How close have you ever gotten to a wild bird? Can you remember the details of its plumage or the curvature of its beak? Did it sit in one place long enough for you to really study all of its colors and other characteristics? Probably not—at least if it was alive. The avid birders among us sometimes search their whole life for a glimpse of a particularly rare species. But if you are just a casual observer of the winged creatures around us, the ones you do see likely come and go as flashes of color and sound.
For ornithologists, the elusive nature of birds is just part of the job. Beyond fieldwork, though, access to rare or extinct species or those with a limited range can be especially difficult to get. If you were, say, hoping to study the green-headed tanager (a riotously multicolored songbird native to South America) and unable to travel to the northeastern region of the continent where it can be found, you would have to ask a museum to send you a specimen in the mail. Access to rare specimens, such as those of extinct birds, can be especially difficult to get.
That situation may now be changing: The Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College has begun an extensive effort to put 2,000 of its over 60,000 bird specimens online in high-definition virtual representations. Using images taken by digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras and specialized photogrammetry software to stitch those photographs together, the lab is making available a significant portion of its collection of birds of Mexico and other Central American countries—the largest of its kind in the world—as gorgeous three-dimensional models that can be downloaded and manipulated on your computer.
Each bird is placed on a revolving turntable and photographed from three different angles—head-on and from the top and bottom—96 times each for a total of 288 pictures. The images are then digitally stitched together to create a 3-D rendering that can be downloaded and scaled up to 500 percent of its actual size. This reveals details in color and feather structure beyond what can be seen with the naked eye.
The lab’s curator John McCormack says the hope is that this online collection will be used by researchers, students, artists and anyone else with an interest in studying some of the most beautiful feathered creatures on the planet.