A unique look at birds


By Sara Cole
Feb 11, 2014 Bookmark and Share

A Blue Jay study skin prepared by a student in Ornithology (EEB/NRE) 433. The study skins will be added to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology bird collection, the sixth largest collection of its kind in North America. Credit: Dave Brenner.

A Blue Jay study skin prepared by a student in Ornithology (EEB/NRE) 433. The study skins will be added to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology bird collection, the sixth largest collection of its kind in North America. Credit: Dave Brenner.

You've probably never seen a bird like this before.  

EEB and SNRE students have -- during a three-hour ornithology lab (EEB/NRE 433) where each student got to prepare their own study skin, the technical term for an animal that is prepared and stored for the purpose of scientific research.

Unlike taxidermied mounts, study skins are unposed and arranged in neat rows inside of airtight cabinets, usually inside of a natural history museum where they can stay for 200 years or more.

The Ruthvens Museums Building at the University of Michigan -- an architectural treasure on central campus -- houses public exhibits, several research collections, several libraries (including an ornithological library), and laboratories and classrooms -- which is where students prepared the study skins. 

Collection manager Janet Hinshaw and assistant Aspen Ellis, helped by Ira Richardson of the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design and Sara Cole of SNRE, led ornithology students through the process of preparing study skins, which begins much like a dissection but involves additional steps such as inserting cotton eyeballs, careful stuffing, and sewing with needle and thread. During the process, students got to glimpse at the tissue-thin skulls of young birds, the bubble-like air sacs which extend into the bird's limbs (which can rupture if a bird breaks its wing), and the spongy structures inside of woodpecker skulls that prevent them from getting headaches.

After preparing specimens, students prepared special labels that included the name of the species, date and location found, weight, sex, size of gonads, and cause of death if known. Most of the birds that the students prepared were birds that had struck buildings, windows, or cars and were donated after being discovered on the sidewalk or by the side of the road. Other birds were donated after being injured or killed by outdoor cats. The students recorded this information on the back of the tag. 

The students' study skins will be added to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Bird Collection. The collection, which contains over 209,000 bird skin, skeleton, nest, and egg specimens from all over the world, is the sixth largest in North America. Most of the collection is stored behind-the-scenes and is never seen by the public, but is accessible to researchers and students interested in using the specimens for scientific research or as a reference for art.

Read the full article and a collection of photographs on SNRE’s website

View the complete photo set by David Brenner