Ornithology Skinning Lab

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Note: See an updated version of this post on the SNRE website here.

A few weeks ago, our ornithology class got to prepare bird skins for the research collection at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Michigan. The research collection, housed in the behind-the-scenes “wings” of the museum, contains over 250,000 bird skin, skeleton, nest, and egg specimens which are used by scientists to shed light on questions about, but not limited to, distribution, speciation, evolution, effects of pesticides such as DDT, spread of disease such as avian malaria, and even impacts of climate change.

It surprises some people to learn that the collection is also used by artists and art students, who use the specimens to illustrate field guides, learn about the principles of scientific illustration, or inspire their creative work.

Almost all of the specimens the museum prepares today, including these, are birds that strike buildings, windows, or cars — and are donated by people or organizations who find them on the sidewalk or by the side of the road. There is very little that is more tragic than finding a little bird who has just journeyed thousands of miles on nothing but a few ounces of fat and a pair of wings dead or dying on the sidewalk after colliding with a store window or parked car (as Raymond Deck describes in his short story, “Salute to a Brown Bird“) — and there’s not much consolation in knowing that you can at least donate its body to science. Next time you come across one, though, don’t be shy about calling up your local natural history museum to see if they’d like it. There, staff will prepare it and give it a “second life” — in the service of science and art — in the research collection, where it can stay for 100 years or more.

Aspen Ellis, one of the senior preparators in the museum’s Birds Division, did a fantastic job leading the class by demonstrating the process on the “big screen” and giving hands-on help; birds division staff (Janet, Ira, and myself), along with the instructor Pierre-Paul, acted as assistants. Photos by SNRE Photographer Dave Brenner

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Further Reading:

University of Michigan Museum of Zoology – Birds Division (University of Michigan)

UMMZ’s Bird Collection (University of Michigan)

Bird Collections (Wikipedia)

Preparing Bird Specimens (Beaty Museum)

The importance of continued collecting of bird specimens to ornithology and bird conservation (Louisiana State University)

Natural History Collections – Why are they important? (The Guardian)

What’s the Use of Museums? (University of California – Berkeley)

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