‘Tom’ The Burlingham Bird

Written by Anthony Roach FLS (He/Him), Archives Assistant, Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service.

Whilst we do have some objects held at Worcestershire Archives, a mummified bird filed in a plastic pocket was a hugely surprising find all the same! The bird was ‘filed’ – its place as important as other key events in the history of Burlingham & Co., Evesham, a business, which from the late 19th century onwards was managed by Henry Burlingham.  

Image of the Burlingham bird when first discovered Ref 705.1373 BA12963.6.63 © WAAS

Either side of the mummified bird contains photographs of the Evesham premises charting its changing fortunes, a catalogue of products sold, adverts and circulars sent out to clients. Whilst Burlingham & Co. began as merchants and agents of a wide range of goods, including coal, their interests narrowed as sellers of construction materials, garden machinery, and fertiliser.

Close up of the Burlingham Bird Ref 705.1373 BA12963.63 © WAAS

I was excited by ‘The Burlingham Bird’ find and set about the challenge of learning more about it and also how best to conserve and safely store the specimen in our archives.

The Mummy Bird

Close up of image with text ‘Mummified seabird found in bag of Arabian Guano’ c.1957-8 Ref 705.1373 BA12963.6.63 © WAAS

As you can see it was described as ‘Mummified sea bird found in bag of Arabian Guano c.1957/8’  When I first examined it, I thought it most resembled either a cormorant or a shag having been used to seeing both around the coasts and estuaries in Devon. Having reviewed the different species found in Arabia using the image supplied with the bird and the morphology of the mummified bird itself, it most closely resembles the Socotra cormorant (Phalacrocorax nigrogularis) – endemic to the Persian Gulf and the south-east coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

Socotra cormorant – Phalacrocorax nigrogularis – Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macauley Library © Oscar Campbell

There is no way of knowing that the image supplied is of the species discovered in guano, however, with the word Velox on the back of the image, Tom proved it must be photographic paper and therefore an original photograph. Also given the effort gone to ‘file’ the bird away, the photograph may well depict the species accurately.

Fishing for Cormorants

It was important for us to get a second opinion and I contacted a former colleague Hein Van Grouw, Senior Bird Curator at the Natural History Museum at Tring who could offer their expertise on both the species and its storage requirements. He was of the same opinion that based on the evidence it was in his words ‘Indeed, a cormorant of some sort’ and most definitely a juvenile bird (chick).

He was of the opinion also that it must be a species that was breeding in the area where the Guano was collected and considering this was Arabia, the bird was probably already dead and was “harvested” together with the guano. Therefore a Socotra cormorant was very likely or alternatively the Great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo). In both cases, of the genus Phalacrocorax.

Indian Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo by Elizabeth Gwillim 1801. © Public Domain

Whilst the circumstances of the young chick’s death are very sad, populations of the species itself are not doing well. Since 2000, the Socotra cormorant has been listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, on the grounds of its small number of breeding localities and ongoing rapid decline due to coastal development, disturbance and marine pollution near its nesting colonies.

Advert for Bird Guano. Burlingham & Co. Ref 705.1373 BA12963.6.68 © WAAS

Bird Guano and its Ecological Impact

Our juvenile mummy bird which we now call Tom, in honour of our Trainee Archivist who found him sadly tells us of a much darker story of exploitation of the natural world. Evesham was a centre of agricultural production and market gardening since the 19th century with the need for minerals such as phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and ammonia in fertilisers to produce ever higher-yields was essential. Flyers from Burlingham and Co. which alongside a wide variety of agricultural sundries, describe the availability of organic and inorganic fertilisers for commercial growers and gardeners. Organic fertilisers which are familiar to us today including blood and bone whilst inorganic fertilisers include magnesium sulphate and potash.

List of crop protection chemicals, manures, fertilisers etc. Burlingham & Co. Ref 705.1373 BA12963.6.68 iii © WAAS

However, prior to the widespread use of inorganic fertilisers following the breakthrough of the Haber-Bosch process  Mark Cocker explains how Guano exploitation by rich nations such as Britain, America and subsequently Australia illuminates “a pattern of consumption without limit, and appetite without self-restraint, it appears now almost as a metaphor for the entire impact of capitalism upon the biosphere” (Cocker, M., 2013, p.147).

The origin of Guano production began in coastal South America with the Inca who long exploited a form of derived manure that they had named huana. The original word was modified and became known as guano. The Inca obtained their supply, rich in phosphates and nitrates, from a series of islands close to the current Peruvian coast. These sites were thickly populated by a range of seabird species but dominated by three in particular, the Guanay cormorant, the Peruvian booby and Pelican.

Chincha Guano Islands, Peru. 1863. Illustrated London News © Public Domain

It is with some sense of irony that a German explorer, Alexander Von Humboldt who is today recognised as one of the greatest naturalists of all time through his observations, wrote of the use of guano for agricultural purposes and spurred both American and European merchants to undertake trials using guano. By 1841, 2000 tonnes were dispatched to Liverpool and within a decade the main centre of guano mining, the seabird colonies of the Chincha Islands, supported a small town of 3,000 inhabitants (Cocker, M. 2013).

Portrait of Alexander Von Humboldt 1806 by Freidrich George Weitsch © Public Domain

As described here guano extraction was dangerous and living conditions were poor. The fine stinking powder was so noxious it caused the nose or lips to blister and burn. Most extraction was performed by indentured Chinese laborers who worked in slavery-like conditions, and who were economically bound to earn back their transport, board and lodging costs before making a profit. Before slavery was outlawed in Peru in 1854, guano was also extracted by some enslaved people, as well as convicts, conscripts and army deserters.

Workers in the 1860s excavate a “mountain” of guano more than 60 feet tall Chincha Islands © Smithsonian Institution

The poorest involved in extracting the material were unsurprisingly not those who benefited, but rich industrialists. You don’t have to go far in the UK to find an example of this. The beautiful National Trust run Tyntesfield is built on the profits from the guano trade in Peru by A. Gibbs & Son established by Antony Gibbs. In 1842, the Peruvian government granted A. Gibbs & Sons a license to export guano to Britain and by 1847 they had secured a monopoly for the British guano trade on the Chincha Islands. As industrial agriculture boomed, so too did the demand for guano, which at the height of their operation earned £100,000 a year – over £8,000,000 in today’s money. The profitability of the guano trade inspired a popular music hall ditty ‘William Gibbs made his dibs, Selling the turds of foreign birds.’ 

Tyntesfield in an 1866 edition of The Builder magazine © Public Domain

By the end of the 19th century, an estimated 20 million tonnes had been exported. Guano, which had accumulated over hundreds, if not, thousands of years scraped down to bare rock. The underpinning ecology subsequently suffered. Whilst the Peruvian government recognised the inherent destruction of these ecosystems following the methods of European and American merchants, some seabirds such as the Humboldt penguin and Peruvian diving petrol have not recovered. The guano caps created by the Guanay cormorant and Peruvian booby were nurseries where other species dug their nest chambers. The decline of the Humboldt penguin has been attributed to the guano harvest of the 1800s, which led to the destruction of breeding grounds and human disturbance.

Nest of Peruvian Booby taken at La Vieja Island, Paracas National Reserve, Peru CC BY-SA 3.0

Tom Preserved for the Future

With the decision to keep Tom, whom we believe is a young Socotra cormorant (Phalacrocorax nigrogularis) chick, the specimen has been removed from his original plastic packaging because of the threat of insect pests such as Anthrenus verbasci. In consultation with Hein Van Grouw at The Natural History Museum, Tring, guidance set out by the National Archives under 5.7 Pests ‘Managing Mixed Collections’ and Care and Conservation of Natural History Collections (Carter, D. & Walker, A. K., 1999) it is conserved in an air tight container with acid free tissue (in temperature and humidity controlled conditions) held separately to other collections to reduce the likelihood of infestation.

We know very little about the guano extraction from Arabia, but other case studies have demonstrated the detrimental impact on seabird colonies due to phosphate mining and extraction. As late as the 21st century, Australia has been extracting guano from Christmas Island to the detriment of Abbott’s Booby (Papasula abbotti) which had plans to recommence mining operations but thanks to lobbying as late as 2017 it now appears to be winding down operations.

We will probably never know why ‘Tom’ was kept, but it demonstrates the fascination, unpredictable nature and decisions that shape collecting. Tom illustrates sharply how an object has the power to tell a much wider story about our own history and how we can learn lessons from it.

If you would like to read the full blog article please visit ‘Tom’ The Burlingham Bird  


Burlingham & Co. Archive at Ref 705.1373 BA12963.6 © WAAS

Birds and People Author: Cocker, M. (Author) (Illustrator) Tipling, D. 2013

Copyright disclaimer: Every effort has been made to trace and credit copyright of any published images where appropriate. If there are any images that have not been credited appropriately, please do not hesitate to contact us and this will be rectified accordingly.

One thought on “‘Tom’ The Burlingham Bird

  1. Pingback: NatSCA Digital Digest – August 2022 | NatSCA

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