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.


A Rare Gull, an Innocent Query, and a Colossal Fraud

While the vast majority of my posts have dealt with adventures from the trenches (of fieldwork), I’ve recently been involved in a simple research project that ended up being quite interesting from the perspective of museum history.

Interns Tim McSweeny (L) and Raoel Sheik (R)
preparing study specimens

In prior blogs I’ve posted how we obtain some rather unusual specimens from Wildlife Rehabilitators.  One of our principle ‘Rehabbers’ is Dana Simon who has brought us a number of sea birds and raptors, among other goodies.  Today’s story began in the late Summer of 2007, when Dana was brought a ‘different’ looking gull that she was unable to identify to species.  If Dana’s charges perish, she is kind enough to save them for us in a large freezer until she has enough worth making a trip in for.  Now you crazy kids don’t try this at home, Dana runs a fully permitted and licensed facility.

Nearly a year after the gull was initially found dead of an unknown ilnness on Surfside, it was brought to us here at the museum.  It was prepared here as a study skin by one of my interns, Tim McSweeny.  Once we get several study skins together, ready to be catalogued into the collection, I will identify some of the more challenging individuals as part of a Curator’s duties.  This gull was rather difficult to identify, but after much comparison with other species, I was able to determine that it was a female Sabine’s Gull (Xema sabini) in non-breeding plumage.  It was definitely worth writing up as a published note, as there were few (if any) specimens of Sabine’s Gull from the Texas Coast.  Although sight records do exist, a museum voucher specimen provides irrefutable evidence of the species’ occurrence.

I then contacted Dr. Keith Arnold at Texas A&M University.  Keith was my Major Professor for my Ph.D. work over a decade ago, and we often collaborate on anything I publish involving Texas birds.  ‘Dr. A,’ as his prior students call him, is a walking encyclopedia of past and present records of rare birds in our beloved state.  Although there are 625 species accepted as regularly occurring in Texas, others such as Sabine’s Gull have been taken off the review list because the number of reports are so few and far between, with fewer than four reports per year over a ten year average.  Keith told me there had been one specimen prior to this one and it was housed in the Natural History Museum’s (NHM) collection in England.

Although the NHM proper is located in London, the approximately 750,000 bird specimens are housed in a huge multi-leveled building approximately an hour northwest of London in the quaint market town of Tring in Hertfordhsire.  I know this because I visited there nearly 15 years ago when collecting data for my dissertation from various museums around the globe.  At the time I visited Tring, I was pleased to meet the acquaintance of a kind gentleman by the name of Dr. Robert Prŷs-Jones.  Robert was kind enough to help me navigate through the hundreds of cabinets to find what I was after during my visit.  We hit it off just fine, so I was hoping he wouldn’t mind if I bugged him to gather some information about the Sabine’s Gull specimen in his care at the collection at Tring.

Well, I began to get a little nervous when I didn’t receive an immediate reply from Robert with the news.  I then received an enthusiastic and lengthy reply from him a couple of weeks later in early October 2008.  He did indeed remember me and explained the reason it took him a couple of weeks to reply is because although he had located the specimen, it proved a bit baffling and he had to do some research to figure it all out.

The HMNS specimen of Sabine’s Gull (Xema sabini)

Robert had been working with various colleagues such as Dr. Pam Rasmussen on a scandalous affair that involved fraud and the theft of specimens from NHM’s collection, among other places.  The culprit was one Col. Richard Meinertzhagen, who was a giant in the field of Ornithological expedition and discovery during his heyday in the early 1900’s.  At that time Meinertzhagen was well known as a respected Ornithologist with a large private collection of approximately 20,000 specimens.  His falsification of specimens and their respective tags that contained important data was first published on by Clancey (1984) although Knox (1993) was the first to publish a serious analysis of the scandal.  Later on, during research to write a guide to birds of southern Asia, Pam realized that Meinertzhagen’s fraud was actually much more extensive than originally discovered.  It was then that Pam collaborated with Robert to systematically describe the extent of his fraudulent ways, using the specimens they were able to uncover through careful research.

Apparently the case of the Sabine’s Gull at NHM was one of the more blatant examples of the Meinertzhagen scandal.  To quote part of Robert’s reply to me:
[N]ormally he covered his tracks slightly better by removing the original collector’s label and changing dates/localities; it is also interesting to have proof that he might change “collector” details in a case where he was not claiming to have collected the specimen himself.  This case is so blatant that either he didn’t realise the rarity of the species in Texas or he’s putting two fingers (one in the US?!) up to the ornithological community and saying “[I]f you cannot catch me on this, what can you do?”

So alas, Robert came to some important conclusions, that this gull in the NHM collection was one of the more blatant of many examples of fraud by the late Richard Meinertzhagen.  He kindly recommended we collaborate to publish the information, which now has been accomplished, and if you’re so inclined, you can read it here.

– DB, 1/14/10

Post-script: Kind thanks to Robert Prŷs-Jones, Pam Rasmussen and Keith Arnold for reading and providing comments on the text.

“Bird-Airplane” Collisions and Forensic Ornithology

The New York Times recently published an article, Trafficking in Contraband that Sings, on birds from Guyana that were being smuggled into the US for singing competitions. Strangely enough, these competitions are judged by humans and not by female birds. The part of the article that intrigued me the most, however, also aired on NPR, about the Forensic Ornithologist (Dr. Train) called upon to testify in court regarding these birds. This was a field of science new to me and, curiosity piqued, I did a little research.

Forensic Ornithology has been used in a variety of ways and with a variety of methods including DNA or by “eyeballing” the species. Experts in the field have been called upon to help solve such problems as bird-airplane collisions, homicide investigations, and endangered species’ poaching cases. It is an interesting field of study where you have to incorporate a lot of information on feather structure, bird bones and even DNA.

Credit: NASA

In the wrong place at the wrong time, a bird is silhouetted against the clear blue Florida sky (upper left) as it falls away from Space Shuttle Discovery after hitting the external tank during liftoff of mission STS-114 in July 2005. Credit: NASA

Take bird-airplane collisions like the Hudson River Landing. By knowing which bird(s) collided with the airplane, a management plan for that bird species can be made to prevent such collisions in the future. (As an aside, is it really fair to put the bird first in “bird-airplane collision”? Or what about “Bird hits External Tank during Shuttle Launch”? As if the bird was the one traveling with boosters strapped to its keel.)

All kidding aside, analysis of the bird remains can help focus on which species may need management. Leading to alternate aircraft routes during peak bird activity to avoid potential collisions, using bird radar to track flocks of birds such as NASA uses and even sound cannons strategically placed to keep birds out of the aircraft’s flight path.

So where does one go to have birds or their remains identified? If it is a larger sample, the Museum’s very own collection can help. Dr. Dan Brooks, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, has identified parts of birds for museums and the USF&WS (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) to ascertain whether or not it was a species listed as Threatened, Endangered or CITES. He has also used the collection (and his own vast knowledge) to identify feathers in Indigenous people’s ornaments, including the “Ice Queen” mummy of National Geographic fame. Pretty cool! For the high-tech study of bits and pieces used as evidence in court cases, professionals usually turn to the NMNH’s Feather Identification Lab.

 black vultures
Creative Commons License photo credit: ljmacphee

In another article by the NY Times, the initial forensic analysis performed by the Lab of the remains collected from a collision produced deer DNA. That seemed odd, since the collision took place at 1500 feet. Analysis of a feather sample that was also collected identified the bird as a Black Vulture, evidently with deer remains in it’s stomach. Science is awesome!

Here is a link to NPR’s interview “The Tale of a Bird Detective.” So turn up your speakers and learn something new today!

100 Years – 100 Objects: Salvaged Bird Casualties

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Dan, the museum’s curator of vertebrate zoology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating animals in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and on – throughout the year.

salvaged-bird-casualties-6x3Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata, VO 987)
Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens, VO 1968)
Common Loon (Gavia immer, VO 2076)

A number of HMNS’ bird collection specimens are salvaged by wildlife rehabilitators.  These dedicated ‘rehabbers,’ as they are known in their industry, do everything in their power to heal the sick and injured wildlife that comes into their care, with the ultimate hopes of re-releasing the individual back into the wild.  Sadly, some of the rehabbers ‘patients’ never make it back into the wild, let alone back to the holding facility, as their injury resulted in their death.

In the HMNS collection, we have three such specimens, a blue jay that choked to death on an acorn, and two less common seabirds that died from ingesting fishing hooks and tackle.  These incidents were published by HMNS staff in Bull. Tx. Orn. Soc. in 2002 (35: 11-12) and 2007 (40: 31-32), respectively.

You can see larger and more detailed images of this rare specimen – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on