From Roadkill to Museum Specimen

By: Emily Imhoff, Zoology Collections Manager

Below you will find a brief account of how we prepare bird skins for the museum collection. If you want to see this process in more graphic detail, we’ll provide some video links at the end.

Here we have a juvenile American Crow (Corvus brachyrhychos) that was found dead by the side of a road. It has been stored in a sealed plastic bag in the freezer since last summer.

First we take measurements and weigh the bird. This is all recorded in a database for use by future researchers. Next, we remove one of the wings, usually the right wing.

The wing is arranged carefully to dry as a “spread wing.” This allows future researchers to look at the individual feathers of the wing to study the coloration, molt process or health status of the bird. Also, artists may study the wing to help them depict birds accurately in their paintings, sculptures, etc.

Next, we carefully skin the bird. The goal is to remove as much of the soft internal tissue and organs as possible. We remove the entire skin as one piece, with all the feathers still attached. The front portion of the skull (to preserve the beak with the skin) and lower leg bones stay with the skin as well. We then clean the meat off the bones (the skeleton will be fully prepared later) and take tissue samples from the muscle and heart (for future genetic research). In the photo below, we have removed the muscle from the bones of both wings, and you can see the spots along the ulna bone of each wing where the flight feathers (the larger wing feathers) were attached directly to the bone.

After the bird is fully skinned, we wash the skin in tepid water with dish detergent. This removes any dirt, blood or fat left on the feathers or inside the skin. After we wash it, we have to dry the feathers. We use a regular hair dryer for this! A toothbrush is useful for fluffing up the down feathers.

Once the bird’s feathers have been dried, it is time to stuff it. We make most of our birds into “study skins” – a very basic form of taxidermy where the bird lays on its back with its wing(s) folded in. Study skins take up much less space than a normal taxidermy, so many can be stored in a small space, and they are also quicker to make. We give the bird cotton ball eyes, a kebab skewer backbone and a fiberfill body, then sew up the incision with a needle and thread.

Once the bird is all sewn up, we arrange it on a corkboard and pin it in place while it dries. After about two weeks of drying, the study skin and spread wing will be ready to join the museum’s collection, where it can be used by researchers and artists for years to come. It’s a long way from roadkill!

Want to see a more in-depth explanation of the process? Check out some of the videos below. Be warned that they do include graphic footage of animal processing.

Posted in Zoology.