Only a fraction of the collection at the country’s oldest natural history museum is out in the open for visitors to see.
Eighteen million plant and animal specimens are catalogued and stored in huge metal cases for research purposes upstairs at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.
Nate Rice, collection manager of ornithology, spends most of his time caring for and managing the more than 200,000 bird specimens there. During field seasons, though, Rice hits the road. He has traveled to Australia, Central Africa and Southeast Asia, collecting birds to add to the academy’s collection.
Rice became interested in ornithology when he took a bird science class in college. And his passion for field work was solidified early on in his career, on his first expedition.
"All of my hobbies of camping and hunting come together with my passion of birds to be in the field collecting and documenting birds," Rice said. "It was absolutely perfect for me."
When he returns to the academy after a trip in the field, Rice skins and stuffs the specimens he captures. He demonstrated his skill on a rose-breasted grosbeak that died after flying into a window at Temple University.
Rice is meticulous in preparing skins for storage; he believes a well-prepared bird will be handled more gently by the generations of scientists who study the academy’s collections.
"Ninety-nine or more percent of the birds that I prepare here at the academy have absolutely no use to my personal research, but you never know when it’s going to be useful," Rice said. "What keeps me going here is just that."