My Box Of Birds At The Edna Lawrence Lab

Roughly eight years ago I lugged this box of birds into the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab at RISD. My dream was that someone would renovate and restore this Comery family artifact to its original glory (something no one I had ever known had any memory of). And to my utter amazement, that is exactly what happened . . . and then some.

At the time I brought it in, the box looked nothing like this picture. The interior was dark and dingy, all browns and grays. The birds were very dull and dirty; a few had spun around on their perches and were hanging upside down. And this is how it had always looked since my childhood. What was always referred to as “the box of birds” had been in my father’s family for generations but no one ever had it out on display.

When I was ten years old we moved to a new house and that’s when I took possession of the birds. Over the next several decades I dragged that thing from pillar to post — to all my apartments and houses — always keeping it stored away and out of sight. I didn’t want to look at it, but how do you throw something like this away?

Happily, the people at Edna Lawrence immediately saw its potential, but their first call was to the Feds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had to sign off on it, as the collection includes protected migratory songbirds. They okayed it and the lab said they would be glad to take ownership. And very soon, one particular student* — with exactly the skill set and artistic talent needed — saw the box of birds and fell in love.

That gal (now identified)** took it down to the studs, and this unexpectedly allowed us to put a date on it. A faux papier-mâché hillock had been fashioned on the floor of the case, made out of crumpled up newspapers from the time of the Civil War.

The birds were then all meticulously cleaned and conditioned, and remounted; the interior was given a new coat of paint (but she liked my purplish exterior and left it, which my inner twelve-year-old found oddly validating); and the “tree” was cleaned up but looks much like it had originally. What took my breath away was her new “forest floor” — now a natural tableau of leaf litter, pine cones, chestnuts, seed pods, and fungi.

The Travel of the Case: (That’s a little joke for the lawyers.) Much to my amazement the the good people at Edna Lawrence first chose to mount the case above a doorway in a place of great prominence (see below). We were very pleased but that did make it impossible to see the new forest floor which made me a little sad.

Fast forward to last month when I dropped by for a visit, only to discover that the birds had been replaced by a young bear. Upon inquiry, I was told the case had been moved down to the Microscopy Lab and I should go check it out.

And there it was — now at eye level (hooray!) — and someone had added lights to the interior! I only wish I had taken “before” photographs to show what a dreary, dark mess it had been for lo those many years. And I wish my parents could see it now.

(You can see it now. The door to the building is locked but there are instructions on making contact inside. Sometimes students are in there drawing, but on the whole you will be welcome.)

The Edna Lawrence Nature Lab, RISD, 13 Waterman Street, (directions)

*I can no longer access my documents related to this whole project. I know I wrote a thank-you letter but I can not remember the student’s name. Feel free to write in or comment.

**Additional note: The student’s name is Abigail Karp, currently working as an acupuncturist in Austin, Texas. She is still a painter and illustrator and executed the cover art for the Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores album ‘The Smother Party’ released in 2018. Big thanks to the people over at the Edna Lawrence Laboratory for looking into this for me. And thank you Abigail.


The case was mounted above a doorway for several years.

It’s now a perch for a bear. This probably makes more sense.

The “forest floor” has twigs and moss and bits of bark. There was nothing like this originally at all.

1 thought on “My Box Of Birds At The Edna Lawrence Lab”

  1. Very cool post, thanks. I just showed the photo to my 10-year old daughter (a fan of the Nature Lab) to see if she’d seen your bird box, and she correctly replied, “oh, that’s in the microscopy lab!”

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