Washing study skins

Submitted by Mike Lanzone on 5/29/02. ( )


First, Thanks for all the great help(Mr. Gaither & Stephen) with the last problems with study skins I was having. First, to answer a question both of you had, the skins will be used mostly for ornithology labs and classes at Penn State University. Most of the skins they are using now date back to the 40's and 50's, some of which were done by Bent. They are in bad need of new skins. Anyhow, I had a quick question about the proper way to be washing the skins. Do I wash the skins before or after I skin the bird that needs cleaned. I am having a lot of trouble getting the feathers dried out after washing out bloodstains and or soiled areas. It seems like when I try to dry them after I skin, the edges of the incision and neck get all dried out. So, I guess my question is what is the proper procedure when washing a skin is necessary?

Thanks for in advance for your help!
Mike Lanzone

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Wash prior to settup.

This response submitted by John C on 5/29/02. ( )

Skin and remove all the fat, fleshing as you go.

Wash, twice and rinse until all the soap is out of the skin and feathers, this could take many rinses in clear water, the key is rinse, rinse, rinse. While many taxidermist are getting away for solvents, I still recommed them with extreme care. Since these are mostly small bird, you can use kiln dried hard wood saw dust to tumble the birds in for final drying. A heavy plastic bag will work fine for a tumbler. Then simply blow the sawdust out. If the skin should get to dry, just brush water on the flesh side to soften the skin up.

You may even need to do a little spot washing after the mounting is done.

It all depends on the species and condition.

This response submitted by The Taxidermologist on 5/29/02. ( stephen.rogers@attbi.com )

So much depends on the species you are doing as well as the condition it is in. If the blood is undried, i.e. still liquid on the skin I almost always attempt to at least rince out the blood before starting to skin. Use water only to rince out blood. Detergents and Borax can often act as a mordant and fix blood that is not trapped inside the feathers yet. If the bird will most probably need washed, because of routinely having lots of fat that is not easily removed, then rincing does not need to be followed by drying - simply wash the entire bird after it is completely skinned. The most common birds in PA with this condition is members of the Anseriformes, Gaviiformes, Podicipediformes, and many Charadriformes. Other orders don't routinely need to be wire wheeled to remove fat and may be washed and fluffed prior to skinning. Use spot washing whenever possible. After the liquid blood is removed then a dish detergent can be used to get rid of dirt, grease, fat, and other materials adhering to the skin, followed by complete rincing in water.

I prefer to only use forced air to dry washed birds. Many on this site use drums filled with materials or plastic or canvas bags filled filled with same, where they "Shake and Bake them", and often use gasoline or other aliphatic hydrocarbons to displace water to speed up the process, and a multitude of other methods. Despite what has been written here, sawdust, corn cob grit, corn meal, and borax, all will stick to the feathers of many species and leave a coating which will modify the bird from what it was in life. A hair drier on warm to cool will dry any size bird, but larger bird blowers can be befificial when drying very large birds. Aimed properly the edges will not dry out, especially if you keep the papertowels used to soak up much of the moisture inside the bird in place until the bird is 95% dry, including ALL the down.

I would read all the archives here on washing birds, as the subject has been brought up many many times.

Since you are creating the skins for classroom use there are methods used to strengthen the study skin to make it last longer. These include the wiring of appendages and setting the head and tail with sculpall or other adhesive. A hide paste can also be used. At an AOU meeting in 1989 I held a workshop on bird study skin preparation where one of the presenters gave a paper on specimens for classroom use. Contact me if you would like a copy. Freeze dring has also been used in California to create teaching specimens but there are techniques involved in this also.

My suggestion is that you read a number of papers on the subject, read these archives, and visit someone in person who has experience in this sort of preparation. Typing information is a poor substitute for direct consultation.

Well not much to add

This response submitted by cur on 5/29/02. ( wildart@prodigy.net )

I personally am not an advocate of washing bird study skins unless absolutely necessary. If they are to be handled a lot, then the Epo-Grip degreaser has been approved by the Smithsonian Institution for use. I have done most of the whateverformes over the years with no need to degrease the feathers. Personally, I have preference for the Christie Brinklyformes and the Brittany Spearaformes myself, but I see no need to degrease them either.

When doing anseriformes (wildfowl) grebes, loons and other birds with subcutaneous fat deposits, I remove the free deposits and then crosshatch the fat layer on the skin and scrape it out, using liberal amounts of borax to keep it as neat as possible. I try to wash the skin without soaking the feathers and clean the feathers around the ventral incision. If you are careful, the fat may be removed without greasing the feathers up too badly. As Steve said, salt and other materials may act as a mordant, setting the blood on feathers for eternity if one is not careful.

Whenever a complete washing is required, I wash in dawn and no other material, except for the Epo-Grip degreaser which is too new for me to report about. I toss the skins into the washing maching and run on spin dry cycle (It will do no harm to skin or feathers.) When the spin drying is complete, I zip up the skin by the procedure I already outlined and then use a hair dryer with a diffuser attachment to dry completely, arranging as I go with a dissection probe or a pair of darning needles glued in tandem into a file handle or a dowel.

Birds done as recently as the 1950's should still be fine, unless they are frequently handled. (That is the reason for the dowel outlined in my previous post. The dowel provides a handle that should prevent mutilation of the feathers.) You need to become familar with arsenic test procedures when handling the old skins. each should be tested for arsenic and when found, handled accordingly, or you can mark those arsenic skins for use by Arab exchange students with pilot licenses..........

As Stephen mentioned, the head can be made more rigid by applying a ball of sculpt-all to the base of the skull and blending it to the dowel. Epoxy may also be used on the dowel to glue it into the brain pan. Unless the students are playing ping pong with the birds, or using them for antenna decorations, the firm insertion of the dowel into the brain cavity and cross-wiring it to the humerus tie down and then stitching the tail bone to the dowel should provide them with an ornithological lollipop that will take a lot of handling.

If the skins are constantly destroyed, I recommend sticking a dowel up one or two Profs or STA's in order to obtain their strict and undivided attention while you lecture them on the benefits of proper handling of study specimens.

Since my post on the advantages of chinchilla dust, a number of colleagues have emailed me stating that they used it too in collections from UCLA to Crete and Latvia. Since chinchillas are not as chic a pet as they once were, it is getting harder to find, but a number of sites on the web sell it. I have never had a problem with it sticking to anything. (ALWAYS use it on DRY skins.) A little free borax in the feathers never hurt anything. It is when the borax in solution with blood and grease invades the feathers that problems begin. Good luck....

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