Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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SPRING 2000/VOLUME 14, NUMBER 2

Cornell University Ornithology Collection
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So You Found a Dead Bird
BY Laura M. Kammermeier


Please cite this Page as:
Kammermeier, L. M. 2000.  So You Found a Dead Bird. Birdscope, Volume 14, Number 2:  13-14.


How to donate dead birds to science

Most bird watchers have probably encountered a dead bird somewhere in their travels and wondered what (if anything) to do. Birds die for many reasons, including predation, starvation, and exposure. The most troubling deaths come from strikes against windows, radio towers, and other obstacles erected by humans.

But no matter how a bird has met its death, something good can come out of the tragedy. By donating the bird to an educational or research institution, you ensure the bird did not die in vain.

“You’d be surprised who might be interested in your local specimen, no matter how common the bird is or what condition it is in,” says Kevin McGowan, curator of birds and mammals at Cornell University’s Museum of Vertebrates. Bird collections are valuable learning tools for nature centers, universities or community colleges, and museums that have natural history displays.

“Skins,” as whole-bird specimens are called, are not only magnificent to behold, they demonstrate differences in plumage.

For example, a collection of Lesser Goldfinches that includes several age classes can show how plumage changes as a bird progresses from the juvenile through the adult stages. And a collection of goldfinches that died at various times of the year can demonstrate the incremental changes in this species’ plumage from the breeding season to the winter season and back. For generations to come, taxonomists and bird artists can use these specimens as they examine speciation or prepare field guides.

Sometimes you may find a bird that is not whole-perhaps it is injured or has begun to decay. Says McGowan, “You never know when the parts of a bird might be important to someone.” In fact, a bird’s skeletal remains are used to compare the sizes of birds from different species, age classes, and genders. Skeletons are also measured to show size differences of a single species across its geographical range. Additionally, if at least one wing is in good shape, a “spread wing” can be created. A spread wing is a wing that has been removed from the bird and spread out to display the flight feathers.

If you’re afield and encounter a dead bird, you may decide to leave the bird alone or bury it. But if you decide to donate it, remember these items:

First, contact a wildlife professional who has a federal and state permit to collect birds or bird parts. Remember the bird’s location. Do not pick up the bird without permission, because this is illegal. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protects birds and bird parts (feathers, eggs, and nests) by forbidding anyone without a permit to own or handle birds or bird parts. Though at first glance the law may seem overly strict, it serves an important conservation purpose by allowing authorities to curtail activities that adversely affect birds.

Who can you contact? Your best bet is to find a contact in your own state. Often, professionals with a collecting permit are employed by nature centers, museums, universities, or community colleges. In certain instances when disease epidemics occur, your local public health department might be interested in doing a pathological study. Other contacts come from high school biology teachers, local bird clubs, or birding stores.

No bird is too common. The combination of a bird’s species, gender, age, location, and time of death makes each bird unique and potentially valuable for certain research. And there’s bound to be someone (a high school biology teacher with a valid permit) who is just starting a collection and is seeking even the most common birds. Let your contacts decide whether they want the bird.

No bird is too decayed or too damaged. The skeletons and spread wings of decayed birds are valuable to certain professionals. Let your contacts decide.

Handle dead birds carefully. Turn a plastic freezer bag inside out, grab the bird, and fold the bag over the bird until it is right-side out. Place an identifying tag inside and seal the bag tightly.

Keep an identifying tag with the specimen. It is extremely important to place a tag containing the location of death (city and state), cause of death (if known), date found, bird species (if known), and your name and telephone number. Use a pencil or pen that will not leak when wet. Without a tag, the bird can’t be used for research.

Ship or store the bird? If the bird appears diseased and a wildlife pathologist wants to determine cause of death, do not freeze the bird (freezing destroys forensic clues). Instead, ship the bird to this person immediately. If cause of death is not under consideration, freeze the bird in its tightly sealed bag as soon as you can and deliver it to your contact. If shipping by mail, ask your contact how to package the bird.

Who can get permits to handle birds or bird parts? An individual who conducts research or educates others about birds and biology can apply for a permit. State and federal permits, however, do not come easily to those who apply. If you feel you qualify, contact your state wildlife agency; they will inform you how to proceed.

Photograph by Tim Gallagher photograph of Kevin McGowan, curator of Birds and Mammals, by Tim Gallagher

Bird and mammal specimens at Cornell

Kevin McGowan is curator of Birds and Mammals at the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates, which was established in 1865. The museum is currently administered by the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University. There are four vertebrate collections within the museum, including ichthyology, herpetology, ornithology, and mammalogy, which comprise more than 1.5 million specimens. Of this number, 48,000 are bird specimens, which represent nearly half of the world’s extant and extinct species. The museum’s collections constitute a major educational and research resource within the university and are a nationally recognized biological research resource. Specimens and related electronic data are available to qualified members of the scientific community at Cornell and to other academic and research institutions.

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