Birds / Museum Prep / Science & Research

As the Gyre Widens

Back when I was in journalism school in 2006, my science narratives professor assigned a pair of stories: a portrait of a place and a profile. So naturally I headed over to a museum prep lab and volunteered to skin and stuff a bird. The results were a very long, extended metaphor and a bloody mystery. (And you can really tell I used to be obsessed with semicolons and the concept of immortality.)

Part I: Prep Time

After acclimating to the smells of death — which I assume is a unique blend of formalin, gastrointestinal vapors, and freezer-burned meat — I noticed that, for something called the “Anatomical Laboratory and Preparation Room” and deliberately hidden out of sight within dark, windy basement halls, this space certainly looks less like a 19th-century Frankenstein-ian, Hyde-ish, Moreau-esque workplace, and more like your everyday kitchen, sans the housewife. Perhaps this room — where birds are skinned, stuffed, and prepared for displays and collection shelves — also lacks the marble counters, fine cookware, and a floral-curtained window looking out at the front lawn (or any window, for that matter), but you’ll find something familiar and homey in the takeout containers and the old wooden spice rack hanging on the wall. Except instead of basil and rosemary, this one is loaded with meticulously-labeled dusty jars of fluorescent bluish-purple skeleton stains and of fluid bodies, which are whole animals marinated in alcohol. Stomach contents, bird syringes, and breeding-season gonads can be found floating in 70% ethanol (which comes in multi-gallon jugs with spigots, neither mountain-spring fresh nor delivered to your back porch).

Instead of drying wedding-registry china, the dish rack is used to air out jerky — except it’s more like dried, shriveled, skinless bird bodies, waiting to be served as hearty feasts on carefully labeled trays for the bug colony. After eating off the remaining flesh that cling tightly on the bones, the dermestid beetles leave behind disarticulated skeletons, clean and ready for accession into the museum collection. While “skinless” birds no longer indicate the skinless, boneless breast variety you’d buy at your local organic market, you’ll find that poultry strings are still used to tie the wings and legs in place — like a Thanksgiving turkey trussed before the deep fryer. Instead of over the stove, a metal hood hovers above the sink — so the formaldehyde vapors don’t burn the intricate lattices of your inner nose? Razor blades are the cutlery of choice: shiny, new ones are used to pulp tissue for easier DNA extraction and rusty, recycled ones can be used to make that initial medial slice into the paper-thin skin just above the breastbone. On sagging bookshelves, dusty volumes of Birds of the World and the annals of Avian Anatomy delineate these recipes for preparing a methodically precise museum specimen.

Perhaps the white towels are permanently stained with bodily fluids, rather than a tomato-based sauce, and where you’d expect signs reading “Kiss the Cook” or “Dishes: An Equal Opportunity,” you’ll find signs that read “Potentially Hazardous Substances” and “Store No Flammable Liquids.” Stick-figure crayon masterpieces stuck on the refrigerator by colorful, plastic fruit magnets are replaced by detailed schematics of avian osteology; Dad’s pictures proudly displaying his ultimate conquering of the-fish-that-got-away are replaced by faded pictures of preppers past proudly displaying their largest conquests: intact skins of pelicans, grouses, and emus. Here, the iconic family dog waiting for table scraps is a badly taxidermied red-tailed-hawk-in-flight hung in the corner watching your every move.

Bottle cleaning brushes, strainers, and rubber gloves hang above the sink, and little shallow drawers contain all the necessary utensils for measuring, weighing, and grasping things that you can’t manipulate with your bare hands and fingers. If you overlook how tissue vials are packed into the ice cube trays, you’d find that the carb-free, protein-packed freezers are, simply-enough, filled with meat and poultry. Just like in a contemporary non-vegan kitchen, everything that arrives here has already been killed. There is no torture or bloody slaughter or rituals of the flesh. So what exactly makes this particular kitchen so unappetizing? Perhaps it’s the buckets of dissected penguins or the obnoxious yellow cabinet marked Flammable Hazardous Waste or the Emergency Drench Hose or the foul fowl smells emitting from the trashcans facetiously labeled “chicken food.” In any case, something tells you that those brown paper packages tied up with string lying in an under-the-Christmas-tree-looking pile by the door will certainly not contain your favorite things.

As I began to leave the museum, I walked through the Hall of the Universe; I couldn’t imagine anything more cosmic in scope, especially having just left something so bounded and finite in scale. Is it the visceral, corporeal gore that haunts this place? Or is this space disquietingly afflicted by the transcending notion that when something dies, its brain, with all its synaptic beauty, is but a gooey smear on the lab table, or a severed fluid specimen at best? That every thought we possessed is so fleeting and of absolute cosmic unimportance? Yet, is there anything closer to literal, physical immortality than to be forever preserved in motionless peace within a prestigious museum’s displays and collection shelves? To excite science-lovers of all ages for generations, or to be examined in excruciating detail by eager graduate students and ambitious post-doctoral fellows looking to contribute their hypotheses on biodiversity into the canon of scientific literature? As I passed Zabar’s, surprisingly hungry, I saw a few sparrows hopping along the sidewalk; I decided to lose myself for a moment in the streaks and swirls of their brown spots, which are actually accurate indicators of their genus/species, age, breeding status, seasonal plumage, and sex. Their liveliness was such a contrast to the past few hours, and for an instant, I drained them of their lives, looked into the near future, and hoped that they would make it into the glorious halls of immortality. (Though probably not.)

Park II: As the Gyre Widens

I had never seen so much blood on my hands. I didn’t kill him. I don’t know when he died or how he died, but I know it had something to do with a girl — a female named Bonnie.

Cherokee (US GOVT RW 084977) was hatched in July 1994 in Vaughn, Montana. Part peregrine, part gyr, all falcon. Cherokee has the dark moustachial stripe and rufous chest of his father and the general gyr gestalt of his mother — the mellow temperament of the cosmopolitan peregrine combined with the heavy build and increased talon-span of the circumpolar gyrfalcon. With a unique genetic makeup created through artificial insemination, Cherokee was literally predesigned for a post-mortem enshrinement within the dark basement of a museum somewhere.

Captive-bred hybridization is itself a hybrid sport, combining the captive-breeding techniques of a raptor biologist with the training skills of a falconer. Like most falcons bred for falconry, Cherokee’s hawking competencies were exhaustively cultivated. In the manning phase, he was acclimated to human situations; in the training phase, he was conditioned to associate a whistle with imminent feeding. In the adjustment period, he was weighed daily to approximate the weight at which he is eager to hunt but not starving. To quantify “eagerness,” his trainer would sound the Pavlovian signal so that Cherokee would fly to the trainer’s hand, looking for food; the initial distance between the trainer and the bird was increased, and when Cherokee still came to the outstretched hand from 100 yards away, his trainer took him off his line. Once in the field, Cherokee would fly above his falconer and glide continuously about in a circle, turning and turning. Before engaging with live game, the falconer would swing a lure made of feathers and a food reward (such as a piece of raw meat), and Cherokee learned very quickly that his falconer would be the one presenting the prey. When his falconer rattled a bush or sedge to flush out a pigeon or duck, from up in the air, Cherokee would fold his wings and stoop down, talons wide open. Descending at up to 200 miles an hour, Cherokee would strike the bird with his feet, while also raking its back, scraping it with his hallux (or hind toe). The prey would fall to the ground, dead or stunned. Cherokee would follow it down and bite its neck with his notched bill, severing its spinal column.

Cherokee was flown for nine years in Suffolk County, Long Island. He was a decent hunter. Hawking was his profession and he earned his keep by marketing death. His brother Montana suddenly fell dead for no apparent reason, and he soon followed.

I met Cherokee on a particularly grisly October afternoon. He was freshly defrosted, having just escaped his frozen seclusion the night before, for the first time in his year-long cryogenic storage. There he was, eyes sunken, wings haphazardly flopped open, lying anti-climatically on a few paper towels in a cafeteria tray. Hardly the vision of a raptor.

After making my medial incision, my first mental note was that, visually and tactilely speaking, he was very dry and really skinny, but not emaciated. Leg by leg, wing by wing, tail, and head, I separated his flesh from his skin. Within two hours, I had his skin on the left side of my tray, and his body on my right. Cherokee will not make for a dermestid meal — his skinless body contains only a partial skeleton, which isn’t of much scientific use. In order to retain his intact skin, I left bones in the wings, legs, and tail, and I kept the front of the skull attached to the bill.

I placed Cherokee’s external façade back into the freezer, to stuff on another day. Then I opened up his body and followed the usual protocol for museum specimens: (1) collect pieces of the heart, liver, and breast muscle, and using a shiny, new razor, pulp the tissue for easier DNA extraction, and then (2) measure the testes, which in his case was L: 11×8 mm, R: 9×6 mm. (Testes of this relatively large size suggest that Cherokee might have been fertile and capable of producing viable young, had his breeder allowed him to mate.) I crammed his tissues into a tiny vial and placed it into a box where the ice cube tray would usually go.

Since the museum won’t conduct a professional necropsy, I was then allowed to play pathologist. The vibrant, reddish shades of the fall leaves outside made for a striking juxtaposition to the blood on my hands. Looking down, I spent a few seconds regretting my choice to skin the bird gloveless. That amount of blood was very unusual, and as the red water swirled its way down the drain, I realized that something must have gone terribly wrong inside this beautiful bird. The observable facts: (1) he has a major tear on the right side of his face, (2) looking at the inside of his skin, he has wounds on the right side of his breast and on his lower left side, and (3) there is an abnormal cavern in his right lung. These wounds could be lesions symptomatic of the common respiratory infection aspergillosis. I opened up his trachea to test this; however, since nothing was obstructing it, I had to rule out my first hypothesis. I threw his remnants into the biological waste bin “chicken food,” all the while wondering what killed him.

For days I wondered. Perhaps those were puncture wounds resulting from some external agent. An impaling tangle of branches perhaps? Or perhaps a barbed wire fence? The answer came in an unceremonious email from the senior scientific assistant of the ornithology department: Cherokee “died a few days after a tussle with another falcon… a ‘pure’ peregrine female named Bonnie who died the same day she fought with him.” And there you have it, a dame did him in. Perhaps the wounds went septic and a blood infection set in, causing a systemic infection. Perhaps whatever blow he took in the chest resulted in a punctured lung. I’ll never know.

On the eve of Halloween, I decided to put Cherokee to rest, to let him sleep forever in his aluminum sarcophagus within the rows upon rows of museum stacks. The amount of time it took me to stuff him could be measured through the mounting pile of failed cotton eyeballs and brains. He deserved better than a cotton brain not big enough to stabilize the dowel spine and a bloody cotton eyeball peering out through empty orbits — or too big, so that the cotton eyeballs bugged out of his eyelids. As if he could comprehend the gory frustration of it all, Cherokee left a final permanent stain on a clean, beige shirt when his blood squirted out in a parabolic arc as I tried to clean out his hollow femur. When his brain and eyeballs were satisfactory, Cherokee received a fluffy body and neck, also made of cotton. After I had placed enough cotton in what would have been his body cavity (but not so much that he looked overfed), I sewed him up and made him quasi-whole again. His wings were tucked in, his legs tied up, and each feather meticulously preened. I pinned him down so that he would dry in the optimal position, and the desiccated trace amount of meat left in him will not rot while he lies in a museum tray for the foreseeable eternity.

Some time later, when Cherokee was ready to be unpinned, I posed for a picture holding him in my hands like a trophy. I made some final measurements of his culmen, tarsus, cere, and the like, and I laid him down in the fumigation cabinet just outside the prep lab. Soon he will be accessioned and inserted into a shelf on one of the six floors of the bird collection.

And my catalog entry for Cherokee is written in archival pen: JCF 37, male, Falco peregrinus x F. rusticolus, adult, testes developed, no fat, no molt, tissue saved.

cherokee pinned and unpinned

Images: J. Fang

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