Students taking Ornithology (EEB 433) learn their birds inside and out. Literally. Throughout the course, the students identify birds in the field by sight and by sound. But they also examine birds up close. Way up close.

As a lab exercise last term, students prepared specimens called “study skins” that were destined for scientific study, artistic reference, and preservation in the bird collection of LSA’s Museum of Zoology. The class got hold of birds that had died in unintentional encounters with buildings, cars, or cats. Students dissected the birds and replaced internal organs with cotton wool. Instead of mounting the birds in various lifelike poses, as in taxidermy, the students preserved study skins in consistent positions, so that researchers in the future can compare measurements accurately among birds and across collections.

Visiting researcher Pierre-Paul Bitton teaches the ornithology course, which is offered by LSA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and cross-listed with the School of Natural Resources and Environment. Bitton says that creating study skins helps students realize the huge amount of work that goes into preparing animal specimens for research. He sees great value in the physical artifacts held in museum collections. “Because we had several different species, the students could appreciate, bird in hand, the large differences in form and associated functions,” he says. For example, a woodpecker can use its extraordinarily long tongue to capture insects for food, while other birds have different anatomy to suit their diets.

Students often deal with information that already exists, remarks Janet Hinshaw, the Museum of Zoology’s bird division collection manager. But only rarely do students get to see where that information comes from. The ornithology lab is a chance for students to observe for themselves, collect original data, and make that information available to other people long after the students themselves are gone.

Hinshaw marvels, “These specimens will be part of the collection for hundreds of years.”

A chicken skeleton presides over the ornithology class as the students prepare their study skins. The Museum of Zoology bird collection includes more than 200,000 skins, skeletons, eggs, nests, and specimens that are stored in liquid preservatives or freezers.

Students remove the internal organs from each bird, stuff the specimen with cotton wool, then stitch its body back together with a needle and thread. Aspen Ellis (foreground) began volunteering at the Museum of Zoology as a 14-year-old high-school student; she now assists as an avian specimen preparator.

Janet Hinshaw, the Museum of Zoology’s bird division collection manager, demonstrates the surprising size of a northern flicker’s tongue (up to about 5 inches), perhaps the longest of any North American bird. This woodpecker species (Colaptes auratus) uses its long tongue and sticky saliva to probe anthills in search of its primary food.

Northern flicker study skin, posed and pinned. With carefully placed pins, the bird dries in a position that allows researchers to make consistent, accurate measurements of the specimen.

Blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) study skin. This species has one of the longest recorded life spans of any songbird: 17 years in the wild and 26 years in captivity. The study skin of any bird species, if properly prepared and stored, can survive for 300-500 years.

The museum preserves more than 6,300 different species in cases like these. In addition to the study skins shown here, the collection contains some extinct species, including the ivory-billed woodpecker, passenger pigeon, and dusky seaside sparrow.

Study skin of an American robin (Turdus migratorius). Robins used to be killed for their meat, but the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act now protects them (along with more than 1,000 other species). This one, which died naturally, will dry for about three to five days, after which it can be stored among other specimens in the museum’s research collection.

Study skin of a northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). This cardinal is a female; adult males are bright red with a black “mask.”

Last year’s ornithology class during a field trip to Lake Erie Metropark, just south of Detroit. The students visited the park for Hawkfest in September and spotted about 12 different species of hawks soaring overhead, migrating south.

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Photos one through five, seven, and eight by Dave Brenner, U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment. Photo six by Rob Hess. Photo nine courtesy of Pierre-Paul Britton.