Frankenbirds: A True Story of Science and Immortality, or, How to Make Dead Animals Look Alive

by Sabrina Dahlgren

I’d like to first clarify that this is not a “how-to” manual for your creep-tastic Halloween needs. I’m all for phantasmagorical home decor but the average citizen should not be handling animal specimens. Numerous species are protected or their handling is regulated by state and federal authorities. If you don’t have the necessary permits and training please leave the dead stuff alone (or call us).


Order: Piciformes.

With that disclaimer in place, I’d like to boast that my necropsy (animal autopsy) skills have greatly improved in my time at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. As has my taxidermy technique – not a skill set I thought I’d be adding to my resume, but this place is nothing if not constantly surprising.


Order: Strigiformes.

Why is this done at all, you may ask? As a scientific institution, part of our job is to preserve a record of life on Earth, both for edification of the public (think the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife and the Frensley/Graham Hall of African Wildlife) and for the maintenance of reference collections used in research (our study skin specimens stored off-site).

It may seem like an obvious assumption, but no one wants to store an untreated dead thing in their building, regardless of ventilation and air-conditioning. Dead things rot, rotten things smell bad and a stinky workplace makes for very unhappy employees. So unprocessed specimens are stored in a freezer until the time comes for someone like me to thaw it out and clean it up. The cleaned skin is either made into a display mount or into a study skin, as much data is gathered as possible, and all records and databases are updated to reflect the newest addition.



What a difference strategic feather placement can make! Juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron. Nycticorax nycticorax.

So what kind of person does this for a living? Am I the modern, non-fiction equivalent of Victor Frankenstein? So glad you asked! Here’s the answer, in brief:

In presentation I lean more towards lab coat and nitrile gloves than I do mad-scientist hair and demented cackling.



The resemblance is uncanny.

My lab consists of a tiny room with two freezers, a small fridge, storage cabinets, a section of counter well-lit by under-cabinet lights, and a sink; not a condenser coil nor galvanic rod in sight.



A Tesla coil would add to the ambiance…

There is no Fritz or Igor to assist; the closest I come is Pandora or Spotify to pass the time. The best and most ironic song I listen to is The Vulture Song from Disney’s The Jungle Book because I am a ridiculous human being and a morbid sense of humor serves well when I do this work, especially in October.

Most of my tools are normal: scalpels, dissecting scissors, probes and pins. Grocery items are also used: cotton balls, Q-tips, hydrogen peroxide, borax, Dawn dish soap, and an impressive amount of paper towels. Some of my tools are a bit unorthodox. Gardening shears have become one my most useful tools. Toothbrushes have become specimen dinglehoppers. You don’t even want to know what I use a teaspoon for. (Hint: It’s a fat scraper. Enjoy that bit of TMI.)


Hair dryer + toothbrush = bird salon.


Regarding the actual preparation:

  • Documentation is key – keep a written record of all observations and data that may have accompanied the specimen. Take pictures for reference. Or just because.
  • Record external data (weight, visible trauma, general condition, etc.).
  • Skin the specimen. You’ll end up with bone only in the lower legs and feet, wing extremities, and the cranium; organs, muscle, and adipose (fat) should be removed.
  • Clean the skin as thoroughly as possible – cleanliness equals longevity and that’s the big goal.
  • Clean the feathers and the exterior of the specimen as needed.
  • Fill the eye sockets with cotton  for a study skin and glass eyes for a mount.
  • Reinforce the length of the body with a dowel, then add in stuffing to re-form the body cavity. If you’re preparing a mount, add wire armature inside first so that it will hold a pose, then stuff.
  • Stitch up any incisions or tears in the skin and brush the feathers back into place.
  • Secure the specimen on a foam board and allow to dry for one to three weeks, depending on the size and condition of the specimen.

Unlike Doctor Frankenstein, I am happy to report that I do not galvanize specimens. The only electricity I use is restricted to the lights and the hair dryer, not for reanimating the bird.



…it better not be alive.

Why is any of this important? Simple. Scientists like data. Scientists like data even more if there are visual references available. If those reference materials preserve individual variations among species, observations and inferences can be made concerning species and larger taxa of organisms. Our collection is, essentially, a 3-D reference library that will serve future generations.

And that’s pretty amazing, if you think about it.

So there you have it: the key components of a specimen preparation specialist.

Scientific background + morbid curiosity + Disney references + off-color humor = Sabrina.


This is an ex-parrot.

And now I’m off to calculate the air speed velocity of an unladen European Swallow (Hirundo rustica).

P.S. Someone has already done the math, and it is beautiful.


…and this is a gratuitous Monty Python reference.

Editor’s Note: Sabrina Dahlgren is a Curatorial Assistant at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, providing help in tracking and maintaining existing and incoming collections to be installed as exhibits or stored for future exposition.


Go ahead. Take your toddler to the museum!

by Victoria Smith

When my children were younger, and I was hip to the toddler scene, I would schedule play dates at all the usual places: I’d push the stroller to the park, load up the red wagon for the zoo, and slip Cheerios to fussy babies during story time at the library. The Houston Museum of Natural Science was also on the top of my list, and I was surprised other moms thought their kids were too young to appreciate it.


“Oh, no! He’s after us!”

The museum is fantastic for small kids! It’s got air conditioning, wide spaces to navigate, and if you have a two-year old who will only eat peanut butter sandwiches cut in squares, not triangles, you are welcome to bring your own food.

And of course, DINOSAURS! They’re huge, they’re exciting and they have pointy teeth (at least the carnivores do). Even if you don’t have a toddler who can identify every prehistoric creature and pronounce the names better than most college graduates, every kid loves dinosaurs. (Thank you, Dr. Scott the Paleontologist!) In the Morian Hall of Paleontology, the dinosaurs are mounted in active poses, bringing these ancient creatures to life for young visitors. The displays tell a story, and the murals illustrate it.


It’s the Circle of Life, baby.

Speaking of stories, my youngest daughter’s favorite story is the lion chasing the zebra in the Hall of African Wildlife.  Even though she knows how it’s going to end for that poor zebra, every time she asks, “Mommy, tell me the story of the lion and the zebra.” It’s not only a great chance throw in a few Mufasa quotes, but it’s also great to discuss how nature doesn’t waste anything because after the predators come the scavengers. I usually manage to work in a moral lesson about the selfish leopard who won’t share, too. There are interdisciplinary opportunities at every turn!


Let me know when the wonderment is over, so Momma can sit down!

The Cockrell Butterfly Center is one of our favorite spots to visit, and perhaps even my favorite place in the museum, period. Yes, the awe and delight in a young child’s face is a daily miracle, but they’ve got cushioned benches and free wi-fi! When you’re through with the center, there’s a beehive-themed play area with puzzles and blocks, and most importantly, it’s enclosed!


My daughter at age four, as an assistant in a chemistry demonstration…

If you want your daughters (and sons, of course) to grow up to interested in science, it’s never too early to start. Let them know that science is fun and not scary. The museum has dedicated tour guides who specialize in making the exhibits come alive for young children, and docents who offer many hands-on experiences. Kids can touch real fossils, feel if minerals are rough or smooth, and guess if an animal was an herbivore or carnivore while holding an actual tooth! It’s all there, at their eye-level.  


…and at age eight, taking on a brain dissection at Xplorations summer camp.

So now that the big kids are back in school, it’s a great time to plan a visit to the museum. If you’re lucky like me, you can convince their grandparents that even though your one-year-old can’t talk, he really wants a membership for his birthday, and not another toy to clutter the playroom.

Editor’s note: Victoria is the Executive Assistant to the President of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Why you should care about endangered species today, tomorrow, and every day

The truth of the matter is that we humans are bound to this Earth. As the dominant species, it is easy for us to allow industry and propaganda to run rampant, annihilating whole populations of the animals with which we share the environment. One shepherd will kill the wolf who threatens his flock, one company will dynamite a mountain to extract an ore, and that may be fine. But if all the shepherds and all the companies kill and dynamite at once, that is a menace to the natural world. And as long as we continue to take advantage of quiet places virgin to human feet, or villainize an animal as a man-eating monster, the diversity of life on earth will always be in danger.


A red wolf specimen behind glass appears to be mourning the loss of endangered and extinct species in the case beside it, in Texas, and across the globe. Farish Hall.

The question you have to ask yourself on Endangered Species Day, and every day, is are we really still competing with animals to gain a foothold on this rock we call home, or are we simply the most ruthless? One death by mauling, even 10 or 20 or 120, does not constitute a credible threat to humanity; there are billions of us. Call a shark, a bear, a wolf, a lion, a panther, any apex predator a danger to one or a small group of humans, but the time of fighting to survive in the jungle has passed. True, African villagers still suffer casualties due to contact with lions; yes, trekkers in the Rocky Mountains must remain vigilant for cougars and bears to avoid attacks; and yes, 10 people were killed and 87 were injured worldwide by sharks in 2014, but modern humanity now has the power to slaughter every last individual of any species. It’s not that difficult, and often it’s due simply to the spread of our kind into wild areas for resources or human development.


Less than 1,000 ocelots are thought to survive in the wild. Farish Hall.

In the case of sharks specifically, 97 casualties in 2014 does not and cannot ever justify 100 million sharks killed every year. That’s about 274,000 dead sharks a day, or 11 shark killings per hour. A shark dies at the hands of a human, somewhere, every six minutes. Even nuisance animals aren’t this systematically destroyed. The World Wildlife Fund lists great white sharks as vulnerable on their endangered species directory, facing high risk of extinction in the wild. We don’t know much about shark biology and behavior, but we do know they play an important role at the top of the marine food chain, according to the WWF. They might all die before we get to know them.


Attwater’s greater prairie-chicken exists now only in wildlife refuges. Farish Hall.

Sharks aren’t the only species in danger, of course. Many other animal populations have dwindled to mere hundreds. Biologists count 880 mountain gorillas left in the Virunga Mountains of central Africa. Imagine having only 880 humans on the planet. That’s barely the size of a small town in Texas, one of those places Grampaw says you’ll miss if you blink as you pass by. As few as 3,200 tigers live in the wild across the planet, the WWF says, and giant pandas, the mascot of the organization since 1961, number just above 1,800. Our favorite mammals are nearly gone. Just as gone as the dinosaurs. When they’re gone, they will never come back. Ever.


Native to southern Texas, the jaguarundi is one of many endangered predators. Farish Hall.

In Texas, from the pounding Houston rain to the burning sun of El Paso, the steamy barrier islands to the prairie grasslands and canyons in the panhandle, it seems the big sky country has enough space for everything. But farming and introduction of non-native species, as well as the urban sprawl surrounding our boundless cities, has built a long list of endangered species. Texas Parks and Wildlife lists the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, the Attwater’s greater prairie-chicken, the wooping crane and the red-cockaded woodpecker endangered in Harris County, as well as the red wolf, the smalltooth sawfish, the Houston toad, and the leatherback sea turtle. Some of these exist only in wildlife refuges.


The ivory-billed woodpecker, native to Texas, is critically endangered and thought to be extinct. Animatronic specimen displayed in Farish Hall.

The concrete city landscape of Harris County has replaced the natural habitat, a corner where coastal, wetland, and piney forest environments merge. As the city expands, roaming species like the red wolf are pushed out of their home territories while their numbers decline, but other creatures that rely on this area specifically for the resources the environment provides simply fade away. The Kemp’s Ridley feeds only in muddy or sandy bottom habitats, those brackish areas where swamp meets seawater, and while they migrate across the Gulf, these turtles still require coastline to nest. Other migratory species like the whooping crane use the coast as winter breeding grounds. As development continues, these environments shrink or change enough to kill off such species.


The Carolina parakeet, once native to Texas and most states along the eastern coast of the United States, was declared extinct in 1939. Farish Hall.

Texas used to have its own native parrot, the Carolina parakeet. This beautiful tropical bird with red, yellow and green feathers, suffered devastating losses from deforestation and feather-hunting. It was declared extinct in 1939. Its range extended in the eastern United States from New York to Texas. The Houston Museum of Natural Science has a mounted specimen on display in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife, alongside many other examples of native and endangered species. Apart from taxidermy, this parrot exists only in the imagination.


The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker is losing its habitat in Texas due to loss of the piney woods environment in which it lives and hunts. Farish Hall.

Next week, HMNS guests concerned about endangered species can come to the Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology, a new permanent exhibit adjacent to Farish Hall opening May 22, to learn more about the relationship between the environment and the economy. Some of Texas’s iconic species, including rare and endangered plants and animals, will appear on display. After touring these exhibits, visit the 100 awe-inspiring images of the 50 Years of Wildlife Photographer of the Year display. Some of these, like the photos of legal lion hunting, hyenas eating from a human garbage dump, and prospectors destroying thousands of acres of virginal forest for minerals, reveal just how awful things can get when we neglect the natural world.


A quote by William Beabe in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife reminds us why we should care about endangered species.

Why should you care about extinction on Endangered Species Day? Because if a species dies out, it never comes back. Every creature is important, unique in its behaviors or adaptations or the shape and color of its body. If these creatures disappear, the only way we can get to know them is through history and in museums, not through personal experience. We will never know what we could have learned from them. We are the stewards of this planet now, not its owners. We rely on it much more than it relies on us. If we don’t help preserve life, these endangered species are as good as stuffed. And when they all die off, we’re next.

Get wet, go wild, or blast off with new Party Smarty birthday themes at HMNS

by Karen Whitley

Yikes! Is it May already? Time has flown by and now your child is about to turn another year older. Between work, school, dinner, errands, and that never-ending laundry, who has time to plan a party? Lucky for you, that’s what we’re here for! Not for the laundry (you’re on your own with that), but the Houston Museum of Natural Science is the place to call for giving your child a birthday experience he or she will never forget. We have hosted over 3,000 birthdays here at the museum, so we know a thing or two when it comes to parties. This year we are excited to announce that we are offering three new Party Smarty themes at our Hermann Park location: Shark!, wildlife, and Mars expedition!

Shark- Touch Tank 2 (2)

Sharks have always fascinated us land-dwellers, and they continue to hold millions of people across the nation in thrall each year in July. If you have your own shark-lover at home, now’s your chance to become the coolest parent around by throwing your kid aShark- Great White2 (2) birthday party with real sharks! Not only will they get to learn about great white sharks,
see the jaw of a megalodon, and actually get inside a shark cage, but they will also get the chance to touch live sharks in our Shark! touch tank experience. As an added bonus, each kid will get a one-of-a-kind button declaring that they touched a shark. Shark! will be leaving our museum in September, so make sure to grab this chance before it swims away!

Wildlife 7 (Swan Lake) 2Did you know that a ringtail cat is not a cat? Or that a bald eagle has 7,000 feathers? With our Texas wildlife theme, your birthday group will get the chance to hop along with robins and howl with coyotes as you explore the diverse habitats and wildlife that our great state Wildlife 8 (Ocelot) 2has to offer. From soaring falcons to roaming American buffalo, there are more than 250 types of animals in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife! Will you be able to find the flying squirrel? Now you and your guests can experience the American wild from dawn to dusk as you listen to the calls and sounds of our animals with the rising and setting of the sun.

Looking for something special for your pre-teen or teenager? Our Expedition Center theme is a great way to get them away from their video games and into a thrilling simulated flight to Mars! This is no pleasure cruise: your teen and friends will have to work together to Expeditionsuccessfully complete their mission to land on Mars. From piloting and navigating to building probes, experiments, and so much more, everyone will have a blast on this voyage into uncharted territory.

For more information about all of our basic and deluxe Party Smarty themes and packages, visit us here.