A Lesson in Taxidermy

What dissecting her first bird taught a biology major about evolution and fragility.

By Sarah Jean McPeek ’19

“Found on the shoulder of junctions 35 and 48 in Seneca County, Ohio, May of 2015.” I copy this information onto a fresh sheet of paper along with the date of preparation, December 2017, and the scientific name, Falco sparverius. It’s a breathtaking American kestrel. Every feather is intact, from the speckled belly and auburn shoulders to the slate gray and black striped wings. Aside from the odd angle of the head, you could never tell it was hit by a car.

“It’s like morbid Christmas!” I exclaimed back in October as Dr. Wright and I unpacked the kestrel from a giant Igloo cooler filled with specimen donations. At first, you’re thrilled by the beautiful bird in the bag, but you immediately feel guilty for rejoicing. Most of these birds were window-strike victims or roadkill. Some had been frozen in storerooms at the back of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for nearly a decade. I rummaged for a place to fit the kestrel among the pile of Ziploc bags accumulating in the freezer; hawks balanced on mallards shelved next to cardinals, rock doves and warblers. It felt slightly inappropriate, stacking birds like firewood.

Now in December, I gently place the kestrel on the lab table in front of me. Its feathers are wonderfully soft. This is my first time dissecting an animal that wasn’t a fat green caterpillar, and I’m eager but nervous. We don’t wear gloves. It’s difficult to manipulate our fingers, and we’d risk pulling feathers that stick to the latex. Besides, Dr. Wright assures me, tucking her purple hair into a tight ponytail, there aren’t many diseases that we know of that we could catch from these specimens. She’s prepared over 1,200 birds to date, some by headlamp crouched in a tent in the Trinidadian jungle, so I trust her judgment. Handling the birds with gloves also feels too impersonal. It’s a point of respect for the animal to work skin on skin.

Our lab studies flight evolution, so we always gather data on the size of the flight muscle — data we can only measure when the animals are dead. Much of Dr. Wright’s work involves comparing anatomical measurements of specimens with different aspects of the bird’s life history, what we know about how it lives. What do these birds eat? What eats them? Where do they live? How high and far do they fly? By studying both living and dead birds across many different species, we can examine how a bird’s flight anatomy influences its life history, and how that anatomy has adapted through time to help birds excel in their particular environments.

This bird was a strong flier.

I dig out the tiny purple heart and weigh it. Probing further down behind the intestines, my fingers brush two pink pearl ovaries, tiny and round but firm to the touch. I don’t know why, but it’s usually my convention to refer to animals as male until proven otherwise. At the base of the tail I find the bursa of Fabricius, which disintegrates once the bird reaches sexual maturity.

I’m struck with my first real twinge of sadness, and I have to stop my inspection a moment. We are — were — in the same phase of life, two girls on the precipice of adulthood. She, a fierce predator swooping over golden farm fields under the wide Midwestern sky; me, a budding scientist working in her first research lab. It’s pure serendipity that she is my first specimen, though it feels almost like fate. But that isn’t a very scientific way of thinking.

I dump the remains of her body into a plastic bag.

When we get through all the baggies in the freezer, we’ll have a modest sample of 75 or so birds to start our collection, hardly scratching the surface of the estimated 18,000 species currently sharing our world. My bird will represent kestrels in our humble collection for decades to come and, once we enter her data, she’ll be a messenger for her species in huge collaborative databases, participating in scientific inquiries all over the world. She’ll guide us to a better understanding of kestrels and their evolution alongside their diverse avian relatives, and how we can help protect her kin into the future.

I stroke the silky feathers of her head. She’ll never know it, but she’s going to be our teacher.