Thursday, April 27, 2017

Victoria's Riflebird: Around The World From 80 Countries

The kookaburra (subject of the last post) is probably the best-known of the many unusual birds found in Australia.  Our museum collection also contains a Victoria's Riflebird (Ptiloris victoriae) which lives in a small section of Queensland along Australia's northeast coast.
Victoria's Riflebird (Ptiloris victoriae)

The males are black with iridescent feathers on head and neck.  When they open their beaks, you can see the brilliant yellow color of their mouths.  They have an unusual courtship dance which involves raising their wings and pulling them forward until they nearly circle the head and then tilting their bodies from side to side.  You can see a video of this dance from Cornell's Ornithology lab at

You might wonder why Oregon's Benton County Museum has specimens of these Australian birds.  To answer that question takes a knowledge of the history of the Horner Museum collection which the Benton County Museum took over in 2008. It began in the early 1920s when Professor John Horner was asked to create a college museum by bringing together a number of collections held by various academic departments at what is now Oregon State University.  Some of the bird specimens come from the Zoology department where William T. Shaw, professor and amateur taxidermist, created a collection for use by students.  His large collection, which contained primarily specimens of Oregon birds, won a gold medal at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition.
William Thomas Shaw reading his book on birds.
 Professor Horner also sought donations of Native American and pioneer artifacts as well as natural history specimens from people he knew around the state.  One of those people was Dr. J. Lindsey Hill, a collector who maintained a small museum in nearby Albany.  Professor Horner often took his history students there to view the pioneer objects.  After Dr. Hill died, his heirs donated much of the collection to the new museum in 1924.  The Hill collection contained over 1,000 items and provided a solid core for OSU's museum. The kookaburra and riflebird are from the Hill collection.
Portrait of Dr. J. Lindsey Hill by William Maurice Ball

Friday, April 21, 2017

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree

Although we could not include Bruce the Moose in the Around The World From 80 Countries exhibition, we did include one taxidermy specimen-- the Australian laughing kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae).  All I knew about this bird before beginning my research was that it was the subject of a song (a round written by Marion Sinclair in 1932):

          “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree

          Merry, merry king of the bush is he

          Laugh, kookaburra! Laugh, kookaburra!

          Gay your life must be”

To write the exhibit label, I had to learn more and found that there are many interesting things about this bird-- too many to fit on the label.  So here are some of the things I've learned about the kookaburra. 

·       Kookaburras do live in gum trees, which is another name for a eucalyptus tree.

·       At dawn and dusk, kookaburra begin territorial calls with a low chuckle or “oo” sound which escalates into a rapid repetition of what sounds like “ha, ha, ha.”  One bird starts, the others join in, creating quite a racket. If you want to hear a kookaburra laugh, go to

·       Aboriginal legend says that “the chorus of laughter every morning is a signal for the sky people to light the great fire that illuminates and warms the earth by day.”

·       In New South Wales, kookaburras were originally called laughing jackasses.

·       Kookaburras typically hatch 1 to 5 young per year.  They stay with their parents for 1 to 3 years to help incubate the eggs, feed the chicks and defend the family's territory.

·       Kookaburras eat snakes.  To kill a snake, the kookaburra grasps it by the head and smacks it on the ground.

·       Kookaburras spend a lot of their time on the ground searching for food.  They are easily frightened.  Instead of trying to fly away, they open their beaks as wide as possible and remain motionless.
Eagles prey on kookaburras.  When they sight an eagle, all the kookaburras stop and point their beaks skyward. They move as a unit to follow the path of the eagle hoping to fool it into thinking they are merely brown branches.

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree.

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon


Monday, April 17, 2017

Bruce the Moose: Around The World From 80 Countries

My last posts were about some small items that we did not include in the around-the-world exhibition.  We also omitted a very large item because it was in the “artifact hospital.”

 One of our many taxidermy specimens is a large moose, killed in Saskatchewan, Canada in the 1920s and carefully measured and packed out to a taxidermist in Seattle.  At the time of its donation, the moose was said to be the second largest mounted moose.  The antlers span 54 inches; fortunately they detach to make it easier to move. For many years, this moose stood in the main hallway of the old Horner Museum at Oregon State University where he was admired by many. 

John B. Horner and students at the campus museum in Corvallis, Oregon.
Visitors often patted his sides and over time his coat began to deteriorate from the handling. Even though it has not been on display since the Benton County Museum acquired the Horner Collection, many people fondly remember “Bruce the Moose” as he was dubbed. Last year, the Benton County Museum's board decided to employ a conservator to refurbish this iconic moose. Among other tasks, the conservator, Tom Fuller, had to reshape broken ears, remake the tail, fix some seams which were coming apart, and fill in the bare patches on the fur. 

"Bruce the Moose" under the care of museum conservator Tom Fuller.
Bruce the Moose was still in rehab when the around-the-world exhibition opened. He is now looking well and will be on display after the new museum building opens in downtown Corvallis. (To learn more about the new building, go to

Moose are not native to Oregon, although in 1922, an attempt was made to introduce them.  Six were shipped in from Alaska, exhibited in Portland, and released in the Roseburg area.  One died during transport, one was killed by a train, and one was shot as “a local pest.”  The other three did not survive long enough to create a local population of this animal.

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon

Note: Bruce the Moose is one of the many artifacts in the Benton County Historical Society artifact collection which fits the theme of the 2017 “Around The World From 80 Countries” exhibition but is not currently on public display. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

British Honduras: Around The World From 80 Countries

My previous blog described two coins from Central America.  Today's object is a third coin from that area.  Belize is a small country located on the Caribbean coast between Honduras, Guatemala and the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico-- land that Christopher Columbus claimed for Spain in 1502. It eventually became part of the Kingdom of Guatemala, the same as Nicaragua and El Salvador.
So why is the head of King George V of England on this coin? Although part of New Spain, the area did not attract many Spanish settlers because they found the climate and the natives inhospitable and the area lacked deposits of precious metals.  Just off the coast of Belize, however, is the largest coral reef outside of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. British pirates sailing in the Caribbean to plunder Spanish treasure ships often found it useful to hide behind the reef amid the many cays and islands there. They also discovered that some Spanish ships coming from the Gulf coast of the Yucatan carried a profitable cargo of logwood (also known as dyewood or campeachy) used to make purple dye for the textile industry.  As efforts to end piracy accelerated, some of the men turned instead to logging in the coastal areas of Belize and Honduras.  The settlements grew and allied with the natives, making them harder to eliminate.  In 1670, the Spanish granted the British logging concessions in this area. These rights were confirmed in the treaty of Paris in 1783, in which Britain agreed to give up its settlements further south along the coast of Honduras in exchange for maintaining the logging concessions in Belize. Although the Spanish granted the rights to the British, they never surrendered their claim on the territory.

It was only after Guatemala declared independence from Spain that the British gained formal control of the territory they had settled much earlier. In 1859, Guatemala ceded the territory to Britain in return for construction of a road from Guatemala City to the Caribbean.  In 1864, the area officially became the separate crown colony of British Honduras, the name that appears on this 1916 coin.

British Honduras was renamed Belize in 1973 and became an independent nation in 1981.  

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon

Note: This coins is one of the many artifacts in the Benton County Historical Society artifact collection which fits the theme of the 2017 “Around The World From 80 Countries” exhibition but is not currently on public display.