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.