The Drexel Academy of Natural Sciences is a museum and research institution located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that was founded in 1812– making it the oldest natural science research institution and museum in the Western Hemisphere. The Academy has a vast collection of over 18 million specimens of plants, animals, and other natural objects, including some that are more than 300 years old. But one of its most impressive collections is its ornithology collection, which contains over 200,000 bird specimens from all over the world. The collection was started in the mid-nineteenth century by John Cassin, a prominent ornithologist and a curator of the natural history museum. Cassin collected specimens for the museum himself, but the collection additionally features specimens from many other ornithologists– including John James Audubon. Since then, the collection has grown rapidly, with one of the largest and most comprehensive ornithology collections in the world today. The specimens in the collection are preserved in a variety of ways, including study skins, taxidermy mounts, and skeletons. Several of the specimens date back over 150 years and include many rare and unusual, as well as extinct and endangered species.
Having helped launch Bird Safe Philly, the academy works closely with its volunteers who monitor the city for birds that have collided with buildings. While injured birds are taken to wildlife rehabilitation centers, deceased birds are taken to the academy. There, they are preserved, added to the collection, and used for research. This past January, I had the opportunity to get a hands-on experience with this collection and meet with ornithology collection manager, Nate Rice.
After a hearty introduction to Rice in the museum lobby, we began our ascent to the collection above. As the elevator doors opened, I was met with what appeared to be a ginormous white wall, with a hallway spanning its length. This seemingly endless wall was in fact the academy’s compact storage system for its ornithology collection; each row could be pulled apart to access the shelves and drawers inside, brimming with preserved specimens. Rice opened a few and began to delve into the history of the collection, its collectors, and the academy’s current work.
Turning to me, he asked, “Are there any birds you were hoping to see?”
As much as I pride myself on being able to name a good number of local species, on the spot, I could not think of any extraordinary birds that the collection might contain. So, I said the first thing that came to mind, “You don’t have any extinct birds, do you?”
“Of course!” He chirped, and began walking down to the end of the storage unit. Rice opened a drawer against the wall, which revealed brilliantly colored Carolina Parakeets, feathery spectacles of vibrant green, yellow, and orange that once soared throughout the eastern United States. Due to habitat loss, hunting for its feathers, and its reputation as a pest, the Carolina Parakeet went extinct in 1918. He opened a few more compartments, showcasing a plethora of various species: pheasants and grouses, seabirds and songbirds, conures and condors, and many more to name.
With the tour concluded, I followed Rice down the side of the storage system to a quaint office that overlooked the city streets below. The small room was practically a science lab; there was a countertop with a large, hollow sink, cabinets above filled with all sorts of materials, a trunk freezer below, and along the windowsill– shelves layered with finished study skins. Tools littered the table before me, and the specimen I was to work on– a European starling– lay in a Ziploc bag. On the wall was a hand-drawn, step-by-step guide on the process of creating a study skin. After some tea, both Rice and I got started on our respective specimens.
Akin to taxidermy, study skins are all prepared the same way. The bird is skinned, the body and skeleton removed leaving the skin, feathers, beak and lower legs. However, unlike taxidermy, the bird is then stuffed only with cotton, and sewn up. When completed, the skin is positioned on its back with wings tightly folded in and beak extended so that it fits in a drawer.
While it may seem grisly, study skins provide a valuable resource for scientists and researchers to study and understand birds. Scientists can readily access an irreplaceable record of species that may no longer exist in the wild, providing a wealth of information about morphology, behavior, and ecology. Moreover, study skins provide a way to monitor changes in bird populations over time, allowing researchers to track the impacts of habitat loss or climate change, and support conservation efforts. By using preserved specimens, researchers– such as those at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University– can gain valuable insight into the diversity of ornithology and work to protect birds for years to come.