I did this.
That is all.
I really don’t mean for this to be a bird-centered website, or for every other post to be about my beloved prep lab at the Field Museum—I’ve had an essay sliding around in my mind for a few weeks now about ice, for instance, and mean to get to it as soon as possible.
But since I’ve reached a bona fide milestone in my bird-taxidermy education, I wanted to share it with you: over several long hours today, Tom and I finished mounting the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) I’ve been working on. It still needs to dry out and settle in the freezer for a few months, during which time I’ll take it out occasionally to re-preen and re-tape it; but all the major steps in its preparation are basically complete now. This is very exciting for me because unlike the first taxidermy mount I worked on with Tom (that gorgeous Snowy Owl I was telling you about last week), I actually did the lion’s share of the labor on the Cooper’s. I skinned it, set its eyes, replaced the tissue we removed from its wings and legs with cotton, carefully slit the membranes around each individual feather in the tracts along its neck and back to keep its plumage from tightening up as its skin dried, made a body for it, wired its legs and head to its body (Tom took over the most with the parts involving wiring), and sewed it up. I feel much more of a sense of ownership over it, and the next bird I do will probably be a solo endeavor—not least because Tom is leaving soon on a six-week field research trip to Malawi.
Ownership or no, however, there is no way this bird would look as good as it does now if it hadn’t been for Tom assuming the reins whenever anything got too tricky, especially when it turned out that because of a change in the way we decided to arrange the wings, the body I’d made was a little too wide. He was able to maneuver the hawk’s wings into position despite the fact that the tight fitting body meant there was very little give in the skin around its back and chest. After he mounted it on a base he’d made earlier this week, I spent a long time adjusting its pose and pulling its feathers into place with a pair of tweezers. I think it looks alert and alive, which is really neat. You’ll see in the picture below that it’s currently being held in position with pins and tape; those will be removed once it’s dried completely.
I’m especially pleased to share this news with you at such a timely moment: yesterday, the Cooper’s Hawk that had been trapped in the Library of Congress reading room for a week was finally freed, with the help of a couple of starlings as bait (poor starlings, but at least now no one can say they aren’t useful for something). By the way, take a good look at the photo in that news story and compare it to the one above: the LOC bird is still a juvenile, and the one we worked on in the lab was an adult. There is a dramatic and beautiful change in plumage and eye color that takes place when a bird reaches breeding age. The patterns on the breast feathers of adults are a warm red color, while those of juveniles are a dull brown—and eyes go from yellow to red in the transition.
Tomorrow will be the coldest day we’ve seen this season, but today I am in the prep lab and it is warm enough—a rare thing—for me to take off my cardigan while I work. Because I have dinner plans tonight I am wearing, instead of my usual t-shirt, a sober wool dress: warm in gray and black and with a white bar running across my torso. In a moment it will be peppered with flakes of sawdust, but for now I feel myself sleek, a version of a Laughing Gull in modish breeding plumage. I sit. I take up my birds.
A Brown Creeper starts my day. It makes me smile with how long its forked tail is, how stiff—like a rudder for a tiny boat, except no boat would move quite like I have seen creepers move, in that dance that is all scuttle and scratch up and down tree trunks in spirals, like ninjas scaling a fortress wall. To see a creeper is to see a spider, a cicada, a gecko in bird form.
The bird I am holding has coloring that guidebooks will tell you is “cryptic,” which means it’s designed to camouflage rather than advertise. The term is lyrical, but not therefore inapt. Life is a kind of war. If your coloring must speak, let it be coded. I peer into the patterns of brown and white that cover the creeper’s wings—searching for hidden meanings. Instead I find a splash of copper, rusty and bright, hiding on its back like a gift.
I touch a finger to its bill. The thing is curved and sharp but not as curved and sharp as the creeper’s toes: three-in-front-and-one-behind and each ending in long, long claws whose tips prickle and stick to my skin like Velcro just as they prickle and stick to bark. I have to pull the creeper’s toes away from one hand with the other. If I let them they would cling to my fingerprints. If I could devote the rest of my life to becoming a tree, I would let them.
Dave, behind me, is cheerful. He has received a box. From it he draws dozens of birds, collected in South Africa ten years ago, prepared by a skilled hand, and given to the museum by a university. “It’s like Christmas came again,” he beams. The colors of these birds are startling: crimson, indigo, black with the sheen of a river at night. Olive with the sheen of satin. He lays them out in large, shallow drawers. They form a palette that would make an artist weep.
I pull my stitches closed on the Brown Creeper and clean its feathers of their final day’s dirt: all the grime it did not have time to preen away itself. To dry and fluff them with a little puff of compressed air, I walk to the opposite side of the room. I am glad for this excuse to look over Peggy’s shoulder. Peggy is the museum’s resident artist, and today she is sketching the taxidermied Snowy Owl Tom let me work on with him some months ago. Last week I put the final touches on it, filling in with epoxy the tiny gaps that formed between its round black lids and its beautiful yellow glass eyes as its skin dried and shrunk. Now it sits just out of reach on a counter, wearing a sign Tom made. “PLEASE DON’T TOUCH ME—FRAGILE! :)”
But Peggy isn’t touching our Snowy. She’s doing its portrait. I try not to be too obvious about it but I am staring at her while I dry my feathers. She’s working in pencil, for now, on a large sheet of paper as white as the owl itself. She’s drawn guide lines to help her with size and scale, and she’s working on sketching its head and wings. It looks magnificent: regal, curious, intelligent. Life-sized, or perhaps a hair larger.
The radio plays Mahler. The scientist, the writer, and the artist are listening.
On April 17, 1822, while traveling in the prairie lands of southeastern Arkansas, John James Audubon discovered a small, rather drab little bird about the size of a sparrow. It had a crown and back of dark olive, two white bands across its wings, a pale gray throat and upper breast, and light yellow underparts. Though in appearance it was very nearly identical to several other birds already known to science, Audubon knew he had never before heard this distinctive two-note call, a high and rasping buzz which the creature let out repeatedly in flight. He identified it as a new denizen of a large family of tree-dwelling passerines known for swooping from branch to branch, deftly capturing insects on the wing. It was this skill that gave them their name: Flycatchers.
When, six years later, Audubon formally described his new avian find in an early edition of Birds of America, he named it “Traill’s Flycatcher.” This was a nod to the Scottish physician and amateur naturalist Thomas Stewart Traill, someone who had helped Audubon exhibit his drawings to an audience across the water in the years before the budding artist had become quite as famous as he was going to be.
The name was a thoughtful gesture—but one that did not last very long. In the years since Audubon made his discovery, ornithologists have separated Traill’s Flycatcher into two distinct species: Alder and Willow Flycatchers. The two are virtual twins, but have different voices. (That is, according to the books. I can tell I still need more practice as a birder, because they actually sound very similar to me—although the Alder has a call that more resembles a zipper being swiftly tugged, and the Willow one that is more like a sharp sneeze.)
Neither, in any case, has hung on to a common name that recalls Traill. Researchers agree that the bird Audubon saw that day was what we would now call a Willow Flycatcher. Only its scientific name, Empidonax trailli, retains a Latinized trace of the good-hearted man Audubon meant to honor. (Such is the caprice of species; for more on the scientific and philosophical underpinnings of classification, I urge you to read this post by the talented DeLene Beeland.)
Despite what some consider its unremarkable appearance, the Willow Flycatcher does have several notable qualities. A few, for instance, are capable of defending themselves against the brood parasitism of the Brown-headed Cowbird—which shares the cuckoo’s disagreeable habit of laying its own eggs in other birds’ nests and abandoning them to the care of unsuspecting adoptive parents. According to a number of observers, Willow Flycatchers that find cowbird eggs in their nests have been known to bury the unwanted artifacts. They do this by pushing the alien eggs into the bottoms of their nests and adding more material on top—effectively entombing them within a new layer of nest lining. It’s not clear whether the flycatchers do this strategically with cowbird eggs, or as a simple response to any foreign material within their homes; either way, it’s a pretty delightful response to a base attempt at moochery.
And unlike songbirds, parrots, and hummingbirds, each of which must learn their vocalizations from adult teachers, flycatchers—Willows included—emerge from the egg knowing the song dialects particular to their species. Even when young flycatchers are deliberately tutored with the songs of similar but unrelated species, what comes out of their beaks when they begin to call is emphatically the sound of their own kind. Confuse me not with your zipping pip, you Alder, for I am a sneezing Willow! They are examples, in other words, of birds whose mother tongues are somehow encoded in their genes. (I cannot tell you how much I envy them. I myself, lover of all discourse and code, know only about three words of Punjabi and about a dozen of Cantonese, the languages my parents’ families speak.)
I tell you all this, of course, because I prepared a Willow Flycatcher today in the bird lab, and was enchanted by the soft lemon-sorbet plumage it carries on its belly and the inside of its tail.
P.S. As Diana reminds us, Willow Flycatchers are fairly common birds. But the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher—one of the ten or so subspecies that populate the United States—has been on the decline for many years now, mostly as a result of habitat loss and fragmentation. It’s been classified as endangered since 1995. The story of its struggle to survive has taken some fascinating turns lately.
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.
—Matthew 10:29-31, King James Bible
A hundred or so years ago, when I was seven or eight or nine and more foolish and more wise than yet I knew, I used to be dropped off at Sunday school while my parents attended the main service of our church. I hesitate to define exactly what I believed, or thought I believed at the time, about religion and the origin of the universe and the fate of all mankind. I can tell you that I asked an impertinent question now and again—usually regarding the ethics of this or that divine action—usually resulting in little satisfactory return except the swift corrugation of the Sunday school teacher’s forehead. Tiny doubts in my tiny head notwithstanding, I think it’s fair to say that for a long time I took the existence of God for granted. But rarely did this move me. God was vast, distant, and confusing. He didn’t have a lot to do with the particulars of my life.
It was different with this verse from Matthew, which I remember encountering and which (to an animal-obsessed child who stalked stray cats and scanned the ground under each tree for the injured bird I knew I would one day find) seemed infinitely comforting. A creator who would flood all his sinning children so he could start over from scratch was not for me; one who noted every fallen sparrow, on the other hand? That meant something in my world.
Today, I no longer believe in a celestial presence who counts my value in the currency of sparrows (incidentally, the onomatopoeic Hebrew word צפור/tsippur, normally translated as “sparrow” in this verse, can refer to any small chirruping bird). But I do believe in the fervent daily efforts of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors—who are out in force every single morning for much of the year looking out for creatures that are each still worth, in the minds of most, far less than a farthing.
Some days ago, a CBCM volunteer noted, carefully bagged, and brought to the Field Museum the lovely little Savannah sparrow I skinned today. (Most of the CBCM’s finds are window-kills, but this particular one came in with a broken neck that looked to me like the work of a cat.)
Because of that volunteer, a new specimen has been added to the scientific archives of the museum that could one day be of use in protecting the lives of other birds. And if the sparrow had been injured instead of dead when it was found, it would have been cared for.
Fear ye not therefore, birds of Chicago.
Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.
—Hamlet Act 5 Scene 2
When I see men able to pass by such a shining and miraculous thing as this Cape May warbler, the very distillate of life, and then marvel at the internal-combustion engine, I think we had better make ourselves ready for another Flood.
—Louis Joseph Halle, Spring in Washington
I don’t know much about Louis Joseph Halle, but after I read what he’d written about the Cape May warbler, a bird I’ve encountered once or twice before in the lab, I tried to find out as much as I could about him. It turns out that Halle was a Harvard-educated American naturalist, political scientist, and philosopher; he worked in the publishing and railroad industries, served in the U.S. Department of State, became a professor of foreign policy at a university in Switzerland, and wrote some twenty books explicating both politics and science. Whatever else one might say about him, in other words, he was clearly a thoughtful, observant man. And here he was, thrilled to the very core by the mere sight of this tiny yellow bird, about half the length of my hand—elevating it, in fact, above what was perhaps the single most revolutionary invention of the modern industrial economy. “The very distillate of life.”
I love that phrase. It is exactly the sense I have whenever I look at a bird, the strange feeling that I am witnessing an extraordinarily compressed and clarified form of life. Bird life, it seems, passes on an entirely different time scale than the one I inhabit; and it is privy to an entire universe of sensory information that for me is locked away.
But why does the Cape May warbler in particular deserve such heady praise? I’m not sure what Halle had in mind, but beauty and delicacy must have had something to do with it. These are petite creatures, usually less than five inches in length and weighing under half an ounce; if I slid one into an envelope, it would cost only 44 cents to mail the floaty thing anywhere in the United States.
It strikes me that the contrast between the bird’s diminutive size and the fierce good looks of its plumage must have been part of what so charmed Halle. Breeding adult birds have dark black bars streaking vertically down their necks and fronts: their scientific name, Dendroica tigrina, refers to these as tiger stripes. (The bird’s common name turned out to be less cogent; after ornithologist Alexander Wilson first identified and described one in the Cape May region of New Jersey in 1812, no further sightings of it were made there for over one hundred years. The birds live and breed in the forests of North America, then migrate south to the West Indies for the winter. An enviable arrangement; I would do the same, if I could.)
Stripes are not the only attribute Cape Mays share with their big-cat namesake. They can be keen and relentless fighters, and have very frequently been observed fending off other species of birds from territories that they consider their own, flying at the intruders until they leave the area. This seems to be especially true during the migration period, when food sources (Cape Mays feed on insects, fruit, and nectar) may be of heightened importance. In one paper, Cape Mays were observed to be the assailants in 98% of the aggressive actions that took place around a particular kind of fruit tree, even though it was a food source that at least 11 other bird species also enjoyed.
But there’s more to this little creature than good looks and chutzpah. In 1948, a University of Illinois student observed a Cape May repeatedly seizing upon the opportunity to drink sap out of the holes left behind by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, a type of woodpecker. “Whenever the sapsuckers’ feeding was interrupted by any cause and the tree was free,” notes the admiring birder, “the Cape May Warbler immediately moved to the spot and began to climb on the bark from hole to hole draining the sap that could be obtained at each spot.”
Or consider this note from a 1908 book about bee-keeping, which is guilty of delicious anthropomorphism but does accurately represent the clever variety of the Cape May’s approach to feeding:
Almost every year the bee-keepers are met with complaints from their neighbors about how the bees are eating up their grapes. It has been pretty well established that bees never touch the perfectly sound fruit; and until recently it was supposed by all fruit-growers, and even by some bee-keepers, that bees made a small round puncture through the skin of some soft grapes…but more recently we were successful in finding the real culprit, and that was in the form of a little bird, quick of flight, scarcely if ever to be seen around the vines when any human being was present.
This bird…called the Cape May Warbler, has a long sharp needle-like beak. It will alight on a bunch, and, about as fast as one can count the grapes, will puncture berry after berry. After his birdship has done his mischief he leaves, and then come on innocent bees to finish the work of destruction by sucking the juices of the pulp of the berry…the birds are scarcely ever “caught in the act.”
So, tiny, beautiful, fierce, and crafty. The very distillate of life, indeed. And lovely as the Cape May continues to be in death (as you can see from the study skin above), its true glory, surely, lies in how intensely it lives.
There is a wonderful H.G. Wells story in which a taxidermist, puffed up like a Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens), lists the feats of stuffing and mounting he has achieved so far: an elephant; a moth; a great auk; several human beings. His litany culminates, to the narrator’s enthrallment and horror, in the following remarkable boast.
“But all this is merely imitating Nature. I have done more than that in my time. I have—beaten her.”
He took his feet down from the mantel-board, and leant over confidentially towards me. “I have created birds,” he said in a low voice. “New birds. Improvements. Like no birds that was ever seen before.”
“…Some of the birds I made were new kinds of humming birds, and very beautiful little things, but some of them were simply rum. The rummest, I think, was the Anomalopteryx Jejuna. Jejunus-a-um—empty—so called because there was really nothing in it; a thoroughly empty bird—except for stuffing. Old Javvers has the thing now, and I suppose he is almost as proud of it as I am. It is a masterpiece, Bellows. It has all the silly clumsiness of your pelican, all the solemn want of dignity of your parrot, all the gaunt ungainliness of a flamingo, with all the extravagant chromatic conflict of a mandarin duck. Such a bird. I made it out of the skeletons of a stork and a toucan and a job lot of feathers. Taxidermy of that kind is just pure joy, Bellows, to a real artist in the art.”
From “The Triumphs of a Taxidermist” by H. G. Wells.
I have thought about Wells’s lunatic taxidermist many times recently, because four months ago I began preparing bird study-skins as a volunteer at the Field Museum in Chicago. The birds I prepare are mostly local species, but some are migrants that are passing through; since I live in a city, many have died flying into windows. A vigilant group of bird-lovers rehabilitate the ones that make it through this experience alive; the ones that don’t are brought here, where they wait in a freezer until a pair of ready hands takes them up.
My service here is a natural outcome of a triptych of fascinations with birds, death, and the body, but it has not come easily. It is difficult to skin and stuff a bird. It is especially intense work for someone unused to such meticulousness (most of the other volunteers at the museum are artists, their hands practiced with small tasks). My progress often feels halting; consulting my log, I see that my eighth bird, a European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), was quite successful, while my twelfth, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), ended up “a little ratty-looking and with lopsided wings.” Today is a small milestone: I have my twentieth bird in my hands.
It is a gorgeous male Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) in full spring plumage: its body a brilliant red the color of teachers’ ink, and the flight feathers on its wings and tail a shiny charcoal black. (I will do a female of the same species next; her plumage is a much less impressive dirty olive-yellow.)
There is a small array of touches I run through with every bird before I begin. I gently pull on its limbs, loosening them to make the bird easier to handle and checking for any signs of broken bones. I fold them up again. I stroke the tiny feathers on its head until they lie smooth and flat. I touch its bill and lightly feel the small, stiff, hair-like rictal bristles that surround it, if they are present. Not every bird has these odd-looking feathers, like short cat whiskers, and I like them particularly because when I see them I imagine the bird in full and glorious motion, its head jerking back and forth as it feeds. (The function of the rictal bristles is something of an open question, but one guess is that they protect a bird’s eyes from the sharp wriggling of insects held in its bill.)
I do these things partly because I wish to memorize the bird in its original state. I need a picture in my mind to which I can return when later I must do my best to arrange its wings, feathers, and feet as they were in life. But partly, the gestures serve as an act of reverence for the creature I am handling. The back room of a science museum may also be a place where ritual is born.
Lohengrin‘s aria happens to be playing on the radio as I carefully pry open the Tanager’s stout bill, my fingers running over the two tiny teeth along the edges of its upper jaw that helped it pierce the skin of fruits when it was alive. I tuck a small piece of cotton into its mouth with a pair of forceps, to absorb any blood that might otherwise seep out and stain the feathers. Something about this gesture comforts me, although I know that this does not make sense.
Next I expose the Tanager’s breastbone and underbelly by parting its feathers with my fingers. Casual observation may not reveal this, but in most birds, feathers don’t cover the surface of the skin uniformly. Instead, they grow in dense, linear tracts, between which the skin itself is bare. I push the feathers to the left and right, uncovering a ribbon of skin that runs from the neck down to the lower abdomen. On some birds this is relatively easy, but very often the feathers don’t wish to stay where I put them, and from this moment on it will be an endless battle to keep them out of the way (without tugging too many of them out of the skin) as I work. The more beautiful a bird, the more carefully I arrange its feathers, and the more I curse them.
Soon I am opening the bird from neck to underbelly with a series of light scalpel cuts down the skin of the midsection. Then I gently separate the skin from the abdomen and breast, peeling it up and away and depositing small amounts of sawdust on the exposed flesh to dry it a little and prevent feathers from sticking to it. The songbirds I usually work on can have paper-thin skin that tears at a thought, but in general what I find amazing is how elastic it is—and how, once it begins to come away, the muscle underneath seems like an entirely separate entity. It is perverse to say so, but I sometimes feel like I am peeling an orange, the skin designed to first protect, then reveal, the flesh. The evening after I skinned my first bird, I couldn’t stop prodding my own arms. I squeezed the skin between my fingers and tugged, noticing how of a piece my body felt to myself, and realizing how false that impression was. Once you have skinned a bird, it is hard not to imagine the whole animal kingdom opening up this way.
When I have eased the skin far enough apart, I slip a small pair of scissors beneath the Tanager’s esophagus and trachea, snipping them both and making sure I don’t accidentally pierce the skin on the back side of the neck. Lohengrin is still playing in the background; the low, mournful singing suits my sober mood while I complete this task. There is not much room for sentimentality in the lab, but something about the sound of the scissors closing with a sharp click always ruffles my focus for just a split-second. It’s such a pragmatic sound, so decisive; it’s the kind of sound that should emerge from the workshop of a competent seamstress. And yet here I am, disassembling a bird.
I can go a little faster, now, because the next several steps are relatively straightforward. One at a time I clean each limb, pulling the skin over the wing and leg bones, cutting them just below the shoulders and the knees, and cleaning the parts that remain. In the process I open up three small tears in the Tanager’s skin, one near the left knee and two near the left wing. They concern me only a little. It is amazing how forgiving a study skin is when it is completed; feathers will cover those holes, and there is no need for me to stitch them up. I only dab them with a little water to keep them from enlarging further.
By this time, I have almost entirely separated the bird’s body from the skin. Before I remove it, I turn the Tanager over so its back is facing me, and probe down the base of the tail for a small, putty-colored, heart-shaped swelling. This is the uropygial gland. In life, it secreted oils that the Tanager rubbed over its feathers as it preened, helping to preserve them—in death, the opposite is true. If not removed, the oils will seep through the skin and yellow its feathers. I scrape out the gland as best I can, then cut the bird’s body away just above it. I also scrape away any fat on the rest of the skin, for the same reason. You can tell a lot about a bird from how much subcutaneous fat it has. Most store more fat during winter, for instance, and migrating birds slowly use up their fat stores as they work their way along their journeys. This Tanager has very little fat. (I bless it for that, since it makes my job much easier.)
Now I am ready to pull the bird’s skin inside out over its head. I realize that this sounds gruesome. But the mere fact that it is even possible, and that the skin can later be pulled back over the skull like a sweater, with (if you are skillful) not a feather out of place, strikes me, like so much of what I do in the lab, as a complete magic trick. The Tanager is kind to me today; the skin works over the skull easily, I have no trouble pulling it away from the ear openings, and I am able to take out the eyes cleanly. As always, I marvel at how much space they take up in the skull; if our eyes were as large, I imagine that they’d go all the way up to our brow bones and down past our cheekbones—which would, perhaps, be a small price to pay for such acute eyesight.
After making some cuts in the top and sides of the skull, I pull the back of the head away and clean as much of the surrounding flesh as possible. I take out the tongue, which always surprises me with its sharp shape, almost another feather itself. I shall draw a veil over the removal of the brain, which in a bird that has been previously frozen is not the neatest of tasks. With a cotton ball dipped in water, I clean out the skull cavity, then hold the bird’s head up to the light. Scarlet Tanagers belong to the large and varied order Passeriformes. Passerines share a number of common characteristics, one of which is that the bones of the skull gradually calcify over the course of a bird’s lifetime, fusing the bones so they become hard and continuous. This happens to human babies, too. I’m looking for evidence of tiny, grainy-looking calcium deposits, as opposed to areas where the bone is smoother and more translucent. The Tanager’s skull is fully calcified, which is not surprising; the color of its plumage announces its adulthood.
Carefully, carefully, I pull the skull back into place. The skin is an empty pouch, ready to be filled. In order to do so I perform a series of actions: push a cotton-topped dowel up into the Tanager’s skull, to serve as a makeshift backbone; fill the eye sockets with more cotton; tie the two wingbones together across the breast, to keep the wings close to the body; pull the wingbones back into the skin; tie the feet together, to keep them organized and out of the way. Then I eye the size of the bird’s body on my tray and form a cotton replacement for it that is approximately the right size (a difficult task that is easy to misjudge). The body has a thin “neck” that I pull through the bird’s mouth with my forceps, settling it into place and tucking its base into the skin. I thread a needle, stitch the bird up as neatly as I can (would that I were a more competent seamstress), tie its bill shut, and finally smooth its wings and take a look.
Relief. The Tanager does not have the smooth, compact perfection that it had before I began, but it doesn’t look like it was recently killed by marauding crows, either, and its lovely plumage is largely intact. I take a moment to breathe before I arrange pins methodically around the bird’s body on a piece of foam board, so it can dry in the proper shape. Incidentally, let no one tell you that scientists do not have an artistic impulse: On my first day, the collections manager of the Bird Division gazed at the finished skin I had spent four hours preparing (I have since cut this time down to an hour and a half) and explained, gently, that he preferred the birds’ heads to be pushed back, like so, beak parallel to the board, and their tails to be spread just a little wider, like so, fanned out slightly beneath the feet. True, a specimen with a low bill is easier to store flat in a shallow drawer—with a spread tail, plumage is easier to examine—but these small attentions in position, I note, also make a skin lovelier to contemplate.
Conscious of the hope of beauty, the pinning process alone can take me a full fifteen minutes or longer, depending on the size of the bird I have in front of me—since tucking one wing into place may dislodge the other, and feathers, as I have explained, are disobedient. But eventually I am finished. Exhausted and proud, I wash up before making a label for my bird and pinning it by its side. “Prep. by: M. Sethi,” the label says, among other, more scientifically pertinent, information.
Lohengrin has long since finished his aria, replaced by the sound of somber voices discussing climate change. They barely penetrated my consciousness while I was working, but now that I am listening, their conversation seems appropriate for my task here today. It’s a small thing, perhaps, preparing a study skin. It has no immediate purpose other than the deep scientific goal of furthering our understanding of the world we live in, part by feathered part. I never know how the birds I prepare will be used. Not long from now, an ornithologist may slide one out of a drawer to examine, or a scientific illustrator turn one hand to hand, staring at its coloring and shape. One day, perhaps years from now, they may teach a researcher how they are related to each other, or how their populations changed over time; their bodies may demonstrate, through silent, urgent, signs, the true peril our world is in. In some terrible future, not easy for me to contemplate, they may represent the only remaining examples we have of species that once filled the skies.
I think this knowledge is partly why, although I love the wild, brazen arrogance of Wells’s visionary taxidermist, I cannot relate to his desire to improve upon Nature. How can we improve what we can barely preserve? My limited experience with taxidermy is so suffused with wonder over what is that it leaves very little room for dreaming up what is not.
I can’t tell what these birds we prepare in the lab will reveal to science someday. All I know is how much they have taught me, in death, about their counterparts in life. I never forget a bird I have skinned. When later I see one swooping from a tree or singing overhead my breast fills with such pure joy that it is almost painful. I make one last adjustment to the Tanager’s feathers before I leave it be. I may not have created it, but I have earned a sense of ownership over it. And that is triumph aplenty.
This is The Science Essayist’s inaugural essay. Future pieces may well be more technical, more personal, more specific, or more contemplative—I have no idea. Your feedback will always be welcome. Also, a special note to anyone who came upon this page while searching for help on making bird study-skins: The Manual of Ornithology: Avian Structure and Function has been an invaluable resource to me as I continue to learn about the ins and outs of bird bodies.