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There’s only one way to skin a bird, pt 1

September 16, 2008
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WARNING: The following post contains images some visitors may find disturbing. If you have a problem looking at photos of a sliced and diced bird, then you may wish to avoid scrolling down today. Just a warning, read at your own risk.

Alright, so last week I gave you a tour of the bird lab at the NC Science Museum. Today, as promised, I’m going to show you the first steps in turning a smelly dead bird into a scientifically useful study skin.

First step, arrange your supplies. Along the top from left to right. Borax, an anti-fungal and anti-insect powder that keeps bugs away and dries out what soft tissue remains when you skin the bird. A small container of water, to get feathers out of your way, and a tub of corn starch to sop up any fluids (blood, etc) you come across.

The hardware, again from left to right. A pair of thick shears to cut bones, a lighter pair for everything else, tweezers for tweezing, a probe for probing, and a scalpel for scalping. Additionally there’s a toothbrush to arrange feathers towards the end, not something we’re going to use today though.

And last, but certainly not least, the bird. In this case an Audubon’s Shearwater that had washed up on the shore.


Step one, using the water I separate the feathers along the bird’s keel up to the neck so I can access the skin. Pelagic species like this are kind of tough here because they have such thick feathers, both exterior and down. Once done, this gives me a place to begin cutting.


The skin of a bird is losely connected to the muscle beneath. Once an incision has been made along the feather gap I created, it’s merely a matter of pulling off the skin like a tight pair of stockings (not that I’d know, seriously, I’m just saying… they keep my legs warm in the winter, shut up!). Occasionally I use the probe to loosen things up, but mostly it’s just peeling with my (gloved) fingers.

When I get up to the neck I stop, place the probe through the tissue so that the neck is completely exposed, as seen below, and cut it with my bone scissors. The head is tougher, and I’ll deal with it later.


Once the neck is severed, I peel the skin off till I get to the shoulders. At this point I do the same thing, expose the shoulder joint and cut the humerus. The powder you see all over is the corn starch, I use it liberally.


I’ll fast-forward here. I repeat the previous step with the other shoulder and proceed to peel the skin down till I get to the legs, which I cut below the knee. The I peel all the way down to the tail, and cut just before the tail bone (so the tail has some support) and remove the body cavity from the skin.

Voila! as you can see below, at this point I have the skin (plus head) and the body separated.


Now to work on the head. This is probably the messiest part so I’ll keep the photos to a minimum. At the point where I severed the neck I begin to peel the skin back so that the head comes out inside out. This part really is like a stocking. I peel it all the way until I’m about halfway past the eyes. Birds actually have a bone in their eye called an orbital ring, you can see it in the photo below.


Here is where I take my tweezers (for tweezing) and pull out the eyeballs. They take up a very large part of the skull and look a great deal like ripe farmer’s market blueberries (too much?). Next I again take the tweezers (for tweezing), and unhinge the muscles of the tongue that extend to the neck, and pull out the tongue.

Now the really gross part, and a part I decided not to photograph. I take the scissors and stick them straight up through the jaw, then cut behind the mandible joint up behind the eyes and around. The important things to keep for structure are the eye sockets and, obviously, the beak. Once done, I should be able to, with one quick pull of the neck, yank out the back of the head and the brain. I’m not very good at this, and my attempts typically end with me picking the remains of the brain out of the skull cavity. I told you it was messy. By virtue of the large amount of soft tissue here, Borax is liberally applied.

Next we cut off the wing bone above the elbow and tie a string that we’ll use to attach to a stick on the opposite side. We take spread wings on our birds, so I cut off the left wing. I kind of screwed up on this for this particular bird, more on that later.

No now I have the completed skin, but we’re not done just yet. You may have noticed that the Shearwater I was given had a nasty yellow tinge, probably caused by the bird voiding its bowels at death (this is not a glamorous job). We can’t have that in a study skin, so it needs to be washed.

You may be surprised to know that the secret ingredient in this stage is normal dish soap. Dawn to be precise. You lather up the bird and scrub away. When I first saw this done I was surprised at how rough you could be on the skin. Basically you can treat it like a dishtowel, the skin is pretty strong, especially in a bird that braves the wind and waves. This Shearwater is no shrinking violet.


To dry the bird we put it in a dryer, which looks like a rock tumbler filed with ground up corn cob. This dries the bird fairly quickly. Once dry we can move on to stuffing, which I’ll cover next week.

But first, I mentioned I screwed up when I removed the wing. I took off too much skin, leaving a gaping hole where there should be a small one. As you can see below, this is a fairly good sized screw up. This will need to be sewn up, which I’ll also cover next time. I just wanted to mention it because, you know, we’re on this journey together or something. But doesn’t the bird look clean and white?


So we have our skin, even if it’s a tad holey. We’ll move forward from this point next time. I promise you, it’ll be far less graphic.

2 Comments
  1. September 17, 2008 3:42 pm

    Very interesting stuff. Thanks for taking the risk to share.

  2. September 17, 2008 5:17 pm

    Thanks, I thought it might be interesting. I hope I didn’t put anyone off my blog, it’s not much more than you’d see in high school biology.

    The next step is far less messy.

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