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.


Hey, Texas! Get outside and visit your wild neighbors.

by Melissa Hudnall

Texans! Want to see exotic birds? Look out the window! Want to see 250,000 bats? Just go outside tonight and look up! As a wildlife teacher and outreach presenter for the museum, I’ve had a chance to talk with future generations about the amazing wildlife found in Texas. Usually students think you have to travel to exotic lands to see the really cool animals, and they’re shocked to hear about all of the incredible animals they’ve been living right next to in Texas.


Texas wildlife artifacts for the mobile classroom. Sahil Patel

That’s why I was excited to see the new HMNS at Sugar Land exhibit Treehouses: Look Who’s Living in the Trees!, because it makes these critters more accessible and feeds a natural curiosity that most children already seem to have about wildlife. After visiting this exhibit, young naturalists may start asking questions like, “Who made those track marks?” and exclaiming things like, “I know what that scat came from!”, which would make any parent’s heart swell with pride. Luckily, Texas is the perfect place to raise a young naturalist.

Look in our trees and under our bridges, and you might have a chance to see the only true flying mammal: bats! (Sorry, “flying” squirrels. Gliding doesn’t count.) Texas has tons of bats. In fact, we have so many that they are often picked up on radar used for weather reports.


Radar around the Bracken Cave in San Antonio shows a cloud of bats. Every blue dot is one in flight.

Everyone’s heard about the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin and the Bracken Bat Cave in San Antonio, but visit these locations in the winter and you might be disappointed to find they have migrated for the season. Drive just 15 minutes away from the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and you can see bats year round at Waugh Bridge. This bridge has roughly 250,000 Mexican free tailed bats who would love to meet you. Before you go, be sure to get them a Thank You card, because the bats under this one bridge in Houston eat up to 2.5 tons of insects each night!


This Mexican free-tailed bat might look cute and cuddly, but don’t pick them up like you see in this picture. Being mammals, they can carry rabies. Report any bats that you find on the ground in the day time or behaving strangely. They could be sick.

This is the perfect season to visit Waugh Bridge, as baby Mexican free tail bats test out their flying skills for the first time in early July. Just be sure to watch nearby towers for local birds of prey, such as red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons, who are keeping a watchful eye on these bats as a source of food.


This peregrine falcon can reach speeds of 200 mph diving to catch its prey. This is a preserved specimen that travels to school with our Wildlife on Wheels program. Sahil Patel

In fact, Texas is a huge birding state. Individuals travel from all over the United States just to see the colorful migrants that pass through here, like Cerulean Warblers, Golden-cheeked Warblers, and Vermillion Flycatcher. Our Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife does a really nice job of highlighting some of the phenomenal birds that pay us a visit, for those of us (me) who do not have the patience for actual birding.


Vermillion Flycatcher

Another adorable, and partially arboreal animal is the North American Porcupine.


North American Porcupine

Looking for a kiss under the mistletoe this winter? This rodent is happy to oblige. Porcupines have been known to slowly amble up trees in search of mistletoe and pine needles when their preferred shrubbery is coated with snow. However, you may wish to rethink this close encounter, not only because of their dangerous defensive quills, but also because of their orange teeth.


The orange coloration of the North American porcupine’s incisors is due to the high amount of iron in their enamel.

These teeth are not orange due to poor hygiene, but rather because of iron found in the enamel. This iron oxidizes, forming a rusty color. It’s the same reason your blood is red.

So Texans, get your wildlife education with HMNS and HMNS Sugar Land, then go out and explore! After all, now that you know their home address, it would be rude to ignore your neighbors…

Up Close and Blurry – Texas edition

In a previous blog of a similar name, I posted some animal photo puzzles along with a clue as a challenge for you. Once again, with no photography skill and some very silly clues, here are some new puzzles with one additional hint. All of these animals can be found in Texas…

photo credit: cbattan

I am the fastest of my kind,

With sharp sight tasty birds I find,

Though in Houston I may nest,

Typically you’ll find me West.


photo credit: cbattan

Meadows and forests I snuffle through,

Eating insects, grubs and roaches too,

Scaly in appearance but a mammal tried and true,

Birthing identical young numbering two and two.


photo credit: cbattan

Small but fleet and utterly fine,

On crabs and fish I like to dine,

TEDs keep me out of shrimp net clutches,

I nest in arribadas, i.e. bunches.


photo credit: cbattan

Medium in size though my range is statewide,

Found all through Texas and in trees I may hide,

Though my spots aren’t as dark as my brother’s,

My tail is short just like all the others.


HMNS@100: Henry Attwater – Naturalist

One of the founding collections of the Houston Museum of Natural Science came from Henry Philemon Attwater.  Born April 28, 1854 in Brighton, England he would become, as did many nineteenth century gentlemen, a naturalist.  But not in his native country.  In 1873, he immigrated to Ontario, Canada where he tried farming and beekeeping.  His growing interest in natural history led him to the preparation and exhibition of natural history specimens.  He worked with John A. Morden collecting specimens in Bexar County, Texas in 1884.  The following year he and Gustave Toudouze were hired to prepare and exhibit specimens in the Texas pavilion at the New Orleans World Fair.

Attwater married Lucy Mary Watts, a widow with two children, on December 31, 1885.  They never had children together and the family moved to London, Ontario.  We get the first inklings of Attwater’s enthusiasm for museum exhibits when he opened a small museum in 1886.  Unfortunately, it did not prosper and closed the following year.  During those few years in London, Ontario he must have found time for singing.  A review in a local paper there singled him out as a fine soloist.

Creative Commons License Photo credit:
Beaverton Historical Society

In 1889, the family finally moved to Texas where Attwater again tried beekeeping for a short while in Sherman before settling in San Antonio.  The next decade saw Attwater really start to come into his own as a naturalist.  He collected specimens throughout the state and lectured and wrote on agriculture and natural history.  He found employment preparing exhibits of Texan wildlife and natural products at fairs and expositions.  When he became the agricultural and industrial agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1900 the Attwaters moved once again, this time for good, to Houston.

By the time Attwater had relocated to Houston he had already gained recognition and respect from other naturalists and scientists.  In particular, the ornithological collections he made in Bexar County in 1892 received a great deal of attention.  His field notes were published in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History and he provided notes for several other books. 

He was elected a director of the National Audubon Societyin 1900 and re-elected for another five year term in 1905.  It was also during this time that Attwater became known for his conservation efforts.  He was instrumental in the passage of the 1903 Model Game Law.  Four years later he served on the game-law committee which recommended hunters’ licenses be required for resident and non-resident hunters and that the revenue from the licenses and fines be restricted exclusively for game protection and propagation.  When he retired from the railroad in 1913 he immersed himself completely in the study of natural history.

Surprisingly, Attwater was not a 1909 charter member of the Houston Scientific Society, which I wrote about in an earlier post as the organization that would one day become HMNS.  But at some point, he sent out brochures for the sale and disposal of his self-titled “Museum of Natural History and Other Specimens.” Today, HMNS has several copies of this undated brochure and also a copy of another undated brochure simply titled “Exhibit of Products and Resources of South Texas.” 

I mention the second brochure because it solicits a larger Texas audience, while the first targets Houston specifically.  What is certain is that in January 1916, there was an exhibition of “The Attwater Exhibit: Texas Samples and Specimens” at City Hall here in Houston.  (A confusing note adds that it is the gift of The Progressive League to the city.  I’ve not yet discerned if the exhibit fee perhaps was borne by the Progressive League or if the League actually bought the collection exhibited, though I lean towards the former.) 

In the July 28, 1917 edition of The Houstonian, an unsigned editorial pleads for Houstonians to not lose the valuable “Atwater (sic) Museum” to Dallas or San Antonio.  The founders of the Witte Museum in San Antonio purchased a collection from Attwater in the 1922/23.  I’m still researching which collection went to San Antonio.  But I did find notes from the Houston City Library dated June 2, 1922 which contain the first mention of Sigmund Westheimer offering to purchase the Attwater collection (whichever one it was) and donate it to the Library and the City of Houston.

Creative Commons License Photo credit: Designatednaphour

H.P. Attwater died September 25, 1931; his grave is at the Hollywood Cemetery on North Main.  The Attwaters lived at 2120 Genesse Street and although it’s known that his widow was still living there in 1940, sadly no house stands at that address today. 

However H.P. Attwater’s collections and legacy live on.  From a quick and very unacademic Google search I found specimens that he collected in the collections of the Witte, Smithsonian, Field museum, Dallas Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles County Museum, American Museum of Natural History, the British Museum, and of course here at HMNS.  His field notes and articles can be found online.  Several species were named in his honor, the most well-known in Texas being the Attwater’s Greater Prairie Chicken.  Today, conservationists continue Attwater’s early conservation work in ongoing efforts to conserve the Prairie Chicken and its natural habitat.  This early naturalist and his work loom large still.