A Bird in the Hand

July 24, 2014 | by Elizabeth Wason

Students taking Ornithology (EEB 433) learn their birds inside and out. Literally. Throughout the course, the students identify birds in the field by sight and by sound. But they also examine birds up close. Way up close.

As a lab exercise last term, students prepared specimens called “study skins” that were destined for scientific study, artistic reference, and preservation in the bird collection of LSA’s Museum of Zoology. The class got hold of birds that had died in unintentional encounters with buildings, cars, or cats. Students dissected the birds and replaced internal organs with cotton wool. Instead of mounting the birds in various lifelike poses, as in taxidermy, the students preserved study skins in consistent positions, so that researchers in the future can compare measurements accurately among birds and across collections.

Visiting researcher Pierre-Paul Bitton teaches the ornithology course, which is offered by LSA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and cross-listed with the School of Natural Resources and Environment. Bitton says that creating study skins helps students realize the huge amount of work that goes into preparing animal specimens for research. He sees great value in the physical artifacts held in museum collections. “Because we had several different species, the students could appreciate, bird in hand, the large differences in form and associated functions,” he says. For example, a woodpecker can use its extraordinarily long tongue to capture insects for food, while other birds have different anatomy to suit their diets.

Students often deal with information that already exists, remarks Janet Hinshaw, the Museum of Zoology’s bird division collection manager. But only rarely do students get to see where that information comes from. The ornithology lab is a chance for students to observe for themselves, collect original data, and make that information available to other people long after the students themselves are gone.

Hinshaw marvels, “These specimens will be part of the collection for hundreds of years.”


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