dead birds @ the Burke

cw: brief descriptions / images of dissection 

Believe it or not, I haven’t always been obsessed with birds. The Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture is what started it all for me!burke.jpg

Many of you who know me personally are aware that I intern at the Burke, and that my internship involves “dead birds.” But only a few of you know what that actually entails.

So. Each week, I spend about 8 hours in the ornithology (ornitho + ology = study of birds!) research collection at the museum. That puts me at around 270 hours so far, or approximately 11 days. 11 STRAIGHT DAYS AROUND DEAD THINGS. I swear I’m not weird!!!! (sounds like something a weird person would say??) But if you keep reading, I’ll discuss some of the things I do and why I love them!

First of all, a little about the Burke: not only is it the oldest museum in the state, it’s the oldest natural history museum west of the Mississippi! Isn’t that cool!! And get this—the Burke, that little UW museum that many of you might pass by on a daily basis but never go to—holds the world’s largest collection of wings, in addition to the 3rd largest collection of avian tissue. For all my Seattle readers, if you haven’t been, you should 100% check out this lovely little museum. (We have dinosaurs!!)

Pretty much everything I do, though, happens in an area of the museum not accessible to the general public. This is the collection, aka giant cabinets layered with drawers full of birds!

((Looking at this photo, I realize the collection area looks like one of those creepy underground facilities in sci-fi movies where they breed strange creatures. Nothing to see here, though! Only dead birds! Also, the space is a lot roomier than it looks in this pic.))

The collection acts as a “library” for researchers; we loan out specimens all the time to help scientists make observations about changes in birds over time. For this reason, each specimen has a ton of specific measurements and details about its weight, fat levels, habitat, etc. all stored in a database program called 4D. That way, a researcher could be like, “Hey, can you send me all of your King County male dark-eyed juncos from 1960-1980?” and we could do that!

an older bird from 1846—you can barely read the original tag!

We have birds from all over the world, and if I’m not wrong, the oldest specimen in the collection is from the 1820s.

At first, people might think, well, if we already have x number of this species, why do we keep adding to the collection? But as you might guess, it’s important for us to have all of these birds in order for scientists to track change over time. Stopping our expansion of our collection would kind of be like a library saying, “Ok, we have enough books now. Y’all better stop writing books.” And then future students doing research and trying to compare different points of view would have limited resources! Oops @ the long-winded metaphor, but like I said earlier, the collection is basically a library!

Each cabinet in the collection is full of drawers like the ones above, and each drawer can contain anywhere between 2 and ~100 birds!

That’s a lot of birds, right? But actually, a large chunk of the Burke’s collection is actually housed off-site at Sand Point, a warehouse containing a ton of museum junk in addition to birds. (I say “junk” affectionately, because check out this cool stuff that most museum-goers never get to see!)

Anyway, at the museum, I spend a lot of my time at my desk in this little workspace. Sure, it’s not fancy, but I have my own desktop and get to watch the construction of the new museum right outside the window!

my desk is the one at the end, next to the window!

But what do I actually do? A typical day for me consists of either doing odd jobs or study skin prep.

Some of the odd jobs really are odd—once, I had to check a row of cabinets for beetles?? But mostly, on odd job days, I help to label birds, wings, and skeletons; plus, I do something referred to as “inventory.” Long story short, this involves making sure that what we have in the database matches up with what’s actually physically present in the collection. This is super important since the Burke will actually be moving all of its collections to the ~new Burke~ once construction is finished! So we need to know that all the birds in the computer, like, actually exist.

Sometimes, there are birds in the database that aren’t at the museum, or vice versa. Then I have to do a little detective work—was this missing bird loaned out to another museum? Is this extra bird even in the database? Sure, it sounds like busy work, but honestly everything I do is 100x more interesting because I get to see all of these cool birds!! Between drawers, I often Google species I come across or flip through a field guide and try to pick up a thing or two. It’s a special feeling when I go outside and spot a new bird but already know a few things about it from the museum!

Then the other thing I do is study skin prep, which is SUPER interesting and fun and probably the most unusual thing I’ve ever done on a weekly basis.

on the table in the foreground: where I do prep!

This part goes down in the prep lab, a large room with tons of specialized equipment including a massive walk-in freezer and drying racks for…drying out the flesh on large bones. This place is not for the squeamish—it’s where everything that is Freshly Dead becomes Dead But Preserved Forever (with proper care, specimens can last indefinitely!).

Things I’ve seen in the prep lab in the past week: a bear cub, a bloody dolphin head, a tub full of moose bones in the sink, an entire frozen seal that was softer than my cats (?!).

My job only involves birds, which is probably a good thing because I don’t know if I could handle having to cut open an entire seal. With that being said, you can probably guess what I have to do to prepare birds!

To clear some things up: a study skin is what we call a fully preserved bird—“study” for its research purposes; “skin” for the fact that it’s literally just a skin that has been stuffed. No chemicals are used during the prep process! Instead, preparing a skin involves removing the skin from the bird in one piece and stuffing it, a process that can take anywhere from 1-4 hours.

I won’t go into too much detail over the entire procedure, but here are some process pics!

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Well, that pretty much sums it up. A little wild, a little weird, but definitely worth it! If you have any questions or want to know more about what I do, just shoot me a message 🙂

And if you’ve never been to the Burke, I hope you end up visiting!

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