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 (UMMZ) bird collection, the sixth largest collection of its kind in North America.

A Unique Look at Birds

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

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 about five-hundred meters away from the Dana Building -- 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.

Natural history collections can be thought of as "biodiversity libraries" that contain an inexhaustible amount of information that can be pieced together to discover patterns and reveal mysteries about life on earth. Collections have shed light on questions about, but not limited to, distribution, speciation, evolution, effects of pesticides (such as DDT on birds' eggs), spread of disease (such as avian malaria), and even impacts of climate change.

Collections are used by artists and art students -- like those in Joe Trumpey's Scientific Illustration class -- who use the specimens to illustrate field guides, learn about the principles of scientific illustration, or inspire creative work. Collections can even help writers and historians tell the story of species extinction, such as that of the passenger pigeon -- which went extinct 100 years ago this year. The University of Michigan's passenger pigeons make a cameo appearance in A Feathered River Across the Sky, the first major work focused on the birds' extinction in sixty years.  

Collections are also famous for fostering a sense of wonder and curiosity about the natural world, or sparking interest in science, conservation, and environmental issues.

This unique, hands-on experience offered SNRE students many new perspectives on bird biology, evolution, and conservation, literally and figuratively.

Students were able to both learn and make a unique mark by contributing a prepared bird specimen to such an important, fascinating, and important collection.

Story by Sara Cole | Photos by Dave Brenner | To see the complete photo set, click here