Bristol’s famous bird collection finds a new home

July 10th, 2014 by Lynn

    Amy Ueland of Plymouth State University’s science department pauses to admire a toucan as she and Prof. Len Reitsma began moving a bird collection that was originally donated to the Town of Bristol back in 1903. Photo - Donna Rhodes

    Staff Writer

    BRISTOL — A collection of birds that has been housed at the Minot-Sleeper Library in Bristol for decades recently flew off to college, where they will be put to good use in science classes and placed on public display at Plymouth State University’s Boyd Science Center.

    The collection was a gift to the Town of Bristol in 1903 from Ruth Pray, and was kept at the library in large glass cases for nearly 100 years.

    Former Library Trustee Barbara Greenwood said that eventually, the library needed more space, and there were also safety concerns about children possibly running into the glass front of the custom made cases. As a result, the collection was moved to the basement about 10 years ago.

    “It’s damp down there, though. They were disintegrating slowly due to their age and need to be in a controlled environment,” Greenwood said. “We were concerned, so a few years ago, the Town of Bristol gave the trustees the authority to find them a new home.”

    The birds were not easy to re-home, though, and it took some time to find someone who could keep them together as an entire collection. After several inquiries, trustees eventually found Len Reitsma, a professor of ornithology and ecology at Plymouth State University, who expressed a real interest in them.

    “I’ll be able to use many of these as demos in my classes, and we’ll rotate them for displays in Boyd Hall, too,” Reitsma said.

    Before he could accept the donation, though, Reitsma first had to be sure it was legal for him to possess it. There were many songbirds in the collection, along with some endangered species which are illegal to own today, so he contacted state and federal authorities for permission.

    “Because of the age of the collection, they said it was fine for us to have them,” said Reitsma.

    With fears harmful substances might have been used in their preservation, the birds were also tested.

    “There was some thought that they could have been preserved with arsenic, but none was detected, so that was fine,” said Greenwood.

    Last month, Reitsma and technical specialist Amy Ueland of PSU finally began the painstaking task of moving the delicate mounts. Many were not in the best of condition, but they were still fascinating to behold as they were carefully placed into boxes for their trip to Plymouth.

    Included in the massive collection were a bald eagle, a peacock, a loon in winter plumage, many owls, a great blue heron, and even a carrier pigeon.

    “Oh, look — a toucan,” Ueland said as she eased it from the back of one case.

    Greenwood said she admired the thought Pray had put into each bird and the way in which they were presented. Many, especially the smaller songbirds, sat on branches in a natural pose, looking as though they had just landed in a tree or were ready to take flight.

    “I have so many questions about this collection, though. I wonder why she did this and how long it took her to get a collection of this size. Did she get them all on her own? Where did they all come from? It’s really fascinating to think about,” she said.

    Some members of the community were distraught to learn the birds were being moved out of the library, and while Greenwood said she understood their feelings, she also felt it was best for the preservation of the collection.

    “I bet if we asked Ruth Pray, she’d go along with this because she wanted the best for her birds, which is how they ended up here to begin with,” said Greenwood. “Ruth was an educated person, and I think she’d be happy her birds have gone off to college where students can learn from them and the public can enjoy them again.”

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