Friday, May 29th

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Bird Watch SXM

Binkie-StudySkin-BirdWatchSXMBird Study Skins By Mark Yokoyama



Study skins are – as you may have guessed – preserved bird skins used to study birds. They are an important part of the museum collections scientists use when studying birds and they can also be used in education to give people an up-close look at birds and their distinguishing features. Thanks to a special workshop on preparing study skins, we will be bringing this skill back to St. Martin.


You can think of study skins as a type of simplified taxidermy. The skin is preserved, along with a few of the bones in the wings and feet and much of the skull for structure. A cotton wrapped stick fills out the empty body cavity, and the resulting study skin is dried in a compact position for storage – wings tucked behind its back and tail slightly spread.


Some museum collections contain millions of study skins dating back hundreds of years. Making and storing bird skins for study – with accurate data about when and where they were collected – is incredibly important to biologists. Skins can be used to compare the appearance of birds over time or from different places, and small samples of tissue from the skin can even be used for genetic comparison. Scientific illustrators use them to create drawings of birds for field guides.


Where do the birds come from? Many birds in collections today were collected specifically for preservation and study, especially in the past. Today it is more common to prepare skins from salvaged birds – the unlucky ones that have flown into windows or were accidentally hit by cars. Making study skins from salvaged birds turns a minor tragedy into an opportunity for study or education.


The process of creating the study skin is not too complex, but definitely requires some skill. The toolkit includes scalpel, scissors, forceps and a few other implements. During the workshop, we spent all day preparing one bird, but it may take just one or two hours for someone with experience. For beginners, it can be challenging to keep the skin and feathers intact during the process.


On St. Martin, there is no museum of biology, but study skins from salvaged birds could be used as educational tools. They are a great way to show the particular markings that identify a bird – known as field marks – or specific adaptations such as the shape of a bird’s beak.


The method of creating study skins has changed little over hundreds of years and still produces very valuable tools for science and education. Thanks to this special training workshop – part of the 20th International Meeting of BirdsCaribbean in Kingston, Jamaica – the Caribbean has about two dozen newly-trained skin preparers ready to carry on this tradition.