Behind the scenes

Magpie display at Royal Ontario Museum

So as indicated in yesterday’s post, on Friday I visited the Royal Ontario Museum to check out some study skins they have in their collection. These are all kept behind the scenes, in a large room full of big cabinets crammed with drawers of stuffed bird skins and taxidermied bird mounts stacked on desks and on top of the cabinets. It’s not a room that the general public often gets a chance to see. The first time I got to visit it, my mom was working with the then-curator of birds on a few projects, and he took us through. He showed us some colourful birds, warblers, sunbirds, etc., all smaller species. I recall asking if they kept any really big birds there. He took me to the back and pulled out a huge albatross skin. It was big, alright. I was teased about that for a while afterward.

Bird skin storage cases at Royal Ontario Museum

I’ve been through a few times since, though not many. I’ve gotten to know the current curator, who has welcomed me to come in whenever I need to check things out, just drop him a note. I found myself in just such need with these blackbird skins, so since I was back in the vicinity anyway I opted to take advantage of the situation and go in to look at the collection. I was rather late getting in because I missed my intended train, but I still was able to go through my list of species and find all the ones they had specimens for, with a bit of time left over for checking out some birds of paradise.

Meadowlark skins at Royal Ontario Museum

Many of these specimens are ancient. Although some are still collected, particularly of little known or tropical species, and the museum also continues to receive skins from roadkill or scientific research studies (such as those that require collecting a few specimens to examine stomach contents), the majority of the collection (at least, those parts of the collection I’ve looked through) is from the early to mid-1900s. Many species are represented in the collection by several dozen skins, incorporating different age and sex classes, across their many subspecies and wide range of locations, moults and plumages.

Bobolink skin at Royal Ontario Museum

Each skin is labeled with a bunch of information, neatly hand-written up to the 1930s, typewritten thereafter. The species, of course, but also the collection date (this one, for example, is from 1883) and collector, the location it was taken from, the sex and age (if known) of the individual, and sometimes notes on the details of its collection, such as habitat or behaviour. Each bird is also assigned a unique specimen number, which every single specimen – whether bird or bug or bone – receives upon entering the collection, and helps with cataloging the vast inventory of items. This one is #70239.

Blackbird skin at Royal Ontario Museum

The occasional skin also has other interesting items associated with it. Some will come in with eggs or nests (stored in a different room in the museum, but their connection is documented using their unique specimen numbers), while some, such as this one, may have their stomach contents dried and placed in a clear capsule with its own tag. Others may have their skeleton retained, and the ROM actually pioneered a new method of preparing such specimens by removing the bill and feet from the skin as well to create a full skeletal set, while still maintaining the integrity of the rest of the skin. These additional pieces of data are more valuable connected together than each would be separately, because they draw lines, forms associations that would be difficult to make otherwise.

Blackbird skins at Royal Ontario Museum

The skin collection is used by many people for many purposes. I’m in there of course to examine plumages for use in illustrations I’ll be doing, and this is a common use of the collections. Some researchers come in to take measurements of the skins, to make correlations between anatomy and other variables such as sex, age, location, habitat, etc. People studying plumage characteristics, such as UV reflectivity or iridescence, can have access to a great number of very accommodating specimens (the live birds would probably kick up more of a fuss about their part in the studies). Genetic samples can be taken from the skin, and isotope analyses can be done using the feathers. Skin collections can be used as reference sources for identifying feathers or other bird parts collected from archeological sites or airplane collisions (although increasingly such work is being done using genetic barcoding). And those are just a few possibilities.

Oriole skins at Royal Ontario Museum

I love the drawers of colourful birds, all carefully lined up with their heads to the left and tails to the right, in straight, orderly rows, arranged by species and subspecies. The skins are laid on their backs, which are less curvy than their other sides. After years and years of sitting there, they develop board-flat backsides. The wings stiffen after the skin is prepared, so if a spread-winged specimen is desired the wing must be spread during preparation; you can’t open the wings of any of these birds, and trying to do so will just ruin the specimen. Some are prepared with a stick tucked inside, like a popsicle, but most are not, and must be handled carefully around the body.

Baywing skins at Royal Ontario Museum

When you walk into the skins room you can easily detect the smell of formaldehyde, or whatever chemical it is that they use in preserving the skins (I’ll admit to not knowing the specifics). On opening the doors to a cabinet, however, the smell hits you in the face, and it takes a moment or two to get used to it. Some of the early skins were preserved with arsenic, and they have signs up advising people using the collection to handle skins with gloves and to wash their hands before eating. Eating in the skins room is strongly discouraged, for obvious reasons. For some reason I can’t fathom, being in the collection always makes me very hungry, and the first thing I usually want to do upon leaving is find myself (a place to wash my hands and then get) something to eat.

There is some debate about the ethics and necessity of collecting bird specimens, and indeed there are examples in the past where bird collecting was done without regard for the health of the species as the species grew rare – or perhaps, because the species was growing rare, it was felt even more important to collect specimens before it disappeared. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is an example of this, where its decline was exacerbated by a rush of collectors trying to secure a specimen for their particular institution while it was still possible to get them. Collecting practices these days are much improved from those past, usually requiring permits and generally done ethically and sustainably. Where birds are rare, it’s not done at all, and instead the required data is obtained through live studies, blood samples, and photography. However, skins still provide a valuable resource to scientists, illustrators (such as myself), and educators alike.