For 40 years, a Baltimore bird museum inspired youngsters - including two young men who grew up to be among the world's most prolific bird watchers. Now its fate is up in the air.

March 30, 2004|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

On a cool autumn morning in 1965, a Hopkins undergrad named Hank Kaestner picked his way toward the tower on Television Hill. His undertaking was the snatching of corpses, and he knew that this was the place he would find them.

He was not disappointed. Spread before Hank and his 12-year-old brother, Peter, was a field of death and - Hank could not help marveling - resplendence. Hundreds of migratory birds lay dead everywhere around them, the victims, it must have seemed, of a macabre cosmic joke.

On their flights south, each of the birds had flown smack into the newly heightened television tower and fallen - kerplunk - to the ground below. As someone had mentioned to the boys, it had literally rained birds on TV Hill.

And now, the Kaestners, both ardent ornithologists, gently scooped the birds up one by one and deposited them into paper shopping bags they had brought for the occasion. By the time they were done that September day, they had gathered up 350 dead birds - 38 species, they later catalogued.

The specimens Hank deemed in the best condition ultimately achieved a measure of immortality. They would be mounted and take their place in a corner room on the second floor of the Cylburn Mansion in Northwest Baltimore, a treasured - if generally little-known - enclave for generations of bird-lovers in the Baltimore area.

That room, at the top of the mansion's majestic first flight of stairs, has been home to the Museum of the Birds of Maryland for more than 40 years. There, as close as they pleased, visitors have been able to examine a great horned owl, a bald eagle, a Carolina parakeet (now extinct!) and even a peregrine falcon that once lived on a ledge outside the old USF&G Building in downtown Baltimore.

Altogether, the museum's collection includes 350 different varieties of birds indigenous to the state, 275 of which are mounted and on display. It may not compare with the huge ornithological holdings of such renowned collections as the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution, but within Maryland, it is likely the most extensive exhibit of the state's diverse winged life.

A question of access

But the chance for the general public to see the museum again is in doubt. In response to a complaint against Cylburn for being inaccessible to the handicapped, the city, which owns the mansion and natural preserve surrounding it, closed the exhibit last year. (The mansion and land together constitute Cylburn Arboretum, on Greenspring Avenue.) The future of the museum, which belongs to the Baltimore Bird Club, is - sorry - up in the air.

It is hard to quantify what such a loss means. There's no easy way to measure the absence of inspiration, but, to the museum's past beneficiaries, that will be the biggest impact of the museum's disappearance.

Bruce Beehler, for one, knows precisely how much the museum is worth. He remembers well when, as a 9-year-old, he couldn't tear himself away from the museum's pileated woodpecker, the biggest of all North American woodpeckers. The very sight of it fired a burning to see the real thing. A year later, he did, with his father in Harpers Ferry. "It was an epiphany to see the real thing," he said. "I can remember it like it was yesterday."

In Beehler's case, the passion for birds would be lifelong; studying birds is his profession. Now 52 and an executive with a conservation organization in Washington, Beehler has written several books on birds, including a field guide of the birds of Papua, New Guinea.

For him, it all started at Cylburn. "You can't underestimate the impact [the bird museum] can have on a few kids, how it can change their lives forever."

Cylburn has been associated with birding for nearly half a century. Its 200 acres have long been a favorite site for bird-watching, and in 1959,the Baltimore Bird Club began holding its meetings at the mansion.

The Bird Club has always owned the museum, which owes its existence to one member, a woman named Martha Schaffer, who had a zeal to pass her love of the natural world - and birding, in particular - to young people.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Schaffer presided over a Saturday-morning junior-naturalist program at Cylburn. She led kids on hikes of the park's extensive acreage (and often beyond), patiently giving them lessons in identifying birds by markings, songs and behavior. She invited an array of speakers - botanists, entomologists, biologists - whose enthusiasms, she knew, would infect the kids. And in the workshop on the mansion's third floor, she oversaw fun projects, like making nests and rudimentary taxidermy.

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