Tales Dead Birds Tell

Emily Patton Smith, for her senior capstone project, examined more than 600 birds, mammal skins, and skeletons in the College’s natural history collection.

When Emily Patton Smith ’12 was in elementary school, someone told her that science was not her strength. “I made the mistake of believing that for a long time,” Smith remembered.

Emily Patton SmithSmith, who graduated with a self-designed heritage studies major, proved that naysayer wrong as a senior at Randolph College when she tackled significant scientific questions with hands-on research. For her senior capstone project, she examined more than 600 birds, mammal skins, and skeletons in the College’s natural history collection. She then created a database that will make the collection more accessible for research and teaching by professors and students. That research helped Smith’s senior paper, “Tales Dead Birds Tell: The Historical and Cultural Context of Early Avian Specimens in the Biology Collections of Randolph College,” win the Randolph College award for best senior paper.

Smith was glad to rediscover her love for science. “This work reminded me how much I like approaching questions scientifically and looking beneath the surface,” Smith said.

Randolph’s natural history collection includes birds, mammal skins and skeletons, a wide variety of other zoological specimens, and many botanical samples. It also includes unique specimens, such as a mounted bald eagle and a duck billed platypus.

It is unusual for a small college to own a collection this large and diverse, said Doug Shedd, The Catherine Ehrman Thoresen ’23 and William E. Thoresen Professor of Biology. The resource, he added, makes a difference in courses that discuss evolution, anatomy, and animal behavior. “It’s nice to be able to see an organism, rather than just talk about it,” Shedd said. “This brings a component to the discussion that we wouldn’t have without the collection.”

In 2006, Smith traveled to natural history museums in London and Scotland to study botanical and animal drawings from James Cook’s first circumnavigation of the globe. When she learned that Randolph’s natural history collection needed updating and organizing, working on it seemed a natural fit.

Students work with Professor Doug Shedd

Because of Smith’s work, the collection is more scientifically accurate and easier to use for research and teaching. It is also now larger; this spring, she led a group of students who learned taxidermy from Shedd and worked to preserve additional bird specimens that had been in freezer storage for several years. “This is the first time in a decade that anyone has added anything to the collection,” said Shedd. “We are excited about the progress we’ve made.”