LAWRENCE — Mark Robbins spends his days amid thousands of dead birds.
With birds from the 1840s, the collection of about 110,000 ranges from local robins to scores of vibrant species from exotic locations.
Some of the world's extinct feathered creatures are stowed in the mix. The total number of species reaches into several thousands.
But the long rows of tall cabinets are more than just a dusty addition to the University of Kansas Natural History Museum.
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As well as giving looks at the past, what is rated as one of the world's top collections is working to help future biologists, too.
"You just never can predict how it will be used as new technology comes along," said Robbins, the collection's manager.
There are about 65,000 whole skins stuffed with cotton and about 40,000 skeletons.
About 23,000 tissue samples can provide looks at DNA and assorted health and environmental conditions when the bird was alive, even decades ago.
From within the collection, biologists could check for the prevalence of assorted diseases, something that could be important should those diseases someday show up in humans.
From the trays of 14,000 house sparrows, birds that have been transported to literally all over the world, studies have shown how localized populations evolved to meet local conditions within a century.
Some of the specimens have come from specific research expeditions. Others have been shipped from scientists studying something else in some unique place but wanting to help the collection grow.
Some leading ornithologists have donated entire collections.
Max Thompson, a retired Southwestern College professor, donated about 9,000 birds from the school several years ago.
His collection added about 900 new species to the museum in Lawrence.
"You don't want something to happen to it so I figured it would be better at KU," Thompson said. "I know it will be good there a long time."
Wednesday morning, Robbins checked some of his favorites, making sure storage conditions were ideal and bugs hadn't gotten to the delicate skins.
From one cabinet he pulled a tray of about a dozen Carolina parakeets. The only parakeet native to the United States, they once thrived from eastern Kansas to the Atlantic, filling the woodlands with bright colors and noisy chatter.
They've been extinct for about 100 years.
On the next tray was a rested cotton-filled passenger pigeons, a heath hen and a famed ivory-billed woodpecker.
Robbins hurried to thoroughly wash his hands after handling those birds.
"They used a lot of arsenic back then," he said of the preserving process. "You can't be too careful."
Such chemicals are one of several reasons the collection isn't readily available to the public.
Robbins occasionally stopped to show off tiny parrots from Australia and a South American harpy eagle.
They are the world's largest eagle, with garish talons that look like bear claws for grabbing monkeys high in South American rainforests.
He stopped at a cabinet he'd like to see holding more birds in the near future.
"We probably have the most impressive prairie chicken collection in the world," Robbins said. "But we'll take all we can get. We never turn down a prairie chicken with the way populations are declining."
He fears lesser prairie chickens could follow the path of the Carolina parakeet. That morning, he has accepted a frozen lesser prairie chicken killed when it hit a fence in Gove County. The bird was weighed and the location of its death noted with a map and GPS coordinates. Tissue samples will be taken and stomach contents noted.
Information will be downloaded to an extensive Internet site.
That will put that young female bird's life history just a few mouse-clicks away from scientists around the world.
Occasionally something like a fire or flood destroys some major collection somewhere in the world. That's a concern for Robbins.
"I like to (joke) that we're expendable but the collection is not, and it's important that it go on," he said with a wry smile. "My biggest fear, here in Kansas, is some big F5 tearing the roof off and pulling everything out. That would be such a terrible loss."