Mundane table hosts great minds—Eight days in the Smithsonian Institution’s Division of Birds

There is a simple, sturdy, glass covered wooden table, approximately 8’ x 3 ½’, located in the library of the Division of Birds at the Smithsonian Institution. It has been the center of Christmas parties, retirement parties, birthdays, Alex Wetmore’s 88th birthday party (former Smithsonian Institution Secretary and ornithologist), at least one baby shower, and countless slideshows of field trips. David Steadman (renowned avian paleontologist) began one party by shooting a champagne cork into the overhead florescent light and showering the food with broken glass. Allan Phillips (renowned ornithologist) reportedly slept on the table in an effort to defer housing costs while visiting the Division. When asked about the history of the table, Dr. Richard Banks (Emeritus Research Zoologist, USGS) who has been at the Smithsonian for more than 40 years, somewhat sarcastically replied “no, no history, just that many great minds have met around it”—clearly an understatement. In mid- January, I was fortunate enough to spend many hours sitting at this table sifting through historical scientific reports, expedition logs and researchers’ journals of the Smithsonian’s Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program (POBSP). The particulars of the POBSP may be fodder for a blog in future, but the focus of this piece is about the convergence of great minds that occurs every day during lunch at this seemingly mundane table. During my eight day visit some of the greatest ornithological minds of our time, and of decades ago, spoke to me in this space. Whether through conversations that had me hanging on every word, or through reams of reports, this table was at the center of it all. Reading documentation of seabirds in the central Pacific Ocean from the not so distant past was a treat in itself. Around noon, as if on cue, my eyes would grow tired from use and researchers that had been quietly working in their offices or busy perusing the collections in hallways created by large storage cabinets containing specimens, would emerge and make their way into the library for lunch. In places of business around the world, lunch can be a time to relax and share with your co-workers. When the folks at the table are scientists studying extinct species, or visiting researchers from other countries that are shedding new light on avian taxonomy, or photographers that are donating their time and resources to document biological diversity around the world, lunch is transformed into an experience like no other. It was clear that nothing short of impassioned conviction drives these mostly soft spoken researchers to continue their work. This experience was entirely inspiring and provides me with the hope that many decades from now, researchers will still be sitting around this same table, rigorously considering issues of conservation and all that concerns avian biology with the same persistence and honest discourse in the pursuit of the truth about what is occurring on our planet.

More information about the Division of Birds, and the Sant Ocean Hall can be found at

Thank you to Claudia Angle (Collections Manager, USGS) for providing me with the historical anecdotes used in this piece, and to all of the Smithsonian and USGS researchers that were kind enough to share their library, lunch table and knowledge with me during this visit.

Photograph of juvenile Red-footed Booby (Sula sula) courtesy of Dr. Lance Morgan, Vice President for Science, MCBI.


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