is or soon may be no longer regarded as of value in its present ownership.  According to the American Association of Museums, every year more institutions, agencies, corporations, and individuals divest themselves of their collections. When this occurs, “orphaned” collections need to be “adopted” by an existing natural history collection.

In November of 2011, Eugene Young, a professor in the Agriculture and Life Sciences department at Northern Oklahoma College in Tonkawa, Okla. contacted the Sam Noble Museum about the possibility of adopting an orphaned collection from the A.D. Buck Museum.

A.D. Buck Museum

Originally called the Yellow Bull Museum, the A.D. Buck Museum’s science exhibits included mounted specimens of birds and mammals. Sam Noble Museum curator Gary Schnell and collection managers Marcia Revelez and Tamaki Yuri traveled to the A.D. Buck Museum to view the specimens. Upon further inspection, the team found many specimens that had been on loan from the Sam Noble Museum.

A total of 14 specimens were loaned to A. D. Buck in 1961, including an adult grizzly bear, all still in good condition. Most of the collection’s Oklahoma birds and mammals were found in the early 1900s, such as the marsh hawk, in 1910, and a Pintail, in 1913.

Grizzly Bear, A. D. Buck MuseumMany of the specimens in the A. D. Buck collection are significant to Oklahoma’s history, such as the Spotted Skunk found in 1934 in Kay County, an area that had no previous record of having that species before the 1990s.  After evaluation, a crew returned in December to pack up the collection of birds and mammals and bring them to their new home at the Sam Noble Museum.

The A. D. Buck specimens are not the first collection the museum has adopted. Recently, the museum’s Department of Mammalogy adopted approximately 26,000 mammal species from the University of Memphis Mammal Collection.

Birds at A. D. Buck

“It’s an ongoing goal for the museum to aid orphaned collections,” Revelez said.

Natural history collections play a vital role in understanding cultures, habitats, biodiversity and more. They safeguard specimens, inspire, educate, and tirelessly continue the research and study of various sciences. We welcome back our mammals and birds that have been on loan for so many decades and will always strive to maintain and preserve Oklahoma’s rich natural history.

A Whole Herd of Robins

Robins feeding in the museum's front garden

This morning as I was walking past the water garden in front of the museum, I noticed a whole flock of robins feeding around the pond. I stood still and counted at least a dozen, with more flitting around in the plantings and in the branches overhead.

This past Saturday I had seen a flock of 20 or more in my front yard. And I wondered “why don’t I see flocks of robins in the spring and summer? Why only in winter?”

So I marched upstairs to the office of Dr. Gary Schnell, our curator of birds. It’s so handy to have a building full of scientists when you come up with these random questions.

He tells me that we don’t see robins in groups in the spring and summer because they pair off to mate. In the winter they come together to feed.

But what about that whole “first robin of spring” thing? I asked. Well, turns out that works much better up in Michigan (whose state bird is the robin, by the way), than it does down here in Oklahoma. Here we have robins all year ‘round.

There is some migration movement of robins to the south from up north, so the robins we see in the winter may not be the same robins we see in the spring and summer (to those Michigan robins, Oklahoma probably feels like Palm Beach). But don’t get excited when you see that robin in January… spring is still, sadly, many weeks away.