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The reason for the preservation of over 600,000 bird specimens at The Smithsonian is a topic of interest

Museum houses

By shafwan shariffPublished 5 months ago 7 min read

Collection. Once acquired, the bird is meticulously prepared by specialists who ensure that the skin is preserved and maintained to the highest standards. This process is essential as the specimens are used for research purposes, such as identifying birds that have been killed by airplanes or studying evolutionary changes in duck bills.

Although most of these birds never see the museum floor, their preservation is crucial for the advancement of scientific knowledge. The Smithsonian natural history museum houses over 600,000 bird specimens from the last 200 years, and new specimens are added each month. The preparation of these specimens is not just for immediate use but for generations to come.

We visited the Smithsonian to witness firsthand how one specimen in the skins collection is added, prepared, and used for research purposes. The process begins with acquisition, where specimens are usually donated by individuals or organizations. For instance, this ostrich was sent by King Mendeley as a present to President Roosevelt, while this California condor was donated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Additionally, some specimens come from personal collections, such as this bird from President Theodore Roosevelt's personal collection.

In conclusion, the preservation of bird specimens at the Smithsonian natural history museum is a meticulous process that ensures the specimens are maintained to the highest standards. These specimens are essential for research purposes, and their preservation is crucial for the advancement of scientific knowledge for generations to come.

The Cooper's hawk in question perished upon colliding with a building window and was subsequently donated to our collection in 2017. It is soon to be featured in an upcoming exhibit, having been stored in a freezer until recently. The hawk is currently situated on a left shelf and is handled by our museum specialists, such as Christina and her husband Brian, who are highly skilled in their craft. Christina and Brian have prepared a significant number of specimens, with this particular hawk being numbered 9926. This is indicative of their extensive experience, likely spanning over two decades. The process of preparing the hawk involves first thawing, weighing, and measuring it, followed by the separation of skin from muscle and fat. As the specimen is to be stored as a dried specimen, it is imperative to remove as much muscle as possible. Brian meticulously removes the skin, discarding the soft tissues and oil glands to prevent rotting. The removal of all fat without damaging the skin is of utmost importance. This process is carried out with precision, even when performed blindfolded.

As these specimens are intended to endure for an extended period, delicate tools such as the hands prove to be useful. The process requires a slow and methodical approach to remove the skin without causing any damage. The skin is pushed rather than pulled to prevent stretching. Additionally, corn cob dust is utilized throughout the process to absorb any bodily fluids and maintain the cleanliness of the specimen. Novices tend to use more dust, while experienced individuals cover the smaller parts of the bird, such as the head or eyes, with dust. The angle of the scalpel also plays a significant role in the process, as cutting away from the skin is crucial. In some cases, birds with more fat on their skin require additional cleaning to remove the white, goopy substance, which is fat that must be eliminated to prevent rancidity and acidification, which can cause it to ooze out of the skin.

In the process of skinning, a specialized machine is utilized to remove all the fat from the skin until the feather track becomes visible. This procedure requires some practice, as excessive pressure can result in tearing of the skin. Once the fat is removed, corncob dust is employed to absorb any remaining moisture. Subsequently, the specimen is thoroughly washed and dried. If you would like to witness the removal of sawdust, I can demonstrate it for you. However, it is advisable to perform this task in a fume hood, as it tends to generate a significant amount of dust. To enhance the appearance of the feathers, Christina utilizes a forced air dryer to remove the sawdust and a hair dryer to fluff them up, giving them a glossy sheen. Prior to preparing the bird for presentation, Brian secures the wings together to restrict their range of motion. He estimates the natural spread of a cooper's hawk's wings, ensuring that by tying them, the specimen becomes more robust. Once these preparations are complete, the specimen is ready to be filled with cotton, recreating its original shape. Our objective is to create a specimen that will endure indefinitely, possessing both longevity and strength.

I am not a tailor or seamstress, but I possess the ability to skillfully sew a bird. It is crucial to ensure that the feathers are arranged in the correct order and properly aligned, as this will aid researchers in their future studies. The final step involves pinning the bird onto a board to allow it to dry in its permanent position. The manner in which it is pinned will determine its appearance throughout its tenure at the Smithsonian. It typically takes approximately 100 birds before an individual can confidently undertake this task independently. Once they have prepared a thousand birds, they are considered an experienced preparator and can effectively instruct others. After a period of approximately 10 days, this Cooper's hawk will be completely dried and ready to be showcased on the exhibit floor. The hawk will be one of 20 specimens featured in the "Lights Out" exhibit, which highlights birds that have perished due to collisions with skyscraper windows. Eventually, these birds will become part of the extensive skins collection, which comprises over 470,000 specimens and serves as a valuable resource for researchers worldwide. For instance, individuals like Lauren and Joshua are studying how the mating patterns between domestic and wild ducks have influenced the size and structure of their bills. Additionally, Jim, who is part of the feather identification lab team, collaborates with government agencies to identify birds that have been killed during air strikes. We receive approximately 10,000 reports of bird strikes each year, with the busiest periods occurring in the fall and spring. The Division of Birds is an ideal location for us, as it houses 80% of the world's bird species within its collection. Therefore, if a bird strike occurs anywhere in the world, it is highly likely that we possess a specimen that can be used for identification purposes. This particular sample is the remnants of a bird-aircraft collision, which has been sent to us for identification.

Based on my observation, it is evident that we possess a few wing feathers, a tail feather, and some body feathers. Consequently, we can extract this particular feather and effectively compare the tail feathers to those of the barn swallow. Additionally, we have come across these delightful peach-colored feathers, which are being utilized in the identification of bird-aircraft collisions. It is worth noting that this bird specimen was collected in 1878, a time when the concept of airplanes had not yet been conceived. Nevertheless, it has been preserved in this collection and is now being employed for such purposes. The findings derived from this research are shared with airfield biologists and engine manufacturers to enhance aircraft design and minimize accidents.

The significance of preserving these specimens indefinitely lies in the fact that their potential uses are unpredictable. Furthermore, a separate collection of wings aids in conducting more comprehensive analyses of feathers. In the past, there were fewer instances of wings being spread or skins being flattened. This is advantageous for us in the feather lab as it grants us access to feathers located beneath the wing and in various areas of the bird that are otherwise challenging to reach in a traditional museum skin.

Other researchers may be exploring the microbiomes present in wings, such as Gary, who discovered a bacterial group called dino coccus in vulture wings. This particular organism is known for its remarkable resilience to high levels of radiation. For instance, when I exposed this wing to direct sunlight, the temperature on a day like today could reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

It is possible for the temperature outside to reach 90 degrees, and within approximately three minutes, the temperature on the surface of this wing increases to over 160 degrees. This phenomenon likely explains the dominance of the bacterial group known as dyno coccus, as it is one of the few groups capable of reproducing under such conditions. At the Smithsonian, there are various collections within the bird division, including the organ collection, which is preserved in ethanol, and the meticulously numbered and mounted skeletons. Additionally, there are birds that have retired from being on exhibit. All of these collections serve as time stamps, documenting the current bird population and providing a record for future generations of researchers. When the first bird preparators began their work, they were unaware of the concept of DNA. However, their consistent bird preparations have enabled future researchers to conduct studies on birds. It would be fascinating to have a time capsule to travel into the future and witness the purposes for which our birds will be utilized in 100 years' time.


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  • Alex H Mittelman 5 months ago

    Great work! Good job!

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