Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Bird in the Hand

Pacific Wren (formerly Winter Wren)
In recent weeks I've had the privilege of going behind the scenes at a museum to look at birds close-up in the form of study skins.

Poring over stuffed, dead birds might not sound like everybody's idea of a good time, but for birders it offers an excellent opportunity to observe details and compare and contrast species in a way you never get to do in the field, where birds often appear as silhouetted blobs on a brightly lit sky, a streaky dash amid branches, or a tiny speck beyond the reach of your binoculars.

A study skin is exactly what it sounds like: a bird skin complete with feathers, beak, and legs that's been stripped of all flesh and stuffed so that it can be measured and examined. The stuffing doesn't attempt to recreate the bird's form in life, as taxidermy does.

(For more information about preparing study skins, as well as some points of view on collecting birds, check out this ebird page.)

Sometimes wings are prepared separately from the study skins so they can be displayed fanned out, making individual flight feathers easy to see. A study skin wouldn't last very long if its wings were constantly being unfolded. The wings are actually threaded in place to prevent them from being spread.

A museum's collection of study skins includes the remains of many birds who were found dead and donated for preparation. (I once had a bushtit stored in my freezer for years after finding it newly dead on the sidewalk outside my house with this aim in mind.)

It also includes birds deliberately collected for study, though unlike the overzealous collectors in Audubon's time, today's scientists take legal and ethical considerations into account.

Handling and studying the skins evokes many feelings: wistfulness and a twinge of sadness at the stillness of the birds and the brevity and evanescence of life; humility at the connection between now and then, as you hold a tiny bird collected by someone who lived a century before you; and awe at the magnificent beauty and variety of species.

Northern Flicker's exuberantly spotted breast

The impressive beak of an Evening Grosbeak
The comets and stars on a Common Loon's back
The useful field mark, the "butterbutt," of a Yellow-Rumped Warbler
The tropical splendor of an American Redstart
The odd, waxy tips on the secondary flight feathers of a Cedar Waxwing
A MacGillivray's Warbler collected in 1894. Holding it makes you pause
and reflect on both this little scrap of life that fluttered long before you
were born and the existence of the person who carefully penned
the information on its tag.
Orange-crowned Warbler. The study skins of smaller birds really
demonstrate how much of a bird's volume consists of the life pulsing
in it. This is particularly true of the wrens, which resemble empty pen
cartridges in the drawer but appear much larger in life when they're
full of spunk and fury and scolding you from a branch.
The formidable talons of a raptor (I believe they belong to a Great Horned Owl).