Biology student Aaron Rollins helped prepare museum skins in professor Dan Mennill’s ornithology lab this week.Biology student Aaron Rollins helped prepare museum skins in professor Dan Mennill’s ornithology lab this week.

Birds preserved for generations of study

Birds that have flown into windows or fallen prey to cats are making their contribution to science this week.

Students in biology professor Dan Mennill’s third-year ornithology class are preparing what are known as museum skins.

“Carefully prepared museum specimens can last for many decades. I have handled skins that have been around since the time of Darwin and Wallace,” said Dr. Mennill, referring to evolutionary biologists Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, who both lived in the 1800s.

The soft tissue of the already-dead birds are removed so only the bones, skin, feet, and feathers remain. The birds are stuffed with cotton, stitched back together, then pinned to boards to dry. In that state, they can remain intact for hundreds of years, preserved for future biologists to study.

The skins can be used to track evolutionary change in species, Mennill explained. For example, older specimens can be compared to more recent ones to note changes in physical attributes like body size and feather colouration.

“These are really important biological specimens.”

People who know of Mennill’s work know to collect any dead birds they find.

“They come from a network of people in Windsor and from across Essex County,” Mennill said. Many come from the Ojibway Prairie Nature Preserve, he said, but “sometimes we just get them dropped at our door.”

The birds prepared this week will be added to the university’s collection which recently surpassed 100 specimens.

The process of making a museum skin can take anywhere from three hours for a small songbird to several weeks for something as large as a heron, Mennill explained. He enlists the help of the Avian Taxidermy Club on campus to help his students along.

Club member Aaron Rollins is also a student in Mennill’s class. This week, he helped prepare a hermit thrush and a dark-eyed junco.

“These guys are going to be around a lot longer than I am, so it’s a way to leave something for future generations,” Rollins said.

—Sarah Sacheli

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