Michigan is the summer breeding home to one of the rarest songbirds in the world: the Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii).

During the month of June, tours are led throughout the jack pine forests of Grayling, Michigan, full of people hoping to spot one of these incredible birds. Given their historically small populations, collections like this one are especially important. Data from each bird can be used for ongoing conservation efforts, and each individual has the opportunity to tip off researchers to possible challenges in the future.

Photo credit: Kaitie Janecke Soltesz

Labeling bones is an important job for anyone working with a skeleton collection. Bird bones can reach sizes so tiny, a normal ink pen simply won’t do. 

The pen used for these bones has a tip about a fifth of a millimeter wide. That’s smaller than the eyes of many needles!

Every bone has strength, but can still be breakable if handled incorrectly. Lab workers must use a steady, gentle hand to carefully mark even the smallest rib bones.

(Photo credit: Kathy Telfer)

Collections Update!

Our skins have moved over to our new location! Ash got to take a trip down to our new cabinets, and these things are huge. These cabinets can reach 15 feet high (about 4.5 m). To make room for all of these, they’ve installed the awesome cabinet spacers seen in some of the nicest libraries of books, or in these case, birds.

The old stepladders have made their way to the new collection, but for some of the highest drawers, researchers can now use forklifts! I’d love to see what everything looks like from the top of these cabinets, but as always, the true beauty is inside. As not quite always, it’s the dead stuff hidden inside that is beautiful.

Photo credit: Ash Boudrie

The UMMZ has a lot of songbird wings. 

Many of these wings come to us from birds whose skins aren’t entirely salvageable, due to deaths by predator, car, or bullet. Others are stored this way so that researchers can more easily see the underside of the wing, which is normally held close to the side of a standard study skin. This can be valuable to researchers focused on the specifics of wing plumage coloration, or for those of us who just want to remind ourselves what an amazing and strange thing it is to open any museum cabinet.

Photo credit: Kaitie Janecke Soltesz

The UMMZ collection recently switched over to a new storage system for whole songbird wings. Instead of storing them flat in drawers, like whole study skins, each wing specimen now gets its own clear envelope for easy storage, access, and observation. 

These envelopes are space efficient, and can make searching for an individual specimen easier with consistent labeling. Also, flipping through a catalog of wings feels really cool. That is all.

When trying to understand the intricate details of teeny, tiny bird skulls, it’s best to ask Dr. Ryan Felice of University College London. Dr. Felice recently visited the UMMZ, and he brought with him the coolest machine I have ever seen. It’s pretty much a portable, 3D scanner. This thing is brilliant for understanding bird skeleton measurements. Bird skulls are so small, delicate, and complex, that using something like a ruler, or even a nice set of calipers, would be really silly.

Thanks to Dr. Felice for letting us post about your work! Here’s a small video snippet to show some of the scanning process.

Video credit: Ash Boudrie

What you see before you is both a beginning and an end. Not two days ago, about twenty cabinets of raptors sat here; today, you can see where past workers painted around those cabinets at some point. 

Some weeks ago, the UMMZ began moving its collections out of our long-time home in the Alexander G. Ruthven Museums Building, across town, and into the new Varsity Drive facility. This new location has its perks and its downfalls, but for many of us who fell in love with these collections in Ruthven, it’s a bit difficult to see the rooms so empty. I walked around the collection on Tuesday, and while we suddenly have more counter space than I would know what to do with, I will deeply miss our peculiar, wonderful range space once the move is over.

Given some of the logistics of the new facility, some changes may be in store for LwDB. I’m writing my posts from two and a half hours away, and while Ash is still with the Bird Division, photographing the specimens may become slightly trickier after the move. We’ll let you know if things are going to change, but for now, expect more of the gorgeous, sometimes goofy, and often unbelievable birds that we love.

Photo credit: Ash Boudrie


11/25/2014 - Ornithology Division

Long-eared Owl (Asio otus)

What an incredible wingspan! This owl could easily give you a hug but with that fierce look, I don’t think it would want to. I included a picture of one of the ventral feather tracts because of the molting going on there. These feathers fall out super easy so they require a delicate hand. Luckily owl skin is fairly thick so it wasn’t much of a problem.


4/25/2014 - Ornithology Division

Ahhh! Hiya little cutie! This little fellow is an Eastern Screech owl (Otus asio) and a reddish-brown morph at that. Prior to this bird, the only other owl I had ever done was a barred owl so this little muppet was fun to work on. I love their little “ears” on top of their heads and I made sure to prop them up so you could see them when he’s all dry. The real ears of owls are huuuuge and they are a bit tricky because you don’t want to mess up the way the face sits on the skull.

Fun little friend!

Check out #UMMZ for more of my museum adventures!


The last time we had this much counter space and room to walk was….never. Possibly never. As the cabinets are being shipped out, our research assistants actually have a great opportunity to move and work with the birds with an unbelievable amount of ease. Counter space is a hot commodity in a lab that works mainly in large drawers, and while we’ve used plenty of tables, cabinets, chairs, and desks as drawer-holders before, the idea of actual space is really wonderful.

A little over a fifth of the “range” collection has been moved so far, so we expect it to be a few months before the range and skeleton collections have been fully moved to our new facility. In the meantime, cabinets keep disappearing!

Photo credit: Ash Boudrie

Should I start a separate blog for my museum adventures?

I’ve been posting my specimen preparation for the natural history museum and while I have gained some wonderful new followers who love vulture culture, I’m afraid of isolating my longtime tumblramigos with all my dead animal posts. I also don’t want the new people to get turned off by all my tattoo/LGBT/SuperWhoLock-ness either when they came to see specimen posts.

So what should I do? One personal blog and another strictly for vulture culture? Would you follow my other blog? Whether you are a longtime follower or just recently joined, I would love your input!

What should I do?