More than three decades ago, LSU researcher Ted Parker brought ornithological prestige to the university when he, along with friend and fellow ornithologist Scott Robinson, set the World Big Day record.

A “Big Day” is a popular sport among competitive bird-watchers in which birders, either individually or as a team, compete to spot as many bird species as possible within 24 hours.

Since the Parker-Robinson duo in 1982, the record 331 spotted species has been unmatched. Unmatched, that is, until a quartet of researchers and ornithologists decided to reinforce LSU’s stronghold on the title.

In October, the two doctoral students, a Museum of Natural Science research associate and a Peruvian ornithologist observed 354 bird species during a single day in Peru. For Robb Brumfield, museum director, and Roy Paul Daniels, professor in Biological Sciences, the Big Day signifies more than bragging rights.

This Saffron-headed Tanager is one of the 354 bird species the LSU team spotted on their record-breaking Big Day.
This Saffron-headed Tanager is one of the 354 bird species the LSU team spotted on their record-breaking Big Day.

“For us, it’s an amazing accomplishment to hold this record,” he explained. “But ornithology, the science of studying birds, holds equal importance to us. This bird watching event brings awareness about the great science we’re doing at the museum.”

The Big Day was a catalyst for heightening publicity of, and raising funds for, the museum’s ornithological research program. LSU is not only a premier institution for training and research among burgeoning ornithologists, but also houses the largest bird tissue collection of any museum in the world.

The museum is working with scientists across the globe to reconstruct the tree of life for every known bird species on the planet. “That’s a big, very expensive project, with an international team of collaborators involved,” Brumfield shared. “The LSU tissue collection is the bedrock of that project.”

The museum is also credited with the discovery of 41 bird species—sometimes named in honor of loyal donors—compared to John James Audubon’s 25.

“In the Museum of Natural Science here, you’ve got a great research program that is training scientists who graduate and move on to prestigious biodiversity institutions around the world,” Brumfield said. “All of that research and training takes financial support.”

From unique birding expeditions for graduate students to vital research contributions, that financial support continues to enable LSU’s Museum of Natural Science to be a world-renowned ornithology resource. “Why not be the best,” Brumfield posed, “like we are at a lot of things?”

Published in Cornerstone Winter and Spring 2015.