Bird Specimen Handling

Specimens in museum collections, some of them collected many decades ago, are intended to last forever. They will hopefully be useful for teaching and research hundreds of years from now, but only if we who use them now handle them with the utmost of care--please! These instructions are appropriate for the handling of mammal skins and skeletons as well.

Think of them as comparable to precious gems or irreplaceable works of art; each and every one of them is in fact an irreplaceable work of nature. Many of the specimens in teaching collections lack data and are thus of limited research value, but they are important for teaching, and great effort would have to be made to replace them (many are never available as salvaged specimens).

Skins

Be sure your hands are clean of dust and, especially, grease before handling these specimens. Do not place them on dirty or dusty surfaces; ask for a table brush or rag if you need to clean your work space.

Handle skins one at a time and carefully. Pick each one up by placing your hand around the body, never by the bill, head, neck, legs, tail or label, nor by grabbing sections of the feathers. Use two hands for larger specimens, placing one under the specimen as you lift it out of the tray or turn it over. Shorebirds and other wading birds are especially fragile because of their long bills, necks and legs, so remember when you handle them not to squeeze or bend them or put stress on any of their extremities. If any of the specimens has a loose or floppy neck or leg, please inform a staff person.

Some of the older skins have greasy feet, where fat that was not adequately removed from the skin leaked out. This is a bit messy but not harmful. Some old specimens were treated with arsenic, so you should also wash your hands after handling them. Arsenic notwithstanding, there is no evidence of chemically caused health problems in museum staff--museum workers live longer than average!

Wings

Handle wings with the same care you exercise in handling skins, but be especially careful in not sliding wings across a surface or otherwise jeopardizing the integrity of the feather tips. If you remove them from the drawer, note how they are stacked and try to return them in similar fashion.

Skeletons

Handle all bones with great care; the small ones are easily breakable and more easily lost. First, check to see that the bones are numbered. If not, never take bones out of more than one box at a time. If they are numbered, you can remove them from more than one box and compare them. Pour them gently out of the box if you plan to look at all of them; otherwise, pick out bones of interest. It's best to place the bones on a piece of paper towel, a box lid, or some other container that will allow you to gently funnel smaller bones back into the box. Please make sure all bones get back into the box, and, by referring to their specimen numbers, make sure all bones get back into the correct box.