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Birds of a Feather

St. Kate's unique collection finds a new home, new admirers at the Bell Museum

Back in 1936, St. Kate's biology department — led by the bird-loving St. Mark Wirtz, CSJ, '30, — bought a collection of 325 birds of 206 different species or sub-species, including the extinct passenger pigeon, from a couple in Alexandria, Minnesota.

The birds, mounted in two oak cabinets measuring roughly six feet tall by three feet wide, significantly increased the University's existing collection and enriched the school's nature study and ornithology classes.

Both courses are no longer taught at St. Kate's. Over time, the cabinets were moved to the basement of Mendel Hall, along with a smaller one donated in 1950.
"Science has switched from killing, capturing and ripping apart to just observing," says Chris Palahniuk, biology lab manager. "For the most part, we spend a lot of time observing live specimens and patterns."

Plainly put, St. Kate's collection of bird taxidermy outlived its usefulness. Also, Palahniuk adds, "most students didn't find the birds to be very pleasing or helpful."

Last year, Palahniuk facilitated the collection's transfer to the Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis, after consulting with former St. Kate's archivist Margery Smith, CSJ, '49, and Esperance Wittry, CSJ, '46, the last living biology teacher among the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul.
This past summer, the smaller cabinet was part of the Bell's exhibit by resident artist Jeff Millikan. The other two cabinets will be repaired for mold and water damage (and lost bird eyes).

Initially, the Bell Museum wanted to dismantle the cabinets and display the birds individually in the museum's "Touch-and-See" room. "But the collection is too interesting as an archive, and I didn't want to see it destroyed," says Jennifer Menken, the Bell's community program specialist. "As a pair, the large displays are really quite exceptional. I've seen only one other collection of this scale."

Sister St. Mark likely would approve of her birds' new home. In 1937, she asked Dr. Thomas Sadler Roberts — then Bell Museum director and a former medical doctor who became a naturalist/ornithologist — to sign her well-worn copy of his book, Birds of Minnesota. Sister St. Mark retired that autographed first edition to St. Kate's library and purchased another for her ornithology classes. — Pauline Oo

From the Heart Jeff MillikanJeff Millikan, Bell Museum artist-in-residence, with a donated cabinet of birds from St. Kate's.