Preparing a study skin

Last week I started to prepare an ornithological specimen that had been given to the museum. Zoology curator Henry Mcghie taught me the basics of preparing my very first bird specimen. The bird in question was a little owl (Athene noctua) that had drowned in a bucket in someone’s garden. During the breeding season little owls get quite dirty and become desperate for a bath. Unfortunately owl feathers can get waterlogged very easily so misfortune befell this one.

Here are some examples of professionally prepared bird skins. Since the owl is my first attempt at preparing a skin, it won’t look this immaculate:

The owl was skinned last week and put into the fridge. At some point I will write up a detailed process on bird skinning with step by step photos. I was unable to take any of the skinning process this time. This morning I took it out and began to prepare it. The owl was still a little wet so I put it in a ziploc bag with talc and shook it so that the powder would absorb any excess moisture.

And this is what the specimen looks like when you remove it from the bag. It looks awful, but it is relatively easy to clean all the talc off it with a hair dryer and brush.

The talc is then brushed off around the cavity area, with care being taken not to knock the feathers off. The “wrist” bones are tied together over the chest to ensure that the bird’s wings don’t spread out when it is being stored. Next, a stick is placed through the specimen to stiffen it and give it shape.

Small bits of cotton are then pushed via the mouth into the eye sockets. We then made a “cone” out of cotton wool. The pointed end was gently pushed via the neck into the head, and the lower half stuffed into the chest cavity to bulk out the body.

The feet are tied together and the talons spread out so that researchers can easily measure them. The chest cavity is sewn shut and the feathers fluffed over to hide the thread. Next, I preened the feathers and tried to mold the specimen into a more birdlike shape. Though it is not  essential or of utmost importance that study skins look “pretty”, it is still a good idea to clean up and make the specimen presentable for study. A streamlined specimen is easier to measure than a ball of feathers. Finally the specimen is laid out to dry on cotton. It will be labelled then put into the bird store.








About Gina Allnatt

I have just finished a year long traineeship as a Biology Curator at Manchester Museum. I am currently a research and curation volunteer in the Entomology and Botany departments. -Gina Allnatt
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6 Responses to Preparing a study skin

  1. karohemd says:

    How are the skins preserved?

  2. I’ve always been intrigued by the skinning process of birds. You always think of them as being rather delicate (or so I did anyways). I just always felt like the feathers would fall off entirely after death…….yeah, that’s a bit far-fetched of a concept. Ignorance at its best!! 😀

    Thanks for sharing Gina! This is pretty cool!

    • Owl skins are tougher than those of most other birds, but like anything need to be handled with care while skinning. We found an egg inside the owl too- it will have to be disposed of.

  3. Well done! That’s fab. He’s so small. I have a fantastic image of you literally ‘preening’ the owl 🙂

  4. Pingback: Science-art Scumble #20 | The Tangles

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