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Bird and Mammal Collections


There is a wealth of instructional material out there in the form of deceased birdsand mammals just waiting to begin their second lives as specimens in your classroom. Acollection of study skins, full mounts, skulls and skeletons will find their way into lessons ofanatomy, identification, classification, and ecological studies of adaptation to name just a few.Following is some information which may be very helpful if you should ever decide to beginsuch a collection. Please contact me at the above address or number if you need moreinformation.

Obeying the Law:

Almost every bird in the United States is protected and/or managed byfederal and/or state law. It is illegal for a private citizen to possess any parts of these birdswith the exception of game birds taken during their legal hunting seasons. On the other hand,laws governing mammals are much less restrictive but vary greatly from state to state.Educational institutions and museums may obtain special permits to keep bird specimens.These permits allow the holder to salvage dead birds only (natural or accidental deaths) foreducational purposes. A Special Purpose Salvage Permit must be obtained through the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the regional offices listed below:

  • Region 1: CA, HI, ID, NV, OR, WA
    911 N.E. 11th Ave
    Portland, OR 97232-4181
    (503) 231-6164

  • Region 2: AZ, NM, OK, TX
    P.O. Box 709
    Albuquerque, NM 87103-0709
    (505) 248-7882

  • Region 3: IL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, OH, WI
    P.O. Box 45
    Fort Snelling, MN 55111-0045
    (612) 725-3776

  • Region 4: AL, AR, GA, FL, KY, LA, MS, NC, SC,TN
    P.O. Box 49208
    Atlanta, GA 30359
    (404) 679-7057

  • Region 5: CT, DE, DC, ME, MD, MA, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT, VA, WV
    P.O. Box 779
    Hadley, MA 01035-0779
    (412) 253-8567

  • Region 6: CO, KS, MT, NE, ND, SD, UT, WY
    P.O. Box 25486
    Denver, CO 80225
    (303) 236-7540

  • Region 7: AK
    P.O. Box 92597
    Anchorage, AK 99509-2597
    (907) 786-3311

I highly recommend contacting your nearest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office and informthem of your intentions. They can be very helpful in paving the way to obtaining a permitand useful resources in the future. Once a federal permit has been secured, a state permit mustbe obtained through your state department of fish and game. Once again contacting your localwarden will likely expedite the process. The whole procedure is surprisingly painless andagency people are very eager to help. Federal permits are valid for 2 years and renewableindefinitely upon request.

Sources of Specimens:

Though you will find yourself collecting some specimens, the key to a nice collection is getting the word out to other people. My students have been my biggest source of specimens (picking up road kills, birds that hit windows, etc.). Let game wardens, USFWS agents, USFS biologists and any other agency people know you are collecting. They often have animals turned in to them and usually have no use for them. They also will confiscate illegally taken animals and may donate them to you. Zoology departments at universities may have surpluses of specimens that they dispose of. Veterinarians are often the recipients of wounded animals which rarely survive and end up in the garbage. Leave your name and number with these folks and you'll be surprised at the response.


Professional, life-like mounted specimens obviously represent a more true picture of the actual appearance of an animal. But they are expensive to have prepared, are difficult to have students handle and display space is often limited. You may want to have a few of your more interesting animals mounted and I suggest approaching local taxidermists (especially upstart businesses trying to establish themselves) as they may be willing to donate some services or at least give you a price break for a little positive press on your part.

Most of your specimens will likely be prepared as traditional study-skins. "Collecting and Preparing Study Specimens of Vertebrates" by E. Raymond Hall, University of Kansas, is a good reference. This may also be a good place to include the services of a taxidermist. Have them come in and demonstrate or have students prepare skins with their help. You will need preservative powder to rub into the skin which can be purchased from any taxidermy supply company or Borax hand soap works well too.

Very small birds (like sparrows and warblers or smaller) are difficult to prepare. I have had good luck injecting them with taxidermy embalming fluid (Balmex from Van Dyke Supply Company, Woonsocket, SD works well) and then placing them uncovered in the freezer with the defroster on high for a few months to "freeze-dry" them. Smaller animals which you plan to skin out should be stored in zip-lock bags to prevent freezer-burn and prepared within a few months. Hummingbirds can be preserved by simply burying them in a paper cup full of preservative powder for a few months. Study skins should always be stored in insect proof containers.

Preparing animal skeletons and skulls can be done in two ways:
  1. Dermestid beetles: A beetle colony is by far the best way to clean tissue from bones. University zoology or biology departments or fish and game laboratories may have active colonies and might be willing to clean a few things for you. If you are interested in starting a larger collection you will need a colony of your own. Either of the two sources listed above should provide you with enough bugs to get started. The beetles themselves are about 1/4 inch long and flightless and have a tremendous appetite. I have found an old refrigerator or chest freezer(depending on the anticipated size of specimens) to make a nice home. It is insulated and the sides are slick so the bugs don't crawl out (You do not want them to escape!). Even a 5 gallon bucket works fine if you are just cleaning small animals. Dermestids like about 75-80 degrees and moisture level is important. If conditions are too damp then bacteria and fungi become a problem. General conditions need to be somewhat dry. If animals are skinned and organs and brains are removed along with some of the larger muscle groups, the spoilage problem should be eliminated. You may need to use a spray bottle of water every once in a while to help soften the tissue a bit if it gets too dry. When the beetles have finished their work, a simple soaking in hydrogen peroxide for about 4-5 hours and then about a 10% bleach solution over night will make them look like the pictures in the catalogs. One of the many advantages of this method is the ability to clean small, fragile specimens. The dermestid larvae are tiny and will even clean the brain cavity and nasal passages of shrews. Another advantage is that the articulation of the skeletons remain intact.

  2. The boiling method: Skeletons can be boiled to remove unwanted tissue. Removing as much tissue ahead is advisable and separating the animal into parts and then into zip-lock bags to boil helps the sorting when finished. A pinch of the enzyme papain (the active ingredient in meat tenderizers) will "speed" up the process. It is slow and the smell will offend even most veteran biology teacher. The exact procedure is rather lengthy. Please feel free to write or call if you would like a copy.

Gene Reckin
Libby Senior High School
150 Education Way, Libby, Montana 59923
home:406-293-9344 / school: 406-293-8802

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