Preparing Study Skins

Submitted by Mike Lanzone on 5/22/02. ( )

Hi all,
I am currently working on study skins and have a few questions. I am a beginner as only have mounted a few larger birds and done around 30-35 study skins, so any help would greatly be appreciated. Here are my questions:

1. I was told that it is better to use liqua-cure on the specimens prior to doing a traditional study skin as they will preserve better.
Is this the best way? I have tried using it and it seems a lot harder, especially to set the skin as the feathers often dry badly and look unnatural. What is the best way to deal with this? Also, if it is necessary to clean a skin should the whole skin be washed or just the soiled part and what is the best thing to use to dry it. I have been using sawdust and or borax. The sawdust seems to be difficult to get out of the feathers and many of the feathers seem to fall out when I wet a specimen. I have been hesitant to use corn meal as it attracts bugs. Am I doing something wrong?

2. Some of the birds upon thawing them in the refrigerator seem like whoever collected them either didn't freeze them right away or were not in the best shape when collected as some smell a little. It seems in some of these the feathers fall out quite easily. At what point are they too far gone to use and what is the best way to prepare ones like this?

3. I was asked to do a sapsucker. I have never done a woodpecker before, Is it hard to mount woodpeckers- as I was under the assumption that a slit on the side of the head was necessary to prepare the eyes and skull portion.

4. I find it difficult sometimes to get the backside of the bird correct. When I pin it to a board to dry the backside feather tracks often seem to be aligned incorrectly even though they seem aligned when I pin it down. Is there a better way to do this to make sure they turn out correct?

5. For damaged feathers or feathers that don"t seem natural after drying, is it best to steam these feathers?

Thanks in advance for any help with this!

Mike Lanzone

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Study skins

This response submitted by cur on 5/22/02. ( )

If the collection you are mounting for is serialized, each bird will either arrive with an assignment number, or you will be given numbers to assign each. I usuall place a small thread through the nares with a needle and attach a temporay tag to it with and record the serial number on that in indelible ink. Prior to skinning, each bird should be lain on its back and measured from outstretched bill tip to tail tip and that number recorded. The birds can be weighed on a gram scale too, if required, and the weight recorded along with the length. After skinning, some birds need to be necropsied to determine the sex. The sex is also recorded on the temporary tag. The location of harvest and the date of harvest should also be recorded along with your preprator icon and permit number.

Preparation of bird study skins is a fairly simple procedure. The bird is skinned by making an incision from the cloaca to the sternum through the thin belly skin. Following that, the tail base is clipped free of the body with snips and the legs severed just above the "knee" joints. Sever the wing butt by clipping the humerus just below the shoulder joint and skin to the base of the beak, cutting through the eye membranes on the inside and through the ear canal at the skull. Severe the skull at the atlas vertebrae.

Remove the tongue and brain and as much tissue as possible from the wing bones and legs. Some birds that are fouled may be washed if necessary, but clean specimens are usually no washed in order to preserve a natural appearance. If washing is required, wash briefly in dawn and rinse well and then blow dry gently, making sure feathers fall into place as they dry. For birds that are otherwise clean, a dusting with Chinchilla dust, which is available at pet stores, will remove excess grime or moisture. Follow the manufacturers instructions.

Remove the fat and other inner skin debris and clean the excess tissue from the tail base. You will need to remove the muscle and tissue from the radius and ulna too, expecially on large birds. Make an incision along the bare skin under the coverts on the bottom side of the wing to facilitate. When all tissue is removed and cleaned, dust the skin liberally with borax. Some collections use other materials of late, but unless another product is specified, borax will work. All liquid preservatives should be left out of the procedure since they may eventually leach out of the skin and stain the feathers.

Now we get to the "artistic" portion of the preparation. The bones of one wing are tied to the bones of the other wing with thread in such a way as to keep them at the proper distance to create a natural looking bird. Next the skin is turned right side out and washed and dried if necessary. Eyes are made of wads of cotton and pushed into the eye sockets, taking care to form a naturally sized and positioned eye. The upper leg bones are pulled inside out and wrapped with cotton to create a "drumstick" look and then pulled back down into place. A wooden dowel is wrapped with cotton to simulate the head and body and is pushed up into the skin until the cotton "head" rests inside the skull. The body is adjusted with cotton until it has the right mass. The bone at the base of the tail is sewn to the dowel and then the belly is sewn shut. The legs are crossed left over right and then tied to the dowel. A tag containing the bird's information is tied to the left leg. The wings are folded to the sides with the tips paralleling the tail.The last step is to position the feathers in a natural manner. Once that is done, wrap the bird with a thin layer of medicinal cotton and tie in place loosley with thread. Some folks pin the birds to a board until dry, but I prefer using the cotton wrap and lying the birds on their back on cheap HVAC replacement filters in order that air can circulate around them as they dry.

It has been said that the great naturalist, Townsend, could skin, prep and put up an excellent bird study skin in five minutes or less. Of course, he used arsenic powders which required much less cleaning than does borax. He was described as working feverishly late into the night with his head surrounded by a could of preserving dust which flew as he worked. Did I mention that Townsend died at the ripe old age of 41 from acute arsenic poisoning?

Many times birds will arrive that are beyond salvation. The Federal Government has a clause that allows disposal of those foul fowl as long as it is recorded to their standards. You don't have to be a Houdini when putting up the skins. There are some cures for slippage and other problems, but rotten is rotten and it would be a waste of time to attempt to salvage any speciman that has begun to deteriorate.

Further data

This response submitted by The Taxidermologist on 5/23/02. ( )

Mr. Lanzone,
Most everything Mr. Gaither said is generally correct as he has worked as a preparator of study skins housed in Natural History Museums. You neglected to explain the exact destination and use of the study skins you are producing which could alter the method of preparation and modify what Mr. Gaither said. If you are producing specimens for primarily museum use, then I would not use Chinchilla dusting powder to remove dirt, would NEVER use sawdust in preparation and as Cur said, NO Liquicure or similar material should be used. The label should have documentation attached explaining the washing materialshould you wash the specimen. If you be prepping skins for nature center use constant handling in a small college for instruction in Ornithology Classes the techniques outlined by Mr. Gaither can be modified.

I don't know if you consulted the archives on this site. Two previous messages worth consulting would be:

The first lists many relevant papers written by ornithologists of the past. The most recent publication that was not listed on the original list is by Dr. Kevin Winker Curator of Birds at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. His Resume can be read at
The publication I refer to is: Winker, K. 2000. Obtaining, preserving, and preparing birds. Journal of Field Ornithology 71:250-297. A Detailed guide to procedures in field and laboratory. It can be viewed as a PDF file if you have Acrobat Reader on your computer. Kevin is probably the leading advocate in North America for the continued emphasis on preparation of Study Skins.

The directly answer some of your questions:

1) Do not use Liquicure or other tanning materials on a taxonomic specimen. I wouldn't use cornmeal or sawdust. For birds, 20 mule team borax is the absorbant recommended by many, but some conservators would suggest it alters colors and effects long term PH of the specimen.

2) Many collectors/salvagers find birds in various states of decomposition and cannot judge the quality of the specimen. Totally decomposed specimens are best made into reference skeletons. Partly decomposed specimens often can be save if skinned gingerly. Experience will give you ideas on how to judge the quality based on Maggot size, sunken eyes, freeze drying of parts, slipping in the abdomen area, etc.

3) Woodpeckers usually slip over the head easily except for Pileated and Ivory-billed woodpeckers in North America.

4) Correct filling is key to proper backsides. Perhaps you are not filling the birds full enough and the skin is rumpling upon drying. Some museums use a curved pinning platform carved of styrofoam or bent cardboard.

5) Steaming or immersion of feathers in very hot water can straighten many feathers, but do not immerse the skin is same - just the feathers.

Generally study skin preparation takes time to master well. About your 1000th skin you should begin to get the knack of it, and by the 4000th study skin, you can really improve speed and carry on a conversation, listen to the radio, chew gum, and tap your toes to reggae music without even thinking what you are doing, and the bird comes out very nice.

Bill, Townsend wasn't THAT impressive. There were some who could prepare skins in less than two minutes. At an AOU meeting in the 1800's they had a competition between Germanies finest and America's finest. Personally, Rollo Beck and George Sutton were my heros in Bird Prep. Rollo was able to skin-degrease-and make up as many as 50 seabirds a day in an Anarctic trip in the 20's, and shearwaters and petrols are not my favorite birds to skin.

Mr. Lansone, I would suggest you visit a museum preparator somewhere to get tips on how to properly prepare study skins.

Good Luck

Lol, Stephen

This response submitted by cur on 5/23/02. ( )

Thanks for the addendum, Stephen. As usual, you added the icing to the cake. The reason I mentioned the chinchilla dust is that it is a neutral and friendly way to remove some excesses than harsher materials I have seen recommended.

The pilieated peckerwood's skull requires a ventral cut for egress, as do a number of other bird species. I do not recommend a dorsal head incison for study skins. As Stephen said, if the repository you are working with has any experience in the field, they should provide you a list of basic data to be recorded and a method discipline of preference.

I know that some of the small collections have what I consider a bad habit of injecting small birds with formahaldehyde or glutaldehydes and then placing them into a conventional freezer for several weeks to prepare. I recently read n abstract written by a PHD that recommened this practice. (I figure he must have had some unbelievable freedom and no supervision during his doctoral study.)

The basic facts of the matter are that in general, no study skin should be chemically altered or treated in any way that would change the natural state of the bird. Birds that are beyond salvage may be prepared as skeletal mounts, as Stephen said, but they can also be prepared as wet specimans, but that is a horse of a different color. Personally, I am not a ressurector, nor a corrector - I cull the crap at the onset and prepare only quality skins. That rule is excepted by rare or endangered species, but I sure don't like to take responsibility for them in the first place....LOL. The use of the dowel stick is not mandatory, but it eases handling of the bird without the necessity of touching the feathers, thus imparting oil from the hand to the already oily bird.

I didn't say that Townsend won the race, simply that he certainly impressed Audubon and Nutall and Wyeth and other peers. Audubon, being the ego-manic he was, eventually broke ties with Townsend. That must be a trait of wildlife artists...LOL. That had to be an amazing era when every shot from the gun produced a new species to be named after a relative, peer or esteemed colleague.....Me? I would have named them all after women I had known.

I was never as fast as Ellis Crawford or Woody Goodpastor, but I can hold the average tweetie bird well under ten minutes.....Perhaps less, but the arsenic I used to use has shortened my memory......LOL.

I do not use the styrofoam pads for the same reason I don't use wood. I find the weight of the bird will form the air filters and allow free air circulation which sytrofoam doesn't......good luck with your feathered lollipops!

Excellent Info!

This response submitted by Sue on 5/24/02. ( )

Thank you guys for sharing!

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