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Why Over 600,000 Bird Specimens Are Preserved At The Smithsonian | Colossal Collections


By SunnyPublished about a month ago 6 min read

The Smithsonian Natural History Museum houses over 600,000 bird specimens collected over the past 200 years, with new additions each month. These specimens are meticulously preserved by specialists who maintain the collection. However, most of these birds are never displayed in the museum. Why, then, do they need to be so carefully preserved? The answer lies in their research value. From identifying birds killed by airplanes to uncovering evolutionary changes in duck bills, these specimens are not only valuable today but will continue to be for generations to come.
The Smithsonian's skins collection serves as a valuable resource for generations of researchers and educators. The process of acquiring and preparing specimens is meticulously documented, ensuring their preservation and accessibility. This particular ostrich was a gift from King Mendelek to President Roosevelt, while the California condor was donated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. President Theodore Roosevelt's personal collection contributed this bird, and a Cooper's hawk that tragically perished after colliding with a building window was donated in 2017. This specimen will soon be featured in an upcoming exhibit after being initially stored in a freezer. Currently, it is located on the left shelf of the freezer. Our skilled museum specialists, such as Christina and her husband Brian, carefully handle and prepare each specimen. Brian expertly placed the cotton in the The oral cavity of this particular specimen, cataloged as 9926, was examined.

I have prepared at least that many birds and mammals. When you reach approximately 10,000, it indicates that you have been performing this task for at least 20 years and have acquired the necessary proficiency.

It was an enjoyable and effective exercise, regardless of whether it was performed blindfolded o8r not.

The specialists begin by thawing, weighing, and measuring the hawk before proceeding to separate the skin from the muscles and fat using a scalpel.

Since these specimens will be preserved as dried samples, it is essential to remove as much muscle tissue as possible. Brian carefully removes the skin from the body of the bird, discarding the soft tissues and oil glands that would otherwise cause the specimen to deteriorate.

It is crucial to meticulously remove every trace of fat without damaging the skin, as these specimens are intended to end ure for many years. This is where gentler tools, such as his hands, become particularly useful.

I am applying pressure to the skin instead of pulling it, ensuring that it remains intact. Brian also utilizes corn cob dust during the process to effectively absorb any bodily fluids, maintaining the cleanliness of the specimen. Individuals who are new to this technique tend to use less dust, while more experienced individuals thoroughly cover the specimen with dust, particularly when removing smaller parts such as the head or eyes. The angle of the scalpel is also crucial; as you can observe, I am cutting away from the skin. It is worth noting that there have been instances where the eye has squirted upon removal. Additionally, birds with a higher fat content on their skin may require additional cleaning to remove the white, gooey substance, which is essentially fat. If this fat is not removed, it will become rancid, acidify, and eventually ooze out of the skin.

This specialized fat wheel machine is employed to meticulously remove all traces of fat, revealing the intricate feather track. However, this process demands a delicate touch, as excessive pressure may result in tearing of the skin. Once the fat is effectively eliminated, corncob dust is utilized to absorb any residual moisture. Subsequently, the specimen undergoes a thorough washing and drying process.

Allow me to demonstrate the sawdust removal procedure. Within the confines of the fume hood, Christina skillfully employs a forced air dryer to expel the sawdust, while simultaneously utilizing a hair dryer to enhance the fluffiness of the feathers, imparting a lustrous sheen to them.

In preparation for the bird's presentation, Brian meticulously ties the wings together, thereby restricting their range of motion. This meticulous step is guided by his profound understanding of the natural wingspan of a Cooper's hawk.

the bird, they should open the wing to examine the underside. Tying it in this manner will strengthen the specimen.

Once prepared, the specimen is ready to be stuffed with cotton to recreate its original shape. Our goal is to create a specimen that will endure and remain robust.

Although I am not a professional tailor or seamstress, I am quite adept at sewing up a bird. We meticulously arrange the feathers in the correct order, which aids researchers in their studies.

The final step involves pinning the bird onto a board to dry in its permanent position. Once pinned, it will retain that form for the remainder of its tenure at the Smithsonian.

It typically takes an individual around 100 attempts before they can work independently. Upon reaching the milestone of 1,000 birds, we consider that person an experienced preparator capable of effectively instructing others.

Approximately 100 birds are required before an individual can work independently. Once they reach 1,000 birds, they are considered experienced and can effectively teach others. After approximately 10 days, the Cooper's hawk will be fully dried and ready for display in the exhibit. It will be one of 20 specimens featured in the "Lights Out" exhibit, all of which are birds that perished after colliding with skyscraper windows. These specimens will eventually join the larger skins collection, which comprises over 470,000 specimens and aids researchers worldwide. For instance, Lauren and Joshua are studying how interbreeding between domestic and wild ducks has affected the size and structure of their bills. Additionally, Jim collaborates with government agencies to identify birds killed during airstrikes through the feather identification lab team.

Approximately 10,000 bird strikes occur annually, with peak seasons in the fall and spring. The Division of Birds is an ideal location for our operations as it houses 80% of the world's bird species. In the event of a bird strike, we likely possess a specimen for comparison and identification.

This particular sample represents the aftermath of a bird-aircraft collision sent to us for identification. The sample includes wing feathers, a tail feather, and body feathers. Upon examination, the tail feathers closely resemble those of the barn swallow, and the peachy feathers further support this identification.

Our findings are shared with airfield biologists and engine manufacturers to inform aircraft adjustments and reduce the frequency of such incidents. Notably, this particular bird specimen was collected in 1878.

This avian specimen was acquired prior to the advent of airplanes and subsequently incorporated into our collection. Presently, we are utilizing it to investigate bird-aircraft collisions, underscoring the unpredictable nature of the applications for these specimens.

The preservation of these specimens is of utmost importance, as they serve as a valuable resource for in-depth analysis. In the past, the preparation of spread wings or flat skins was not widely practiced, which presents an opportunity for our feather laboratory. This allows us to examine feathers located beneath the wings and in other challenging-to-access areas of the bird, which would be difficult to access in a traditional museum skin.

Furthermore, other researchers are exploring the microbiomes found in the wings. For instance, Gary's discovery of the bacterial group Dinococcus on vulture wings highlights the presence of highly resilient organisms capable of withstanding high radiation.

In my experiment, exposing this wing to direct sunlight on a day with an ambient temperature of approximately 90 degrees Fahrenheit resulted in a rapid increase in the wing's surface temperature, reaching over 160 degrees Fahrenheit within approximately three minutes.

It is likely that the dominance of Dinococcus can be attributed to its unique ability to reproduce, making it one of the few bacterial groups capable of doing so. At the Smithsonian Institution, the bird division houses various collections, including the organ collection preserved in ethanol, meticulously numbered and mounted skeletons, and retired exhibit birds. These collections serve as valuable time stamps of the current bird population, creating a comprehensive record for future generations of researchers. Although the early bird preparators were unaware of the concept of DNA, their consistent preparation methods have inadvertently enabled subsequent researchers to conduct extensive studies on birds.

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