The collections presently housed in the Bird Division began with a set of local birds obtained in the 1830s by Dr. Abram Sager of the Michigan Geological Survey. This was augmented by the Trowbridge Collection of 503 skins which was acquired from the Smithsonian Institution in 1861.
Dr. J. B. Steere was Curator of the Museum from 1876 to 1894, and the provincial nature of the collections dramatically changed as more than 2500 specimens (including over 50 previously undescribed species) were added from his explorations in the Amazon, Peru, Malacca, Formosa, Celebes, and the Philippines.
With the turn of the century the emphasis returned to local acquisitions under the curatorship of C. C. Adams. In 1911 Norman A. Wood (PDF) was promoted from taxidermist, a position he had held since 1895, to Curator of Birds. Through Wood's efforts the collection grew during the next 20 years from around 6,500 to about 20,000 skins. These specimens included many Michigan birds but also birds from North Dakota and from China, where Wood helped establish a teaching museum near Nanking. His obituary (link above) includes a selection of his report on discovering the first nest of Kirtland's Warbler.
In 1931 Josselyn Van Tyne took over the Curatorship of birds, and this initiated an era of tremendous growth both in the collections and in the Division as a major center for ornithological research in North America. Van Tyne inaugurated the practice of recording measurements of gonads and weights of specimens and placed emphasis on preserving skeletal material in addition to the traditional study skin preparations. He and his students concentrated on life history and anatomical studies of birds and regional surveys, including the eastern Canadian Arctic, Kentucky, Texas, Chiapas, Yucatan, Michoacan, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, and Paraguay. During his tenure as curator, the collection grew considerably, including acquisition of two private collections. Max Minor Peet bequeathed his collection of 32,314 study skins of North American birds in 1949, and the Walter Koelz collection of 24,720 skins of Asian birds was purchased in 1954. George M. Sutton was invited to join the staff in 1947 and conducted research at the University's E. S. George Reserve near Pinckney, Michigan. He left in 1952 to go to the University of Oklahoma.
In 1949 Robert W. Storer joined the staff of the Bird Division, bringing special interests in systematics and osteology of various non-passerine birds, especially grebes (Podicipediformes). At the time of his arrival the skeletal collection numbered about 3,400 specimens, due to the efforts of Van Tyne and his students. Currently it contains approximately 22,000, making it the 4th largest in the world. He retired in 1985, and remained active for many years. Dr. H. B. Tordoff joined the staff in 1957. His research involved systematics of Fringillidae and genetics of crossbills. He left in 1970 to join the Bell Museum at the Univesity of Minnesota.
Dr. Robert B. Payne arrived in 1970. His research interests have led to expansion in the holdings of skins of parasitic viduine finches and other African birds, as well as tape recordings of vocalizations. He retired in 2007.
Dr. Mary McKitrick was on staff from 1986-1992 and emphasized expansion of the fluid collection for anatomical studies.
Dr. David Mindell arrived in 1994, and brought expertise in biochemical research of bird systematics. He left in 2008 for the California Academy of Sciences.
A collection of frozen tissues for biochemical studies has been in existence since 1986 and now contains about 1000 samples. These are in addition to the specialized collections made by the curators for their own research. Through the interests of its curators and students, and its continuing role in supporting local ecological research and popular demand for information about birds, the collection has acquired considerable strength in its representation of birds of the region of the Midwest, particularly Michigan. It also has significant collections from other areas of North America and the world.