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Entries in Museum of Natural History (18)


Wildlife of DC: Passenger Pigeon

extinct birds
In yesterday's post (which despite its appearances was not edited by a poorly trained monkey) we talked about the Bald Eagle, a species that has traveled from the brink of extinction to the commonplace. Of course, not everyone was so lucky.

Let's talk about one of the species that once lived on the banks of the Potomac that will never be seen alive again, unless of course, we get that cloning thing up and running. It once existed in such numbers that they reportedly blocked the sun as they migrated overhead. The Passenger Pigeon was last seen in the wild around the turn of the last century and the last captive one, Martha, died on September 1st, 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoological Park. Incidentally, Martha is here in DC in the U.S. National Bird Collection at the Smithsonian, although not on display.

So what happened? How did a species that was once the most common bird of North America end up collapsing so completely? Many theories have been advanced, and it was almost certainly a team effort. Deforestation reduced it's habitat and of course played a part. It's entirely possible that infectious disease, such as Newcastle Disease helped them along. But mostly, the Passenger Pigeon was hunted extensively to provide meat to slaves in the South, as well as cheap meat for poor people in urban areas.

But on a more fundamental level, the Pigeon's problem was that it was a blithering idiot, evolutionary speaking (that's a technical term, by the way). It survived in great numbers because it needed to survive in great numbers. On an individual level, it had no defenses. It simply hoped that there would be so many other Pigeons that predators would be so full they couldn't possibly eat all of them. When humans ramped up hunting in the 19th century, they managed to kill in numbers never before seen, so many that the population collapsed. By the time zoos and naturalists attempted to save the species, they discovered that they would need breeding pairs in the thousands to resurrect the numbers required. Unlike the Eagles we discussed yesterday, it was not possible to bring them back with just a handful of pairs. So once the balance beam tipped, there was no righting it. Despite the best efforts of institutions such as the Cincinnati Zoo, the Passenger Pigeon never made it back.

But since it went extinct in an era with a madness for cataloging and categorizing nature, the Passenger Pigeon is not entirely absent from Washington, DC. While you cannot see Martha herself, a Passenger Pigeon is on display at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. It's a little out of the way, but worth a look. Head down to the ground floor, where the gift shops and cafeteria are, and head to the Birds of DC exhibit. Now, it's entirely possible that you have been to the Natural History Museum and have not seen this exhibit. It's even possible that you are a professional, licensed Tour Guide and not seen this exhibit. But that would be a mistake. It's one of those quirky, dated little exhibits that get passed over for dinosaurs, elephants, and giant whales. Go downstairs and spend five minutes looking at the birds in their wonderful, antique wooden display cases. And as you go in, look to your left. Right there at the top, next to the also extinct Carolina Parakeet, is an actual Passenger Pigeon. And to think, you came all this way and almost missed it.


Wildlife of DC: Black Squirrels

Black Squirrel
photo by geopungo

Yesterday, as we discussed the Grey Squirrel at great length, I alluded to the fact that they do not have a monopoly on DC, squirrel-wise. And a casual walk through DC, specially Squirrel-Central, Lafayette Park, will probably result in at least one sighting of the feared and dreaded "Black Squirrel of Death".

Breath normally though, these are simply a variant of our normal Eastern Grey Squirrels, a "melanistic variety" to use the proper terminology. It is thought that when the first settlers came to North America, the Black variant was the dominant one, greatly outnumbering their Grey cousins. In the shady gloom of a virgin forest, the darker coloring gave an evolutionary advantage to the Black ones. However, once settlers started clearing land, and more importantly, hunting squirrels, the darkness worked against them. Quite simply, in a sunny field, a black squirrel stands out.

So, outside a few pockets, the black ones were hunted and bred out of the entire Continental US. However, they retained their evolutionary advantage further north. In addition to the protective nature of the coloring, black retains heat better, giving them an advantage in colder climates.

But if they were all hunted out, how did they end up in DC? Well, in 1902, and again in 1906, the National Zoo received 18 Black Squirrels from the Department of Crown Lands of Ontario. Over time, they managed to spread from the Zoo into the surrounding neighborhoods. It's unclear if they were deliberately released or simply escaped. Presumably, breeding squirrels is much easier than, say, Giant Pandas, and so they may have just let the surplus go. Either way, they started to spread outwards from the National Zoo. The Smithsonian Museum of National History has a preserved specimen dating from 1917 from Cleveland Park. The 1923 Mammals of the District of Columbia notes that they can be found throughout the Cleavland Park area. Today, they've spread as far north as Ft. Meade, MD (30 miles), as far east as Annapolis (30 miles), and as far south Prince William County, VA (25 miles).

And not only have the Black Squirrels spread, they've become part of the local zeitgeist. Locals enjoy pointing them out, and visitors are fascinated by the, even more so than the ubiquitous Grey variant. Heck, there's even a bar named after them.


DC Like a Dork

A new perspective on visiting Washington, DC by subject matter expert, David Brunton. On a side note, I assume David is using the more modern, colloquial meaning for "dork", rather than the traditional meaning.

by David Brunton

There were some responses to my previous post that intimated I am insufficiently local to comment on finer points of touring DC. Well, at 28 minutes away, I may be insufficiently local. I am not, however, insufficiently dorky to write a post titled "DC Like a Dork." I'm such a dork that other dorks don't even get what I'm talking about most the time.

But enough bragging. If you're interested in a dork's-eye view of Washington DC, look no further. Or, rather, look a little bit further, but don't keep looking elsewhere. I've got what you need.

To begin, if you are a dork, you should make sure your visit coincides with a Dorkbot, where other dorks like you have soldering parties. Haven't had enough? Wander over to the hackerspace at HacDC for a little programming and robotics on the side. Make some stuff, set it on fire, create some robot overlords, whatever.

So, that's how you time your visit: to coincide with some dorking. But seriously, who am I kidding? You're probably here for a W3C conference, and you didn't get to pick when you would come. Not that it matters. Here's what else you should do while you're here.


Visit Natural History. Visit Air and Space. Visit the Koshland. Visit the Botanic Gardens, and get the rest of your A-List dorking out of the way. Depending upon what kind of dork you are (e.g. you might be an art dork or a history dork like Tim), the Arboretum might be cool, or any of the nine thousand or so art museums. Once you've done all the A-List dorking, settle down to the real business of having something amazing to tell your dork children.

Block off a whole day. Go get your library card from the Library of Congress. Yes, they have library cards, and yes, you need one for any serious dorking. Once you've got that, pick something awesomely obscure, and go find the right reading room to ask for it. Ask for Box 6 of the collected papers of John von Neumann. Ask for something by Francis Bacon or Blaise Pascal or Gottfried Leibniz. See if you can find something that Kurt Gödel wrote. Go crazy with your dork self. Spend a whole day in the Science and Business reading room, just glorying in a room that has the word "usufruct" on the wall and actual encyclopedias lining the walls.

After that, check out the calendars at the various institutions run and populated by dorks like us:

Now, go take a class. Attend a lecture. Broaden your mind. Meet other dorks.


Last, but not least, if you find you need to get a fix, and you are tired of walking around, go to Reiter's. There, you will dork to your dork heart's content.



Metro to the Mall

I'm going to have to ask my local readers to bear with me here, but there's some important info I haven't shared yet with our out of town guests.

I think, by now, most visitors have gotten the word about not driving to the National Mall. It's possible, I guess, and people do it, but you're more likely to see Obama than find parking anywhere close to the Museums. And, to indulge in a tangent for a second, if you are that lovely couple from New Jersey who decided to take do it yourself parallel parking lessons in front of the Smithsonian, than let me tell you that the bus honking at you was mine. I got to ask you, what made you think the parking fairy was going to help you on the 16th try? There's no shame in not knowing how to parallel park, there is in blocking traffic for half of downtown DC.

Whew, now that that's out of my system, let's focus on some actual useful advice. Everyone always says "take Metro to the Smithsonians" and folks naturally assume that the Smithsonian stop is the one to get off of at. However, the "Smithsonian" is a gigantic institution that sprawls from the base of the Capitol to the shadow of the Washington Monument, well over a mile in distance. Due to the proximity of several Metro stations, the Smithsonian station may not be your best stop.

Much depends on what line you are taking to the Mall. Consult your friendly Metro Map, first. The Blue, Orange, Yellow, and Green lines all cross under the Mall. If you are taking the Yellow line into the city, for example, it does little good to get off L'Enfant Plaza, wait ten minutes for a transfer to the Blue/Orange Line, get off at Smithsonian if you are, in fact, going to the Air and Space Museum. So, let's break it down by museum.

View Metro to the Mall in a larger map

American History: Get on the Blue or Orange Line and get off at Federal Triangle or Smithsonian stop. The Museum is slightly closer to the Smithsonian stop, but I prefer the Federal Triangle stop, especially if you have to push a stroller through the gravel of the Mall walkways. If you get off at Federal Triangle, when you take the escalator to the top, turn around, walk to 12th St, and take a right.

Natural History: If you are coming from the Blue/Orange line, then the same as above. If you have a stroller or wheelchair, I'd recommend using the Federal Triangle stop. The Constitution Ave entrance that you come to is handicap accessible, in a way that the Mall entrance very much is not. If you are riding the Yellow or Green Lines, you might want to save a transfer and get off at Navy Memorial/Archives. Upon exiting, walk straight to 9th street, cross Pennsylvania Ave, and walk south one block. The Natural History Museum will be across the street.

Smithsonian Castle, African Art Museum, Sackler Gallery, and the Freer Gallery: These are all readily accessible from the Smithsonian station. Use the Mall exit.

National Gallery of Art: The closest stop is the Archives/Navy Memorial. Do a 180 upon exiting, take a right on 7th, cross Pennsylvania and Constitution, and look up. That's the West Building. Any guesses as to which direction the East Building is from here? If you happen to be on the Blue/Orange line and don't feel like transferring, you can also get off at the L'Enfant Plaza stop and walk across the Mall. Use the 7th Street/Maryland Avenue exit. It's a little farther than Navy/Archives but you can save the hassle of transferring.

National Air and Space Museum: For all the lines (except Red) use the L'Enfant Plaza station. There are multiple exits to choose, so make sure you go to the 7th Street/Maryland Avenue exit. It is on the upper level above the Green/Yellow line tracks. Once above ground, walk up Maryland and take a left on 6th Street. Air and Space is one block directly ahead of you. For all six of you that might wish to visit the Hirshorn Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, use this exit as well, just walk up 7th Street instead of Maryland.

National Museum of the American Indian: Federal Center SW is the closest, a few blocks down 3rd St, but is only on the Blue/Orange Line. If you are on the Green/Yellow, walk a few blocks more down Maryland Ave, away from the Capitol.


National Building Museum - Best DC Kids Museum?

One of Washington, DC's conspicuous gaps, culturally speaking, is the lack of a museum dedicated to kids.

It wasn't always the case; we once had a perfectly serviceable National Children's Museum located on H St Northeast. Unfortunately, the Museum closed; ironically, just as H St started becoming a destination in it's own right, albeit more for its excellent collection of bars and less for visiting families. And please, don't anyone bother to tell me it's reopening in 2013. Not here, it ain't. It'll be in some ridiculous place called "National Harbor", a development that is to urban design what McMansions are to home building and virtually inaccessible without a car.

But I digress. With the abandonment of Washington by the Children's Museum, those of us looking to entertain our kids need a little guidance. As one of our readers, Stacie, asks:

We are visiting DC for 3 days with our children. Wondering about the appropriateness of the museums for that age group (5-10 yrs old). Obviously the Natural History and Air and Space will be great for them...but the others?

Stacie has mentioned two of the kid-friendly museums out there. I'd throw American History, Postal Museum, Portrait Gallery, and the Archives (if the line isn't too long) in to the mix, as well. But my hands down favorite for kids has got to be the National Building Museum. Frankly, National Harbor can keep the Children's Museum; I'll take the Building Museum any day of the week.

The building itself, as befits a museum about buildings, is spectacular. Savvy visitors to my blog will recognize the frieze as you enter. Built as the Pension Bureau following the civil war, its wide open Great Hall is a favorite place for local families to escape the heat (or the cold). Even if you don't look at a single exhibit, the Great Hall is worth stopping in for a comfortable place to relax in a city all too often concerned with propriety and grandeur.

Young kids will enjoy the Building Zone area, with it's ample building toys and play area. Giant legos! But pay close attention to their work. Sometimes my daughter doesn't do it right and I have to "help" her here. How else is the tower going to be six feet tall if I don't assist her! She's generally pretty understanding with me. On weekends, it can get a little crowded and there might be a short wait to enter Building Zone, but the staff normally brings blocks out into the Great Hall. We often have so much fun with that, we never make it into the play room proper. And for us older kids, the giant arch in the Great Hall is my personal white whale. If anyone manages to complete it, please send me a picture with them standing under it to post here. I've come close, but small children are less help than you might think in engineering projects.

If you know when you're going to be in town, a little planning can add quite a bit more to your experience. The Museum rents out "tool kits" to families for five bucks that help explore kids up to 11 explore the building. And besides putting on it's own excellent events, the Museum plays host to a great deal of fascinating outside programs. Later this month the 28th to be precise, Target will be sponsoring the National Cherry Blossom Festival's Family Day and Opening Ceremony here. Lot's of kid friendly activities and Target puts on a good party. I went to their sponsored opening of the Portrait Gallery's courtyard a few years ago and it was a blast.

The exhibits are quite well-done as well. The Museum's permanent exhibit, Washington, Symbol and City, is possibly the best comprehensive discussion of the growth of Washington, DC as a City I've seen. Visitors looking to engage the city beyond the National Mall should come here to start. And I try to make a point to stop in to their rotating exhibits. They can be quite clever, even those I would normally dismiss. Case in point, the current one, Detour, discusses tourist routes in Norway. And it's not at all the snooze-fest I anticipated.

As far as amenities go, there is a small cafe inside but we usually just bring a picnic lunch. The Museum is conveniently located on the Red Line at Judiciary Square and the exit is directly across the street. Be sure to spend a minute at the National Law Enforcement Memorial. It doesn't get much attention, but it is one of the worthier memorials in town. But that'll be the subject of another post...