Posts Tagged ‘museum’

The Tonic of a Northern Goshawk

January 17th, 2012 | Meera

I’m leaving Chicago tomorrow to attend Science Online 2012, a small but by all accounts raucous conference that brings together scientists, science writers, and science lovers for a three-day conversation about ways to communicate science in this age we call (rather quaintly) digital.

I feel about this sort of the way you might feel about going bungee jumping: I think it’s going to be fun, but first I need someone to throw my butt off the mountain. As it happens, the person who threw my butt off the mountain was Meera-of-two-months-ago, who registered late one night while she was alone in the house, in a sort of haze of reckless abandon.

At any rate, since I’m going to miss my regular Thursday at the bird lab, I went in today to make up for it—and Dave, who has of late been almost as excited about giving me new species as I am about preparing them—had put out something wonderful for me to work on. It was thawing under a lamp when I walked in, all streaky and soft and pantalooned and raptor-y. It had a long tail, broad, pointed wings, and a beautiful curled bill. It was a Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), a bird I had never seen before either in life or death, and it was breathtaking.

According to the data associated with the bird, it had been picked up on October 12th of last year in Duluth, Minnesota; no other information about its condition or circumstances was available. But I couldn’t see any signs of injury as I prepared it, and it was very thin. Dave thought it might have starved to death; an ill-fitting end for a fierce and clever hunter. Almost every description you read of the Goshawk will tell you that it is such a potent symbol of ferocity that Attila the Hun had its image emblazoned on his helmet: a story that goes back at least to the days of the 16th-century Italian naturalist Aldrovandus.)

I knew the Gos was a bird to admire as soon as I discovered that although it mostly eats grouse, songbirds, and small mammals like rabbits and squirrels, it is also one of only a few birds of prey that will go after corvids like rooks and crows. Corvids are notoriously ingenious, aggressive, and apt to harass falcons, hawks, and owls in great black mobs. In my book, any bird that regularly chooses and vanquishes such a target must have a fine heart, a quick eye, and sharp talons.

As I was skinning, some friends from the Division of Fishes stopped by to make their rounds through the beetle room. One of them, Kevin, is a birder, and he always likes to talk about whatever I happen to be working on when he arrives. Today he told me about once being swarmed by a pair of angry Goshawk protecting their nest, and the eerie sound they made. I’ve since listened to a Goshawk’s alarm call, and it’s a gorgeously harsh, high-pitched wail that’s almost gull-like. I can imagine being startled by it in the middle of a midwestern forest.

T.H. White, whom I otherwise know only from a rapt childhood reading of The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone, once owned a young male of the species. He wrote a 200-page book—or, from the few excerpts I’ve read so far, something more like a 200-page love letter to a difficult, complicated and extraordinary friend—about his relationship with the bird. I leave you with his assessment of what it is to find oneself in such a kinship:

The thing about being associated with a hawk is that one cannot be slipshod about it. No hawk can be a pet. There is no sentimentality. In a way, it is the psychiatrist’s art. One is matching one’s mind against another mind with deadly reason and interest. One desires no transference of affection, demands no ignoble homage or gratitude. It is a tonic for the less forthright savagery of the human heart.

The thing about honorably preparing the fallen body of a hawk for scientific study is also that one cannot be slipshod about it. And I don’t think I was.

Northern Goshawk

(Speaking of the Macabre)

November 10th, 2011 | Meera

This is a preserved specimen that caught my eye after I had finished working on my birds today. On my way out, I walked through the Field’s new permanent exhibition about the museum’s role in advancing conservation science: Restoring Earth.

What’s in the jar is a Blanchard’s cricket frog (Acris crepitans blanchardi).

Cricket frogs get their name from their clear, metallic, insect-like mating call. I’ve also heard it described as the sound of two pebbles being struck together. They’re a type of tree frog, a group whose arboreal lifestyle means its members are usually rather tiny and possess unusual modifications that allow them to cling to leaves and branches. (Like adhesive toe-pads whose stickiness is built around the dynamic duo of nanoscale pillar-structures and mucus!)

Blanchard’s cricket frogs used to be an incredibly common sight in the upper Midwest, but beginning about thirty years ago, people noticed their numbers going into a steep decline. It’s still not absolutely clear why this is so, but one of the best current guesses is that exposure to large amounts of agricultural pesticides may have caused a host of physiological and behavioral changes in the frogs that interfered with their ability to properly reproduce.

I’m posting this because I was struck, especially after what I talked about last time, by how powerfully I was drawn to this particular object in the exhibit. What was alluring was precisely its eerie appearance: drained, almost milk-white, and hanging like a ghost in its jar.

Blanchard’s cricket frogs are beautiful creatures, as a quick image search revealed—I have never seen one myself, at least not knowingly.

And yet I do not think I would necessarily have walked over to and read the text beside a colorful photograph showing one of these little guys in life. This is not at all to my credit—it just happens to be true.

Now, I wonder if the exhibit designers simply wanted to showcase a specimen as it was preserved in the museum, or if, in addition, at some level they knew this about me. (And also, perhaps, about you.)

*******

P.S. This is a good time to point you towards John Bates’s blog. John is one of the curators of the Bird Division at the Field, and he’s not only a lovely and incredibly smart ornithologist, he’s also really invested in educating people about what his team does. He posts frequently (at least by my standards!) and is reliably fascinating. His latest post, about why it’s useful to preserve pre-fledgling age specimens, might be of especial interest.

On The Uses of the Macabre

October 31st, 2011 | Meera

Happy Halloween! Today seemed like an excellent day to make this post.

Entering the bird lab this past Thursday morning, I found Mary, who usually works at the sink, sitting on a stool beside the large metal prep table that dominates the room. In front of her were two plastic trays; on each, several tidy rows of specimens were arranged. The birds that made up this small collection represented three different species: Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis), Nashville Warblers (Vermivora ruficapilla), and White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis).

All three are extremely common birds in the Chicago area at this time of year, either because they’re migrating through on their way to warmer southern climes, or because they spend the winter here.

And all three are known to me personally from morning walks through the Wooded Island in Jackson Park, the treed and windy urban oasis by the lakefront where I saw the distempered raccoon earlier this spring. I love the sight of dozens of dark gray Juncos against patches of snow on the ground, like a fireplace’s worth of cinders someone has rolled up into cozy little balls. Nashville warblers make jaunty little tail flicks as they forage through low trees and shrubs (often that’s all I see of them, an olive whisk-whisk-whisk before they rustle away through the leaves). And the mustard-yellow smudges next to each eye on White-throated Sparrows always make me imagine these fluffy, familiar creatures having just feasted messily on a stash of abandoned hot dogs.

The fact that Mary was working on these birds wouldn’t, in and of itself, have been of much note except that the specimens were in a form that I’d never seen before in the lab. Normally, these are species that Dave chooses to preserve as skeletons. One of the advantages of doing so is that there are many measurements it’s possible to take from a skeleton that it’s impossible to take from a study skin. To prepare a specimen for being skeletonized by the dermestid beetles, volunteers must first remove all its feathers and skin, a process called “roughing out.”

But the specimens Mary was working with seemed to have gone only part-way through this process. On the Nashville Warblers and the White-throated Sparrows, the feathers from their bodies had been removed, but those on their heads had been left in place. And on the Juncos, tail feathers remained as well.

White-throated Sparrows

In this state the specimens appeared, I confess, both fascinating and a little macabre. The juxtaposition of intact, feathered crowns, their plumage still beautifully soft and many-colored, with the dark red muscle of de-feathered bodies, created an incongruity—the likeness of life next to the unmistakable sign of death—that forced me to stop.

Why had some feathers been left on these birds?

Mary soon explained that in each of these species, subtle but significant differences in plumage coloration can be observed. Such variations raise a host of scientific questions (Are the disparities related to sex, age, or region? Can they be traced to genetic differences? Is one form of coloration more common than another, and if so, why? Does the prevalence of each pattern change over time?).

To document these variations, Mary was collecting caps from all three species, as well as tail feathers from the Juncos—because these were the parts of the birds’ bodies where the differences occurred. This way, the caps and tail feathers could become part of the museum’s collections and potentially help to answer some of these questions.

But when she was finished collecting what she needed, the beetles would go on to skeletonize the rest of the specimens’ bodies as usual, thus preserving the ability to take bone measurements from them in the future. The fact that I’d seen the birds’ bodies in this state was a coincidence: an accidental glimpse at a bit of scientific frugality.

Here are some of the variations this kind of data will hopefully help to quantify:

Junco caps and tail feathers

Juncos can have crowns that vary from a light gray to a deep black, sometimes tinged with brown—and while all Juncos have white outer tail feathers and black inner tail feathers, there can be considerable variance in the amount of white and black on the intermediary feathers. This photo doesn’t show the subtle differences in the shades of the crowns very well, but you can clearly see how much more black than white there is in the tail feathers of the bird in the foreground, and how much further out the black extends to the edges of its tail.

Nashville Warbler caps

Nashville Warblers can have a patch of wonderfully rich chestnut-colored feathers in the center of their crowns, something I’ve never noticed when birding because the tiny flecks of red are all but impossible to see amidst or underneath their otherwise gray head feathers. Adult males all have some red in their caps, but the amount can vary widely; and some adult females have a little ruddiness there, too, while others have none. These differences are unfortunately very hard to see in the photo I took, but if you squint you might be able to see some red stippling in the third specimen from the left.

White-throated Sparrow caps

Finally, White-throated Sparrows actually have two well-documented morphs, or variant forms. You can see these quite clearly in the photo above: one morph has distinct black and white stripes running vertically down its crown, while the other has black and tan stripes arranged in the same pattern. Both morphs can be found in both sexes.

DNA analysis has shown that this polymorphism in White-throated Sparrows arises from genetic differences. Both White Stripe and Tan Stripe birds, as they are usually called, show a slight preference for mating with individuals from the other morph. This opposites-attract tendency (which goes by the unwieldy name of “disassortative mating”) keeps the approximate proportion of each morph in the overall population stable, so that neither morph disappears or becomes dominant.

Most fascinating of all, at least in the case of White-throated Sparrows, the morphological variations we see in their crowns are also associated with clear behavioral differences. White Stripe males are more aggressive and more showy—they’re more likely to engage in “spiraling,” a wonderful-sounding behavior that involves singing as they ascend the branches of a tree by circling it. They’re also less dedicated providers of parental care, and less monogamous than Tan Stripe males. As for White Stripe females, they are almost as bold and selfish as their male counterparts. (This may explain why both WS males and females seek out calmer, more reliable partners from the opposite morph.) For more on this subject, I’ll point you to this excellent post by GrrlScientist, who explains the genetics behind these behavioral variations far better than I could.

What I love about my own experience of all this is that it illustrates so clearly a principle I’ve always felt to be true about the study of natural history. That is, the macabre (like beauty) is not a thing that exists as an inherent property of the world, not something with a palpable presence in time and space. Instead it arises out of the complex interaction between ourselves and the world. Even if disquiet is our first reaction to a memento mori, it need not be our last.

But to the extent that encounters with the macabre invite curiosity—like the curiosity that struck me so forcibly when I walked into the lab and saw those unusual-looking specimens on Mary’s trays, and led me to learn some of the things I’ve shared with you today—I think it’s an extraordinarily useful quality in science.

*******


I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about two additional things I hope you will investigate:

1) Flinchy, the t-shirt company co-founded by my favorite fellow bird lab volunteer, Diana Sudyka, has several new designs available for purchase. I own one of them, and can testify to its quality and attractiveness. And greater luminaries than me endorse Flinchy shirts, too.

2) I wrote a piece for the Scientific American Guest Blog this week about my rather extraordinary friend Nina and her Field Museum project, LinEpig. You can find it here, under the curiosity-provoking (though not macabre) title “Internet Porn Fills Gap in Spider Taxonomy.” Nina picked the title, because she knows even better than I do that first you catch the eye, and then you tell the story.

Nina at work

Till next time, dear readers-mine. I hope it won’t be so long again.

The 100th Species

September 22nd, 2011 | Meera

Since I started volunteering in the Bird Division of the Field Museum a little over two and a half years ago, many things have changed.

I’ve gotten much more confident and relaxed about preparing specimens than I was in my first tentative months, though I feel no less amazed by the process each time I sit down to begin.

The plastic ID card I use to beep myself in and out of the museum and to access the staff-only elevators (something which still gives me a thrill) has gotten scratched and worn.

I’ve made some wonderful friends.

And, as of today, I’ve worked on one hundred different bird species.

You can find the list in its entirety here, where it will continue to grow as Dave keeps putting out new species for me to work on. But I thought I’d give the 100th a bit of fanfare in this post, especially since it’s not a bird that tends to get a lot of fanfare.

The 100th species on my list is neither unusually large nor remarkably small, neither brightly colored nor glossy and dark. There’s nothing exotic about it. It’s just another little brown bird. Yet if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that the more data we have about a particular thing, the more meaningful that data is and the more useful it is to science.

Paradoxically, the fact that White-crowned Sparrows are extremely common in our collections—according to a search I just did of the Bird Division’s database, at least 1433 individual Zonotrichia leucophrys specimens already exist in the museum, dating back to 1863—makes every additional study skin we prepare of even greater value. With a healthy-sized data-set like that, any researcher wanting to do a genetic study, track migration patterns or wing-lengths over time, generate a set of characteristics that birders or bird banders can use to age or sex a bird in the field, or answer any of a thousand-and-one impossible-to-predict future questions, will have a larger body of information to work with and a far better chance of producing reliable results.

So here it is: One big milestone for me, one precious incremental addition to scientific data, and one beautiful bird.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

100th species

P.S. You may have noticed that this little fellow, despite being called a White-crowned Sparrow, has no white visible on its crown. That’s because it was an immature bird, probably hatched earlier this year, and had not had a chance to moult into its adult plumage before it died. Females of the species also don’t live up to their name, and look similar to juveniles—but their tails aren’t quite so long as you see here, and they don’t have any white bars on their wings. Aren’t bird names wonderfully confusing?

To Be a Rove Beetle

September 15th, 2011 | Meera

I have a small number of tracks that I follow through the halls of the Field Museum almost every time I go there. The museum, as those of you who have visited it will know, is a cavernous structure. Its walls contain more than a million square feet of floor space, less than half of which is devoted to publicly displayed exhibits—so if you have been there, imagine how big it seems to you when you’re standing in that enormous central atrium and then just go ahead and double that feeling.

I’m no mathematician, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that even if all you ever wanted to do was travel back and forth between two spots in the entire building—say, the doors of the West entrance and the bird prep lab on the 3rd floor—you could probably devise a near-infinite number of different routes to take.

Some might whisk you through the plant hall, others past the ancient Americas; some would wind their way around the feet of dinosaurs, others plunge you deep inside the heart of minerals. If you had an all-access-granted ID pass, no staircase, door, or elevator would be closed to you; you could make the Field your only home, and walking it your only recreation, and still you’d likely need more than one lifetime to traverse each one of the possible passageways it contains.

Me, I’ve been there close to a hundred and fifty times in the past two and a half years. And almost every single time I enter its doors, I take one of perhaps three, or, at most, four paths to get where I am going. It’s embarrassing, actually. I feel like an ant following some set of strange, self-made, incredibly persuasive pheromone-laden tracks; each week I sniff out what I left there seven days before and lay down new markers in the same old places as I crawl.

All this, friends, to explain why I have certain very favorite objects at the Field. For the things in the museum that I adore the most just happen to be, besides inherently lovely and fascinating, also conveniently located right along my ant-tracks.

The one I thought I’d share with you today is a large pair of drawings, mounted together in a single frame on a wall on the ground level, near the McDonalds. Each depicts multiple whole and partial specimens of Rove beetles: a large group of beetles belonging to the family Staphylinidae that, as far as I can gather, get their name because they’re fond of getting places by scurrying inconspicuously across the ground instead of taking wing.

(Their other common characteristic is a pair of unusually short forewings that leaves their abdomens half exposed, like teenage girls wearing midriff-baring t-shirts. But unlike most teenage girls, they’re shy, sleek little things.)

I’ve admired these drawings dozens of times, but today was the first time I stopped to photograph them, and it was also the first time I noted the name of the person who created them. He was Alexander Bierig. He loved beetles. And, as we shall see, he had something to teach me.

Alexander Bierig was born in 1884 in Karlsruhe (the prettiest fan-shaped German city you’ve never heard of). He was the youngest of the four sons of the shoemaker Ludwig Georg Phillipp Bierig, who apparently spent his spare time writing plays and poems. Nice work, Ludwig.

What I love about Alexander’s life story is that it has a wonderful sort of pivot in the middle of it; the first half of his biography is entirely respectable and sedate and conventional, and then he meets someone who changes things for him forever, and suddenly he embarks on a life of adventure! And jungles! And insects! To wit:

Respectable: After studying to be a graphic artist in his home town, Bierig spent a few years living and working as an illustrator in Berlin, where he got married. Then he moved to Paris with his wife Katherine, taught a few private art classes, drew pictures for scientific articles and books, and had his only child, a son who would one day grow up to be an architect.

When World War I began, the Bierig family moved back to Karlsruhe, and Alexander was soon called up to serve in the German army. The end of the war also marked the beginning of the end of Bierig’s staid life, because it proved impossible for him to find work as an artist in a country whose economy had been so thoroughly devastated.

Pivot: What happens next seems to have been that in 1919, some Russian friends of the Bierigs decided to move to Havana in search of work. This was a sensible enough plan, since at the time Havana was just starting to undergo two huge booms: one in sugar and one in tourism. There was definitely more money flowing to it than to Karlsruhe. Inspired, Alexander decided to move his little family to Cuba too.

In Havana, Bierig walked down some old paths for a while. He freelanced as a graphic artist, became a teacher of drawing and natural sciences at the German School, and kept giving private art classes.

He also met the person who would be his pivot: an eminent Costa Rican entomologist named Ferdinand Nevermann. Bierig had become interested in beetles while he was in Paris, and had even written a scientific paper about two species of Carabidae after he moved back to Karlsruhe. But it was his friendship with Nevermann that ignited what would become a lifelong love affair with field work, collecting, and Rove beetles in particular.

(At some point in 1923, Katherine—who didn’t like Cuba or its climate at all—moved back to Germany with their son. I haven’t been able to determine whether she was also irritated with her husband’s growing obsession with beetles, but I wouldn’t rule it out. In any event, the marriage didn’t survive the separation. Alone in Havana, Bierig befriended several other zoologists, learned everything there was to learn about Rove beetles, and began publishing more scientific papers. But it wasn’t until 1938 that his second life really began.)

Adventure!: In 1938, Bierig went on his first field trip, an excursion with Nevermann to Costa Rica. I don’t know how the trip would have been graded by scientific criteria, but by all other benchmarks things did not go well. There was An Accident. I wish I could tell you with certainty exactly what this accident was, but the small amount of literature I’ve been able to find on the subject contains conflicting details.

One story is that Nevermann and Bierig were attacked by a jaguar which pounced on them from a treetop, and Nevermann was killed, while Bierig was severely wounded. Another is that Nevermann was out collecting insects at night, by headlamp, and was accidentally shot by a local hunter who mistook his light for the glowing eyes of a large animal. One version of this second story has Bierig there and wounded, too; another doesn’t mention Bierig at all.

What is clear is that Bierig’s first exposure to field work was extraordinarily traumatic. It resulted in the death of his scientific partner and good friend. It seems to have gravely injured him. Yet one year later—clearly intoxicated by the glorious, colorful, totally overwhelming world of tropical wildlife that he’d found in Costa Rica—he returned to the same country to continue his beetle collecting. And he never left.

In Costa Rica Bierig would become a professor of entomology in San José, author dozens of scientific papers, collect approximately 26,000 individual specimens, and describe over 150 new species and over 30 new genera of insects (most of which were Rove beetles and all of which, of course, he would also illustrate). He was a field biologist extraordinaire. He was also a celebrated and often exhibited artist in his adopted country, remembered till this day for his influence on an entire generation of Costa Rican painters and illustrators.

rove beetles

The final years of Bierig’s life were not easy ones, although they had some bright spots (like the happy discovery of a granddaughter he’d never known he had). He began to lose his eyesight, became rather solitary, and finally died in 1963 after a long and painful illness. With no one to maintain them, his drawings, papers, and the tens of thousands of type specimens he’d collected began to deteriorate in the tropical heat and humidity.

Fortunately for posterity, this is when they were scooped up by the Field. And very fortunately for me, a few of Alexander’s drawings happened to find themselves (nearly 50 years later) located on one of my three or four short and unimaginative ant-trails through the museum.

As far as I can tell, Alexander was pretty damned good at roving. In tribute to him, next time I go into the Field Museum, I’m going to experiment with some different routes to where I’m going. I bet I’ll find a new favorite object or two. And if today is anything to go by, I might also find another great story to tell you.


(This is a self-portrait Alexander drew. I think he looks fantastic.)

New World Warbler

August 11th, 2011 | Meera

I’m back in the lab on Thursdays, and this morning I walked into it to find that Dave had set out three beautiful little New World wood warblers for me to prepare. Although I loved every bird I encountered in Sweden, I found myself missing many North American species while I was away, including our vivid warblers. It was a delight, therefore, to work today on a turmeric-yellow Pine Warbler (Dendroica pinus), an Orange-crowned Warbler (Vermivora celata) with an especially large splotch of rust on its head, and a sleek Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia).

Male Magnolia Warblers always make me think of gentlemen who’ve dressed themselves in suits of the most conventional gray, white, and black—and then decided at the last moment that they simply must put on vests as bright as any daffodil.

Magnolia warbler, before

Magnolia warbler, in process

Magnolia warbler, after

*******


The English word world can be traced, through only a few straightforward steps, to an ancient Germanic compound noun meaning “the age of man” (wer: “man”/ ald: “age”). Ald, in turn, is derived from an even older verb meaning “to grow” or “to nourish.” Thus, world: that place where human beings and their affairs flourish.

It’s a fine thing, friends, to be alive in such a place: whether Old or New. Ah; it is the only thing, you may remind me. But still—and despite all hardships—a fine, fine one.

Extinction of Silence

May 12th, 2011 | Meera

That it was shy when alive goes without saying.
We know it vanished at the sound of voices

Or footsteps. It took wing at the slightest noises,
Though it could be approached by someone praying.

We have no recordings of it, though of course
In the basement of the Museum, we have some stuffed

Moth-eaten specimens—the Lesser Ruffed
And Yellow Spotted—filed in narrow drawers.

But its song is lost. If it was related to
A species of Quiet, or of another feather,

No researcher can know. Not even whether
A breeding pair still nests deep in the bayou,

Where legend has it some once common bird
Decades ago was first not seen, not heard.

—A.E. STALLINGS

My friend Megan sent me this poem two years ago, after I posted a photo of Long-tailed Widowbirds filed in a narrow drawer. I still think of it every time Dave sets me loose in the collections with a key, as he did today.

Wanting a little preview of what I’m likely to see in Sweden, I poked around for a few minutes after I was done with the birds I prepared. I opened cabinets and pulled out narrow drawers—newly purchased European bird guide in one hand and unfamiliar finches in the other. I retrieved what was once shy.

Most of the skins I looked at this afternoon were a hundred years old. Not so moth-eaten, not so far—still, they were faded, a little, and unable to convey the full measure of a life marked by song and flight. Nothing I wanted to see could vanish or take wing at my footsteps.

I am fonder of the museum’s drawers of specimens than I can say. But I am ready to be out with the birds this summer. We shall see what kinds of silences they sing.

Euplectes progne delamerei


Through Rose-breasted Grosbeak Glasses

May 5th, 2011 | Meera

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)

I spent another lovely day at the bird lab, preparing two Grasshopper sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) and this Rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludivocianus). The whole time I was there I felt calm, happy, useful, and at home.

When I got back I had two voicemails and seventeen emails about various stressful work- and finance-related events, and these things deflated the pleasantly optimistic bubble that forms around me on Thursdays. But looking at this photo, and showing it to you, returns a tiny piece of it.


Ex ovo omnia

April 14th, 2011 | Meera

Peregrine falcon egg

Mary Hennen, who has run the Chicago Peregrine Program for over two decades, was out and about today monitoring several wild peregrine falcon nests in the downtown area. When she got back to the lab she had with her a clutch of three eggs from a nest on South Wacker. The nest, and its eggs, were abandoned after the male of the pair was killed in a fight with another peregrine last week. When this happens, Mary explained, if it’s early enough in the nesting season and the eggs aren’t very far along in incubation, the partner that’s left will often cut their losses and find a new mate with whom to try again. I guess it’s hard being a single parent, no matter what species you belong to.

More on the city’s peregrines at this wonderful blog I discovered today. Stephanie Ware, a Field museum staff member and volunteer falcon watcher, writes the updates.

Medium-Sized Mysteries

April 7th, 2011 | Meera

I continue to spend Thursdays in the prep lab. While I’m there each bird represents a small, self-contained mystery. What species is it, and is it new to me? Where did this particular individual come from—the collision monitors, a rehabilitation center, a museum security guard who saw something on the path outside and brought it in? How did it die? Was it healthy and well-fed on its last day? Was it young or old? I can answer most of these questions as I go along, using the bird’s outer (and inner) appearance and the information on its tag.

I also like to think about the bigger mysteries the Field’s specimen collection is designed to help researchers answer. How do bird populations change over time? Which ones are increasing, and which decreasing? Are migration routes and timings affected by global warming? Can we see evolution at work in the shape of a wing, or a bill, or a foot, if we go back far enough?

Sometimes, though, I get a glimpse of medium-sized mysteries: curious, spontaneous questions raised by the specimens themselves.

I.

In late September 2009, on a stormy night in Minnesota, hundreds of birds from a wide variety of species flew into a tall structure—a telephone tower or something like it—and were killed. The dead made their way, via the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, to the museum. And eventually, after a long rest in the freezers (we’re behind on specimen preparation), Dave began taking them out for processing. When that happened, he noticed a strange thing. If birds of those particular species had been found at that time of the year in the Loop, the vast majority of them would have been juveniles. But the Minnesota birds were almost all adults, with fully ossified skulls and well-developed gonads. This held true over the entire range of birds (which include sparrows, warblers, thrushes, grosbeaks, and ovenbirds, just going by what I’ve personally prepared).

Why would this be the case? Dave says that for now, he truly has no idea. So he’s working on collecting data about the entire group of specimens, and while he’s doing so he’s talking to his colleagues and trying to formulate theories that could explain this strange occurrence. Eventually, they’ll either come up with a brilliant explanation, write a paper about it, and let everyone in the community know, or they’ll remain stumped, write a paper about it, and invite everyone in the community to help figure it out. It seems like a pretty wonderful process: an example of the way science is supposed to work.

bay-breasted warbler
(This is a bay-breasted warbler from the Minnesota tower kill.)

II.

At some point in the day today I was looking for the box of yellow pins we use to fix study skins to the foam boards on which they dry, and it turned out Dave had spirited them over to the sink. When I got there I discovered that he was sitting in front of a giant tray of American woodcock carcasses, opening them up, and—if they were female—pulling out their ovaries and oviducts with a pair of tweezers and pinning them to little pieces of cardboard. Then he was putting them into a jar of formalin.

Why would he do such a thing? Well, it’s like this. The museum has a large number of woodcock specimens, collected as they pass through the area during fall migration. At some point Dave noticed that a lot of the female woodcocks had very large and well-developed sexual organs—a characteristic typically associated with the height of mating season. A few of them actually had eggs that were at the yolking stage. I saw one that was clearly yellow and as big as a large marble! Maybe, he thought, the birds were mating as they migrated. (An unusual behavior, worthy of study.) Also, he had a vague memory of someone, not a full time museum staff member but a scientist who’d passed through the lab, having been interested in a question like this—years ago.

So Dave decided to preserve the ovaries and oviducts of all the female woodcocks in the division’s freezers, against the event that that person—or someone like them—would eventually want to check the organs for sperm. He only regretted that he didn’t have the time or space to put them in liquid nitrogen so that the DNA they contained would be preserved. This would allow the future hypothetical researcher to also ID the sperm and find out if the females were mating with different males on different nights of their migration route. As it was, pinning out the ovaries took him hours (and was absolutely fascinating to watch). I made him let me take a picture.

american woodcock ovaries-oviducts, pinned for preservation

Medium-sized mysteries: maybe their answers will be of great scientific import; maybe they won’t. But it’s fascinating to see them appear without anyone even looking for them, like bits of flotsam washing up on the shore.

Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads

April 1st, 2011 | Meera

How do you stuff a human for display? Does one remove the innards, and if so, how is it accomplished? Is the stuffing made of cotton, hay, or what?

—Stephen T. Asma, Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums

2011.8. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads (Stephen T. Asma)

The really lovely thing about acquiring a reputation for being interested in certain sorts of things is that eventually you start to get the right kinds of presents. When I was visiting Sarah in February, she handed me a beautifully wrapped box containing, among other things, this book. I cracked the spine on it as soon as I sat down in the airport waiting room on my way home and finished it over several sessions on the elliptical machine (I read at the gym not because I’m too sexy-smart to plug into their TVs or my iPod, but because I can’t stand getting sweat all over my headphones.)

My verdict? Mixed.

I won’t say Asma’s book isn’t well named, but in spirit it is governed far more by its staid and scholarly subtitle than its deliciously black title. The book opens marvelously, with two early anecdotes setting an inquisitive tone: In one, Asma describes the awful fate of an Inuit man who followed polar explorer Robert Peary back from the Arctic to take up a job as a living specimen in the American Museum of Natural History, only to die of tuberculosis. Unbeknownst to his son, who had also made the trip, “museum staff removed Qisuk’s flesh, cleaned his bones, and put him on display for New York audiences.” In the other, the author writes of his fascination with Foma, a boy with only two digits on each hand and foot. Foma lived for years in Peter the Great’s cabinet of curiosities, and when he died, he was stuffed and put back under glass.

Gripped by the need to know how such a feat of preservation might be accomplished, Asma sets off on a viscerally fueled investigation into wet and dry preservation techniques, including taxidermy—but is soon drawn into a more academic analysis of the role that natural history museums play as both artifacts and architects of scientific epistemology. I would have been happier if he’d spent a little more time answering his initial questions about specimen preservation, especially since his discussion of how animals are processed when they come into a museum isn’t very nuanced. He says, for instance, that each one is first skinned and then skeletonized before it can be mounted for display—but with birds, you actually have to make a choice between preserving the skin or skeleton, since certain bones must stay in the skin for structural support if you’re going to stuff it. And he describes the taxidermy process as if it’s something that happens only one particular way, whereas in fact there are many choices and innovations individual taxidermists can and do make.

I also have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about people who make the experience of going into the dermestid room sound unrelentingly lurid. I mean, it’s an astonishing place for many reasons. Some people find it hard. But really, I think Asma is reaching when he calls its smell “the foulest, most pestiferous stench you can imagine,” and a “fetid odor, sweet and sour in a nauseatingly pungent combination.” He sticks in “gory” and “repulsive” while he’s at it.

These are, in truth, fairly trivial criticisms. All the questions Asma asks interest me—How exactly are biological specimens preserved? Why should we pay close attention to the processes by which scientists come to “know” what they “know”? In what ways do museum exhibits reflect the biases and intentions of their creators?—and he attacks them with an infectious and amiable spirit of adventure. There were many sections in which I was transported by his detailed visual descriptions of particular exhibits. And though there were equally many where I found myself dragged down by the slow and somewhat plodding formation of an argument, the arguments themselves were usually fascinating.

In particular, anyone interested in questions of classification will be held by Asma’s discussion of the differences between the curatorial decisions made by the 18th-century natural philosophers Georges Cuvier and John Hunter. Hunter, for instance, had a habit of arranging specimens according to similarity of function, without regard to animal groups. In one armoire, designed to demonstrate how Nature deals with the problem of digestion, Hunter placed:

“parts analogous to teeth in invertebrates,” including parts of parasitic worms, cicadas, locusts, Roman snails, slugs, cuttlefishes, and squids; then “parts analogous to teeth in birds,” including the beaks of vultures, woodpeckers, and puffins; then two shelves devoted to “true” teeth, including those of lions (“teeth composed of bone and enamel”) and those of horses and elephants (“composed of ivory, enamel, and cementum”).

These choices, Asma explains, reflected Hunter’s tendency to abstract traits from organisms. In this case, the concept of dentition was “excerpted,” as he puts it, from the individual animals and the ways in which these animals lived in the world. By contrast, Cuvier—who was Hunter’s contemporary but held vastly different ideas about how one ought to go about organizing knowledge about species—would almost certainly have placed each of Hunter’s teeth and psuedo-teeth in its own case, arranged together with other parts of the same organism. Asma sums up Cuvier’s approach as one that relates:

the parts of an organism to each other and to specific environmental conditions of existence. So the lungs of whales, for example, have a real causal relationship with the other anatomical parts of whales (trachea, blowhole, circulation system, etc.) and with the needs and demands of its aquatic environment. But there is no causal relationship with other animals that have lungs.

Over the course of 300 pages, Asma roams through seven different natural history museums in three different countries, including my beloved Hunterian, which I saw last September and which has colored my dreams ever since. He interviews curators and collections managers, gets lost in dimly lit halls and back rooms, and everywhere examines what he sees with the eye of an artist, a philosopher, and a lover of science. I get the impression he would not be unhappy to be considered a kind of rakish explorer of the macabre, and that Stuffed Animals is intended to be as much travelogue as thesis. (Hence the dramatic description of the bug room.)

In this, Asma does not quite succeed—what he has written, although more palatable than any academic work I have ever read, is a bit of an uncomfortable hybrid—not exactly dissertation, not exactly popular science. In a way, the in-between is an apt space for this book to occupy, given the author’s fascination with teratology, the study of “monsters” and “hybrids” (otherwise known as creatures with congenital abnormalities). But to my everlasting regret, Asma never does tell us just how Foma of the “lobster claw” deformity might have been preserved.



P.S. This is where I tell you that The Open Lab 2010 has gone on sale! I have an essay in it, but every piece it contains is really a delight and you should read them all online, even if you don’t want to buy a copy. But if you are lovely and do want to support the tireless efforts of the book’s two amazing editors, you can get it as either a paperback or a PDF here.

Hi.

March 17th, 2011 | Meera

I did this.

my own imperfection

That is all.

Not For the Faint of Heart

March 10th, 2011 | Meera

While preparing three fall birds, prosperous with pre-migratory feasting, something occurs to me that I’ve wondered about before, so I ask Mary about it.

“Mary, do the bugs* like fat?”

“Mmm, not really. If they’re eating well, they’ll go through anything; they’ll eat through cartilage, tendons, you know. But if they’re being fussy you’ll just come in and find big gobs of fat they’ve left behind.”

There is a pause while I consider the word “fussy” in relation to flesh-eating beetles.

“They’re spoiled,” I decide.

“Yeah. They are.”

Later, we have a conversation about whether it is theoretically possible for fat to be deposited between the two layers of fused bone that make up an adult bird’s skull. Mary says she’s seen what looks like exactly that in the course of cleaning out skeletons from the bug room, but she isn’t sure it’s a documented phenomenon.

It isn’t too long after both these chats that I take a break to enjoy the ham and cheese sandwich I’ve brought for lunch.

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*Beetles aren’t true bugs, but everyone in Birds and Mammals calls the dermestids “the bugs,” and the room they live in is the bug room. I am not sure if the Entomology Division objects to this.

Adventures in Taxidermy

January 27th, 2011 | Meera

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.

Cooper's Hawk, mounted (2)

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.

Prep Lab Vignette

January 21st, 2011 | Meera

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.

The radio plays Elgar, plays Rodrigo. I hum the music under my breath. So sweet it hurts. The radio is melancholy today.

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.

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Loving Observation: Photographing the Science Museum

January 17th, 2011 | Meera

The following essay was first published in May 2008 at the online photo-literary journal Utata, where I have been a contributing editor for the past five years. I know that at least a few of you are new readers as of this month’s Open Lab announcement—and so I wanted to share this piece here. It’s as good an introduction to who I am and the way I think as any—although when I wrote it, I didn’t realize that coming on three years later I’d spend hours behind the scenes at a science museum every single week.

There are many ways in which people can establish their science-geek credentials early on. They can devour every book they find about dinosaurs, planets, and all the squishy, sticky, abnormally strange things the human body does. They can catch, kill, and mount so many backyard bugs that the sharp perfume of ethyl acetate starts to smell good in their eager noses. They can cover their ceilings in stars, make their own volcanoes, build computers from scratch, or race to the front of the line on the day of their fifth-grade science museum excursion. If you happen to be a certain kind of child, getting your science-geek credentials is a cinch.

I never got mine. I may have been bookish, bespectacled, and pathologically shy, but I was always more of a literature nerd than a science geek. I did get points for being obsessed with animals. I was more inclined, though, to stalk neighborhood strays bearing a bottle of milk with which I fully intended to save a runt someday. I wasn’t much for dissecting what was once living and carefully labeling its insides. As for science museums, I vividly remember being overwhelmed with joy the first time I watched a film in what they used to call the OMNIMAX theater (a name whose grandiosity I didn’t fully appreciate at the time). Still, that was mostly because sitting in a huge dome watching stars swirl high above induced in me a pleasant feeling of vertigo and awe; a sensation, I suspect, from which no one is immune. At the time, anyway, I didn’t actually want to know much about the physics of stars.

Some Amazing Thing (Paper Fish)
Photo taken at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

What I’m trying to tell you is that I’m a late bloomer when it comes to science museums. I wish I had realized sooner how much I would grow to love staring into the eyes of taxidermied animals and tracing the sleek lines of skeletons with a finger— how much romance I would eventually find bursting from within the bulging outline of a trilobite fossil. All those years wasted writing bad poems and making up terrible plays, when all along I could have been crawling through whale vertebrae and calculating how much belladonna it would take to kill a man.

Today I can’t imagine a more perfect afternoon than one spent in the dim confines of a natural history museum. I’m rather happy in a planetarium, too. Oh, or any building whose contents sing a paean to terrifying pharmaceutical products from another age. There’s nothing more intoxicating, now, than the thrill I feel when I pick up the visitor’s map from the front counter. I unfold it ceremoniously, assuming the confident air of a person who never has any trouble at all—don’t be silly—figuring out where she is and how to get home. I plan my approach: dinosaur skeletons first, always, then the mammal hall, then minerals—unless there happens to be a medical history exhibit in the building, in which case all bets are off and you might have to come back and get me tomorrow.

I bring my camera, of course.

You might not want to look too close
Photo taken at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum.

Is there anyone who doesn’t feel a certain frisson of excitement when they see something organic preserved in a glass jar? I don’t know exactly what it is, but I suspect it might have something to do with certain cultural associations we all carry around in our heads, some strange common currency that comes from years of watching mad scientist movies late at night.That might be me in there, I find myself thinking. If some other intellectually curious species with opposable thumbs and access to the secrets of chemistry had come to dominate the planet instead of my own, that might be my shriveled body all scrunched up in there—my brain at whose familiar whorls some creature with a purple exoskeleton would now be leering through the glass, wondering how on earth it could be so very…grey.

Mostly, though, what I love about standing in front of these heavy jars is how much easier they make it to observe the world I love so much, in close detail. Time pauses, temporarily. The barriers between me and the mysteries of this earth fall, temporarily. Nothing else matters except looking, and everything about the place where I am is designed to make it easier to look—and to see. I see that this barnacle has claws like a dragon’s. I see that these spiders have legs like sharp needles. I see that this frog has approximately six times as many organs inside its torso as I would have thought it had room for. I try to look as much as I can, and when I have looked until I have seen, I take out my camera.

Together Forever
Photo taken at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Science museums are full of materials, organic and inorganic, that are beautiful to photograph. Skin, bone, tooth, stone. Feather, fur, crystal, bristle. Metal that shines and glass that shimmers. I will say that I did not truly believe a collection of electrical wiring and plastic tubing could take my breath away until I met a series of charming walking robots at the MIT Museum a couple of years ago. Not only were they quirky, endlessly complicated, and slightly gawky—three of my favorite things—they were also lit with grace and gravitas.

One of the near-universal failings of museums, no matter of what stripe, is their lack of adequate lighting. Among other things, this makes photography extraordinarily difficult. There are of course important and valid technical reasons for the gloom—many objects on display are delicate, and apt to be damaged by too much light and heat. Sometimes, though, roaming through dark, quiet hallways with my pupils adjusting to the cavelike atmosphere, I come across a beautifully lit display case that appears to have been designed by someone who used to work in the theater. The sense of drama that these invisible curators craft can be so strong that I almost hear the opening chords of an overture and see a curtain the color of burgundy slowly rising.

Waiting to Walk

Photo taken at the MIT Museum.

It’s true that science museums are tributes, in some very deep sense, to the ingenuity of the human mind, and to the triumph of rational thinking over magical thinking. One of my favorite things about them, though, is that they aren’t afraid to remind us of how thin the line between the two can be. Science museums are full of exhibits that put past human foolishness on display. Psst, they whisper, people used to think you could treat paralysis at home, with a portable ultraviolet ray generator. They used olive oil to dissolve gall stones. They poisoned tuberculosis patients with radium. Don’t forget, they tell you. Don’t forget there’s always more to know.

White Cross Violet Ray
Photo taken at the International Museum of Surgical Science.

When I shoot in a science museum, I don’t try to fit everything I see into my frame. It’s impossible, for one thing, and for another, I’m not trying to recreate the exhibit in its entirety. What I want to do is figure out exactly what it is about an object I find fascinating, beautiful, repulsive, or astounding, and put that in my frame all by itself. What I want is for the photograph I end up with to have something to do with the feeling I had when I first saw the object.

That feeling is always the same, whether I’m looking at the claw of a maniraptor, pointed as a witch’s finger in a fairytale, or marveling at the astonishingly spare, zipper-like skeleton of a snake. It’s a difficult feeling to name: not quite excitement, not quite joy, not even simply wonder. I think the reason I love photographing science museums is that, unlike many—though thankfully not all—art museums, they don’t make me feel as if I have to wear my geeky credentials on my shoulder just to make it through the front door. Science museums assume I know nothing (which is generally a pretty safe bet) and still they can’t wait to show me the most amazing things in the world.

maniraptor tickles your spine
Photo taken at the American Museum of Natural History.

On Skin and Bones

May 25th, 2009 | Meera

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.

Pinned Colaptes auratus (Flicker)

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.

35 (Otus Asio)

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.