MV's first donation

12 April, 2010

Little Pied Cormorant
The museum's first donation, a Little Pied Cormorant (at left), showing its chestnut-breasted colouration.
Source: Museum Victoria

Some canny detective work, inspired by a newspaper article published 154 years ago today, has turned up what is probably the first specimen donated to the museum.

The article was published in The Argus on 12 April 1856, listing specimens donated to the then-new National Museum of Natural History of Victoria. It describes the first donation to the museum as a 'chestnut-breasted pelican, very handsome' from 'Drew, Esq, Collins-street east'.

It took a bit of digging for Wayne Longmore, manager of the Ornithology Collection, to track down the specimen. As he explained, “it’s a bit complex as the museum commenced registration of their material in a rather ad hoc way.  There is also the problem of exactly what is a ‘chestnut-breasted pelican’.” At the time, the term 'pelican' might have been applied to all members of the order Pelecaniformes. Traditionally, the Pelecaniformes encompassed a wide range of water birds including true pelicans, cormorants, and gannets.

Using his knowledge of the museum’s early registration methods and the biology of waterbirds, Wayne narrowed down the possibilities and zoomed in on one specimen. “I am unaware of many, if any, pelicans getting a ‘chestnut-breast’ whereas the Little Pied Cormorant (Phalacrocorax melanoleucos) often shows this distortion. It is merely a temporary discoloration of the feathers due to contaminants in the water, such as oxides or red algae.”

A single Little Pied Cormorant specimen matched all the criteria. There is little recorded about its acquisition other than it came from the Melbourne area. “A lot of information was lost because it was never written down,” says Wayne, describing the first years of the museum. “It’s always a minefield, but I’m 99.9 per cent sure this is the bird.” It is mounted with two other members of its species, one an albino with a tag stating it was collected in 1871, the other collected by the museum’s first zoological employee, William Blandowski.

Other interesting donors named in the 1856 article include Reverend Bleasdale and Dr Eades, who were central characters in the fish-naming scandal that ultimately led to Blandowski's exile, and Captain Andrew Clarke, who later shot a Grey Falcon (Falco hypoleucos) in 1857 as it attempted to eat his chicken dinner. The falcon, currently displayed in The Melbourne Story, "has always attracted our attention as being one of our earliest specimens," said Wayne. "It remains a record of this extremely rare bird of prey from the Melbourne area."

Thanks to Wayne, and the National Library of Australia’s digital archive of newspapers, this small, unassuming cormorant specimen now receives due recognition for its place in Museum Victoria’s history, only 154 years late.

Comments (2)

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Richard Gillespie 15 April, 2010 13:04
I checked Drew, esq in the Port Phillip Directory and then in a list of watchmakers in Victoria, and he will be Henry Drew, watchmaker and jeweller, 73 Collins Street east, from 1853-1856, and then 1859. Then at 19 Collins Street east, presumably later in 1859. Checking shipping lists, a Henry Drew, aged 30, arrived on the Diadem, Nov 1852, so that’s probably our man.
Vanessa O'Brien 7 April, 2014 16:31
Richard, you will be correct about this. My great great great grandfather Samuel Henry Drew, was one of Henry Drew's sons. I can confirm the family emigrated from England to Tasmania in the 1850's and Henry did spend some time in Melbourne, before moving to Nelson NZ where he settled. Samuel was also a jeweller and watchmaker but taxidermy and collecting natural specimens was the family passion. Samuel himself, collected so many natural specimens he amassed a collection large enough to open his own museum, Whanganui Regional Museum in NZ. Here is a link about Samuel and the natural history collections: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2d18/drew-samuel-henry and here is another about Samuel's collection of birds, including cormorants in Te Papa, the National Museum of NZ. http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/Person/26323?state=(c0:(ent:Party,ln:47,sub:32)) Hope this is of assistance. Vanessa
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