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.


Now taxidermy’s cool (and ethical): Mickey Alice Kwapis teaches her trade in Houston

When you see the word “taxidermist,” what kind of image comes to mind? Perhaps it’s a burly man with a Gandalf beard wearing a stained flannel shirt standing next to a deer carcass. If that’s you (as it was me until just this week), get ready for that image to shatter.


Mickey Alice Kwapis, taxidermist, is changing the world of taxidermy – one critter at a time. In an age when anything and everything is going digital and the word “millennial” is thrown around as a burn, this young professional is making waves by embracing the rich tradition and art of taxidermy.

Kwapis performs freelance taxidermy and travels the country to teach classes to the general public. On her website she says, “The point of what I do is to create something that looks lifelike and alive, and to teach others the skills necessary to do taxidermy the traditional and anatomically correct way.”

If you check her out on Instagram or Tumblr, you can see the variety of animals she’s worked with – everything from kangaroos to octopi – and she only started this work toward the end of her time at college. Of entering the field, she says, “One night after work, my coworker invited me over to help with a biology project for one of her classes. A night of cheap red wine and a dead squirrel turned into a full-blown business for me.” Tada! (And to think of all the road kill I’ve passed without a second thought…)

Since that one fateful night, she’s gone on to teach classes and sell her product all over the country. And it seems that everywhere she goes, people are surprised by this young, intelligent woman so clearly passionate about taxidermy and how infectious this passion becomes (she was actually in Houston last year).

In a piece called, “Why Do Nashville Hipsters Love Taxidermy?,” NPR tried to determine what the craze was all about. Beginning with the growing community of “Hipsters Who Hunt,” NPR discussed how “DIY culture is inspiring everything from knitting to canning.” The interview posited the question, “Is taxidermy all of these impulses rolled into one?”

Kwapis Instagram 1

If you follow Kwapis’ business model, it certainly seems true.

You see, for her, nothing goes to waste. On her About page, she states:

“No animals are ever killed for the sake of taxidermy or art or trophy. The skin is used for educational purposes. The skull and bones are either used for teaching collections in schools or ground into bone meal (a special kind of fertilizer) and the organs and meat are used for feeding other animals. Bottom line: nothing goes to waste.”

So there you have it folks! There’s a young, funky, environmentally-minded, ethical taxidermist coming to HMNS to teach you! Don’t wait – sign up for her class (on March 29) now. (Register A.S.A.P.; space is very limited!)

Kwapis Instagram 3


Mickey Alice Kwapis is a twentysomething licensed taxidermy educator and biology enthusiast based in Cleveland, Ohio. She travels internationally to teach traditional taxidermy techniques for affordable prices to anyone who wants to learn. She will be offering two classes at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on March 29. More info is below.

Learn traditional taxidermy techniques from licensed taxidermist Mickey Alice Kwapis. You will acquire the skills necessary to do taxidermy the traditional and anatomically correct way the first time. You will transform a frozen rabbit into a beautiful taxidermy piece over the course of a few hours, as well as learning the fundamentals of ethical taxidermy. The class fees are inclusive of all supplies needed. Participants must be 15 years of age or older. Participants under 18 must be accompanied by a parent.

Beginning Taxidermy: Full-Body Bunny Mount
Saturday, March 29, 9 a.m. – 12 p.m.
Tickets $235, Members $200

Advanced tickets required. For tickets, call 713-639-4629 or click here.


Are You Making a Connection?

So, why are you here? What part of yourself did you bring today? What experience do you want to have? These are the questions I wish I could ask every one of you as you come through the museum’s doors. Then according to your answers I’d play matchmaker, pointing out an exhibit hall, hooking you up with just the right specimen or artifact so you could make a connection.

In today’s increasingly digitized world we are overwhelmed with visual images, most of which we ignore. You come to the museum and we’ve got…uh…more stuff for you to look at. Yet, you’re here. You could have stayed home twitching through a hundred television channels or trawling online for something, anything, about science. But you dealt with traffic and parking to experience something real, so what will you connect with and why?

Everyone coming to the museum brings their own individual history, likes and dislikes and those things obviously factor into the objects they find appealing. Suppose you love all things purple and you really like minerals, it’s no big revelation that one of your favorite specimens at HMNS might be the amethyst geode in the mineral hall. At this point, mentally Rolodex the specimens and artifacts you’ve come to love at HMNS. What do you never tire looking at, what do you always re-visit? Fossils? Shells? Taxidermied wildlife? A Native American pot? You can probably easily state the reasons why, too. Old stuff’s cool, shells are pretty, animals fascinate me, etc., etc. But let’s dig a little deeper.

Model: giraffe
Creative Commons License photo credit: jrsnchzhrs

Think of an object at the museum that caught your attention for no particular reason, it sorta surprised you. It might have been nothing special until you read the label, learned something new, and suddenly you saw that object differently. Or across the gallery something grabbed your eye and you absolutely had to know what that thing was. Aha! A connection’s been made, you’re not completely sure why, but you enjoy it and now it’s a favorite thing to see and share with others when you visit the museum.

Let me assure you, that very real connection between you and your special item can’t be downloaded or digitized. To illustrate I’ll share one of my favorites – but I have to cheat a little. This specimen’s not on exhibit but is part of the vertebrate zoology collection. A few years back a giraffe died of old age at the Houston Zoo and the skull was sent over to Dr. Brooks, our Curator of Vertebrate Zoology. The giraffe was Hi-Lo, whom I remember fondly from my childhood zoo visits (that’s my personal history connection) so I was pleased his skull came into our collections. Then I observed that the horns, those knobby things on a giraffe’s head, are actually bone. Somehow I thought they’d be some sort of spongy cartilage. Who knew? But I gained new insight. Last, for no reason I can defend, I truly love the slender elongated sculptural beauty of the skull. It’s just cool. Yeah, I can google an image of a giraffe’s skull on any computer but it’ll never delight me the way that Hi-Lo’s does.

Ok, a connection’s been made. Where will it take you? Does it inspire enough to pursue further knowledge or is the experience of the connection enough in itself? As a child, the late great Stephen Jay Gould so loved the dinosaur skeletons at the American Museum of Natural History that he became a renowned paleontologist. Me? I enjoy looking at the giraffe’s skull over and over again but am content to remain a registrar. And here’s some more musings regarding our connections with objects. Why do we take photos of our favorite things in museums? Why do we take photos of ourselves with them? Why do we buy replicas of them in the museum gift shop?

Pharaoh hats
Creative Commons License photo credit:

Whew, lots of questions in this blog! Now it’s your turn, let’s make this a discussion. Which objects do you think best represent the museum; are there iconic objects that connect with every visitor? Communicate with us; tell us what your favorite HMNS artifacts and specimens are and why. Because, if I could, the last question I’d ask when you go out the museum’s doors would be: Did you make a connection?

Donna Meadows
Associate Registrar, Acquisitions

Science and Sorting

There have been whole books written about the history and development of the Periodic Table of the Elements, and how that shaped what we know about chemistry now, how great it is, blah, blah, blah. And the Periodic Table is a great and useful tool, but today I’m sticking to some basic fun stuff, like this crocheted periodic table that Erin introduced me to, or the periodic table TABLE.

All you really need to know (for now) is that the chemical elements are pure substances usually considered the building blocks of all the matter in the universe. Hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, lithium, potassium, bismuth, neon, helium, tungsten, copper, and gold are all elements, along with about a hundred or so others. Tom Lehrer wrote a fantastic and ridiculous song, The Elements, which names them all (or at least all the ones known when he wrote the song).

Most of the time we encounter the elements as compounds (like a water molecule is two hydrogen atoms attached to one oxygen atom) or mixtures (like air) or alloys (a special kind of mixture) like steel (iron and friends) or brass (copper and zinc). 

If you want to get picky, then yes, an atom of an element can be broken down into even smaller and simpler building blocks, but I’m not worrying about that now.

So, returning to just the elements, each element has unique characteristics, just like  peanut butter is different from jelly.  Each element has a certain number of protons (the atomic number), and an atomic mass (essentially how much stuff there is in an average atom of that element), and a number of valence electrons (which determines a lot about how the element reacts). 

Don’t get bogged down in what each of those things means, just remember that different elements have different characteristics, just like some shapes have curves and others have angles, or like some animals have two legs, some four, some more, and some none.

Anyway, the point is that if you have different characteristics, you can do some sorting, and sorted options are easier to deal with than a pile of randomness (I bet you select a sorted pair of matching socks most of the time, and prefer that your oatmeal isn’t stored in the same container with chocolate chips, soy sauce, and croutons in your pantry).

Science LOVES classification and sorting, and there are all sorts of systems and methods to do it. One word for these systems is taxonomy (to be distinguished from taxidermy, though you may certainly classify and sort your stuffed road-kill should you so choose.)  Taxonomy often refers to sorting and classifying living or once living things, but it can also mean classifying rocks, stars, etc., based on their characteristics.

Things to Try:

Periodic Table of Office Supplies?

Instead of sorting elements or classifying animals into classes or species, I sorted some office supplies of the order Paperclippius, more commonly known as paper clips.  Go ahead and try this with your own office supplies, pocket change, or whatever small items are handy.

Here is an assortment of specialty paperclips — how could you sort these?


 You might sort by color:


Or by shape:


And both ways have value.  If we sort by color and shape at the same time, a ‘table’ starts to form:


And the next step……


And the next step……


And then we might complete the table this way:


But we could have set up our sorting table like this: 


Or like this:


And those ways are just as good — they all sort by both attributes (shape and color), and we know where each type of clip ‘belongs’ in the table.  If we had everything laid out except the blue triangle clip, you would notice the ‘hole’ and know approximately what that clip should look like. 

The existence of many elements in the periodic table was correctly predicted before those elements were discovered, because of the ‘holes’ left in the early versions of the table. Pretty cool, right?