Donating Wildlife To Research
6:57 pm
Tue April 23, 2013

Found A Dead Bird? Science Could Use It

Could your window-killed bird lead to scientific discoveries?
Credit KUOW Photo/Sarah Waller

THUD. It’s the sickening sound of a bird hitting your window. You hope it’s just stunned; that it will fly off. But there it is: A motionless lump of feathers on the ground. Before you bury it or toss it in the trash, consider an alternative. Some Seattle residents are donating these avian casualties to science. 

Robin In The Freezer

Martin Muller has a freezer full of birds. But these aren’t dinner chickens from Draper Valley. 

“Usually they’re in the freezer down in the basement and not next to the potato patties and the blueberries,” Muller says, pulling out a Ziplock bag.

“Here’s the robin," he says. "This one actually hit the window right through a screen.” He grabs three more frosty bags.

“I got the dark-eyed junco. And then we have the hummingbird duo.” The last bag contains an immature white crowned sparrow.

Martin Muller delivers frozen birds to the Burke Museum in Seattle. The Museum receives about 500 dead birds each year from citizens.
Credit KUOW Photo/Sarah Waller

“My wife would have a cow if she saw that they’re right on top of her blueberries,” Muller says. “But you know, they’re frozen solid and in their individually sealed bags.”

Muller is an avid birder by hobby. By profession he specializes in restoring old wood-frame windows. It’s an interesting combo since window-strikes account for most of the birds that pass through his freezer.

“I guess I just try to make the best of a bad situation," he says. "At least take them to the Burke.”

He’s talking about the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle. Muller has been donating dead birds there for about 20 years. He holds a special license for handling and transporting them.

“It’s a shame that the bird is dead,” he says, packing the robin gently into a blue cooler. “But if we take them to a museum, then at least they’re not a waste. You never know what it’s going to be good for.”

Muller grabs his keys and carries the cooler to his car.  Fifteen minutes later, he’s shaking hands with Rob Faucett at the Burke Museum. Faucett is collections manager of the Burke’s ornithology department. 

“What did you bring today?” Faucett asks, peeking inside the cooler.

Drawers Full Of Flamingos And Penguins

Drawer full of flamingo study skins at the Burke Museum.
Credit KUOW Photo/Sarah Waller

Faucett carries Muller’s birds inside a large walk-in freezer. From here these birds will be prepared into something called study skins. They’re cut open and flipped inside-out. The skeleton is removed and soft tissues get scraped out. One wing is clipped off and pinned open. Then the bird is flipped right-side-out again and stuffed with cotton and wooden stick.  Burke staff and volunteers record notes throughout the process, down to what’s inside each bird’s stomach.

Finally each specimen gets its own catalog number just like a book at your local library. Faucett says these numbers help the Burke keep track of its collection. 

“There isn’t much difference," Faucett says, "between us loaning data-rich specimens to scientists versus a librarian letting someone check a book out of a library.”

It works a lot like a library, but at the Burke the acquisition process is much more complicated. If you start pulling open drawers here you’ll find the bodies of penguins, flamingos and hummingbirds as small as bumblebees. They’re all stored inside towering white lockers.

Every specimen receives a catalog number, like a book in a library.
Credit KUOW Photo/Sarah Waller

It’s one of the largest and most heavily used ornithological research collections of the world – especially the tissue and spread wing collections.  “Which makes it a very important resource for people studying molt and feather-wear and really a unique resource in the word for artists who are looking at plumage patterns in spread wings,” Faucett says.

There are about 100,000 birds here. Some specimens are old, like a clutch of eggs that was collected more than 200 years ago. 

Faucett pulls open a drawer containing the oldest bird in the collection: a sanderling that was collected on the Washington coast in 1827. Despite being 186 years old, the gray and white seabird looks like it died yesterday. It’s just one of the specimens that makes this place a virtual time machine for scientists delving into the history of Washington’s birds.

Not Just Old Birds

Rob Faucett examines a specimen in the Burke's collection
Credit KUOW Photo/Sarah Waller

The museum also adds 2,000 to 4,000 new birds to its collection each year.  About 500 of those come from regular citizens like Muller who bring in the birds they find around home.  Another 1,500 come from farther afield.

Thousands of oily seabirds poured in after the Exxon Valdez spill.  More recently, the Burke received a large shipment of birds from New Zealand that had been killed by long line fishing vessels. Faucett picked them up at the airport in his truck.

“There were so many birds that we couldn’t fit them all in the walk-in freezer at the Burke,” he says. “So we found someone who was a frozen seafood distributor and was willing to let us store them – segregated from the food, obviously – in their warehouse until we could figure out how to get them prepared.”

Humming bird with a specialized beak.
Credit KUOW Photo/Sarah Waller

But the Burke only gets about half the birds researchers need through this kind of salvage.  The other half – about 1,000 to 2,000 – are acquired a different way. It’s the same method John James Audubon used to get birds to sit still for his famous paintings. 

“You go out with a shotgun,” Faucett says. Then you use it. It’s called active collecting.

Drawer full of humming birds.
Credit KUOW Photo/Sarah Waller

Active collecting has been incredibly valuable to the fields of science and conservation, Faucett says.  He points to the way National Parks have been established as a result of birds discovered during active collecting expeditions.

“There’s simply no comparison to the power of having a specimen in your hand or archived in your museum," Faucett says. "The very simple fact that actual specimens can be used for things we’ve not dreamt of right now in the future makes it well worth collecting them."

If a bird hits your window this time of year, you can contact the Burke Museum’s Ornithology Department to learn more about the donation process.