No, it’s not taxidermy!

Photo by Derek Tan

Having YouTube Channels about animals go viral is nothing new. But to have a YouTube series, in essence a teaching syllabus, on how to get rid of all the yukky-mushy inner organ-muscular-skeletal bits inside of birds get over 50,000 views is… peculiar. Yet earlier this week our step-by-step video guide to avian specimen preparation did precisely that!

Why the popularity? The current resurgence of taxidermy might be a factor. Professors assigning these YouTubes as homework is definitely part of the equation.

However, being curators, we don’t call what we do taxidermy. We call it specimen prep. For the most part, we avoid positioning stuffed birds in a lifelike pose. They are far too difficult to store. Our aim is space economy. We make compact avian study skins and skeletons that can be stored in museum cabinet drawers in a manner reminiscent of sardines in flat cans.

Birds are packed full of information about their environment, and we strive to collect and store this treasure trove for future generations of students, researchers and citizen scientists. In essence, we give birds that have crashed into windows, vehicles or been predated by cats a whole new life – a museum life that can span 300-500 years.

Preparing these specimens is all about data, and preparing them correctly is about collecting as much of that data as possible. Where the bird died and why. Detailed measurements of the its size and dimensions, recorded in databases that are shared around the world via multi-museum search engines. Harvesting teeny-tiny amounts of liver, heart and breast muscle tissue for storage in 1.8 ml vials at -80 ºC for future genetic analysis. Collecting loose feathers to be labelled and properly stored for isotope analysis.

A Red-Breasted Sapsucker has its measurements taken. Photo by Derek Tan.

The popularity of our guide to this process points to a resurgence of interest in what is a very Victorian art form; a profession practiced by the likes of Charles Darwin [though he preserved flat skins], John Gould, James Audubon, and a host of other bird enthusiasts. Bird preparation is part of many university ornithology courses, meaning that generations to come will be contributing to and using the awesome avian collections housed globally in natural history museums. The very oldest avian round skins-style preparation were actually discovered in Egyptian tombs.

If this has tempted you to learn this ancient skill, contact your local natural history museum. You can also find our rogue avian specimen preparation playlist on YouTube, and a detailed guide to ‘Working with Birds’ right here on the museum website, in an easy to access photo essay format.

Our series of eleven videos has a ponderous title — Using and Contributing to Avian Collections — totally in keeping with what you would expect a 5-hour workshop originally held in conjunction with a large academic conference to be called. But its reach has now extended far beyond those who were in the room during the conference, and the team work of the gang of 9 creators has been well rewarded. Achieving this 50K milestone convinced us that we should create an official citation for this series, now unveiled here:

Szabo, I, K. Bostwick, C. M. Milensky, H. C. Proctor, M. B. Robbins, E. Scholes III, P. W. Trail, J. Wieczorek and D. K. Tan. 2012. NAOC-V workshop: Using and Contributing to Avian Collections. UBC Beaty Biodiversity Museum YouTube Channel, uploaded 30 January, 2013.

Ildiko and colleagues preparing specimens at the International Birding & Research Centre, Eilat, Israel