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In the Bird Lab

September 11, 2008
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I’ve been spending a good amount of time in the Bird Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences lately. Most of my time there has been working in collections, a huge room in the basement where all of the specimens are kept in rows upon rows of cabinets. This room holds not only birds, but also the mammal and paleo collections as well. One floor above, however, and still in the basement, is the actual lab where bird specimens are prepped. Here’s a little tour of the room where the magic happens. And by magic I, of course, mean where dead birds are turned into study skins.

That’s the room. A fairly innocuous looking facility with a sink, some work tables and a drying rack over in the back right corner. More on that later.

Just off the main room is a second room, filled with freezers. This is where the birds that are donated to the museum are stored until we have time to skin them. There are about 3 full freezers filled with dead birds, so there’s certainly no shortage.

We get birds from various sources, the vast majority are birds that hit windows, get taken by cats, hit by cars, or in the case of seabirds, washed up on shore. Occasionally we also get birds from rehabbers, or captive birds from the North Carolina Zoo or from private owners.

The last group of birds we receive are those collected by our department head. I know some people have strong views regarding active collecting. But from a museum point of view, it’s essential to get a wide variety of species and individuals in our collection. If we didn’t collect, museum collections would be full of the same types of birds, or would be stuck with only very old and worn birds. The theory behind active collection is sound and important for the continuation of population and genetic studies of many species of birds, and it’s the distinction between the welfare of an individual bird versus a population of birds is an important one to make with regard to wildlife management and conservation.

Anyway, while the majority of birds are donations, gaps in the collection as a whole require someone to go out and collect particular birds. Then they all go in the freezer.

Once a bird is prepared, a process I’ll be covering in the next couple weeks. They get pinned and placed in the drying rack. Below is an example of some pinned birds. We pin them out on old ceiling tiles, recycling you know. The pins are not placed through the birds, just around them so that as they dry, feathers and wings will stay in place. We also like to spread tails out. That Eastern Bluebird on the bottom was my first skinned bird. It took me forever, but it came out pretty well, no?

This second one is just a cool picture of a Chuck-will’s-widow that was hit by a car.

After the birds are pinned they go in the drying rack, the strange looking cabinet in the corner in the first photo, where they stay until they’re ready to go in the collection downstairs. Here’s a look at what’s currently in the rack, including a couple Dovekies that washed up on the beach this past winter, a Saw-whet Owl that was hit by a car outside of Chapel Hill (now that’s a bird I would have liked to see), some warblers from a collecting trip out west, and various other species.

So that’s the lab where most of the collections work takes place. I’ll fill in the gaps, including a look at how a bird goes from specimen to skin, next week.

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4 Comments
  1. September 12, 2008 12:45 am

    Nice tour of your very impressive work digs. So, what is the coolest bird you’ve prepped so far? What was the most challenging?

    And if you’re ever up this way in winter, drop by – we’ll find a saw-whet. At least one spends the winter behind our house and has been pretty responsive to “tooting” him in (which scared the bejeebers out of my wife and daughter the first time he flew in at us, we don’t do that much anymore).
    -Mike

  2. September 12, 2008 10:10 am

    I prepped a Dovekie that was pretty cool. Very thick skin and hard to screw up. And there’s a cuckoo sitting in the fridge for me for next time I’m there that I’m kind of excited about.

    The bluebird tore on me around the neck so I had to sew it up, but it came out pretty well, the feathers hide a lot.

    I’m in the middle of a shearwater right no that I screwed up when removing the wing, leaving a gaping hole in the side that expanded when I washed the skin. It’s been a trial, I’m planning on writing about it next week so you’ll see how badly I messed up. : )

    Rain check on the NSWO. I need some boreal birds in a bad way.

  3. Larry permalink
    October 4, 2008 10:40 am

    Hi N8, Very interesting. I must say it is weird to see birds laid out like that. I was just talking about this last week when birding with our local group. We talked about how they used to shoot the birds for specimens in the early birding days before it became popular to observe them with binoculars.

    I realize how important it is to study birds and band them also so that we can help them survive in these crazy times. I’ve seen photos before of birds mounted on sticks as specimens. Is that how these will be mounted? I look forward to following your adventure at the lab!

  4. October 7, 2008 8:00 pm

    Yes, it’s similar to what you’re talking about. We do, in fact, use a stick to provide structure for the study skin, but we cut it off under the feathers so you don’t see it.

    Some other institutions might leave it like a bird-cicle, but it may encourages people to use the stick to pick up the skin, which isn’t the proper way to do it.

    We’re, of course, very fortunate that we don’t need skins to be the sole way to study birds anymore, but they still provide some useful information, especially with regard to variation and genetics.

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