specimens

Finding New Life

On Monday we posted some pictures to Facebook that got a bigger response than we had anticipated. These wild turkey feet caused quite a commotion! Some people loved them, others found the images startling. We’re glad that it gives us an opportunity to share some behind-the-scenes stories from our education department!

Dead things are some of my favorite teaching tools. Whether you call them study skins, specimens, or mounts, kids find them fascinating. Usually when I bring specimens into a classroom I'm met with questions. First: "is that REAL?" Then, "what IS that?!" Followed quickly by "did it used to be alive?" and "how did it die?" As I've mentioned before, I love questions like this. It’s one way I know that kids are actively engaged and learning.

Hank, our Great Horned Owl Ambassador, gets to meet a lot of kids. Photo credit: Carolyn Byers

Hank, our Great Horned Owl Ambassador, gets to meet a lot of kids. Photo credit: Carolyn Byers

Our teaching specimens are found by scientists, citizen scientists, and Madison Audubon members. Many are window strikes or have been hit by cars. A few of our furs were donated to us by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The UW Madison Entomology Department donated three trays of pollinators, all lined up in neat rows. Some game birds were hunted for meat, and the inedible parts were gifted to Madison Audubon. Most of our specimens come to us needing some work before we’re able to teach with them, and the turkey feet were no exception.  

Matt, Brenna, and I work to prepare these animals in the most professional way we can- we aim for museum quality pieces every time. I wanted to make sure those turkey feet would be free-standing when I was done, and in as natural a position as possible. The quickest and easiest way of doing it was to zip-tie them to a chair. Voila! Perfect turkey feet. When the feet are dry and solidly in position, they will be removed and placed in our traveling collection. With care, they will last for decades and meet thousands of children.

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ABOVE: These photos of our turkey feet preparation methods caused quite a stir on Monday! The feet will be removed from the chair when they’re dried and ready, and added to our traveling collection. The other feet in our collection have delighted children and inspired many scientific illustrations. Photo credits: Carolyn Byers

Most kids are curious about how these specimens came to be with me. They're fascinated that I prepared some of them, and have lots of questions about the process (most about eyeballs and brains). A large part of the discussion is always what to do if they find a dead animal: how to respectfully look at dead animals we find on hikes, and also that we should leave these animals in nature. We talk about how Madison Audubon has special permits that allow us to keep certain animals, nests, feathers, and eggs, but if you don’t have those permits, keeping those items for yourself is illegal.

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ABOVE: This thrush was killed after striking a window, and was picked up by a Madison Audubon Bird Collision Corps volunteer. Matt Reetz prepared the bird by turning it into a study skin, similar to what you might find in a museum’s collection. This bird has spent the last few months touring Madison schools, meeting kids, and posing for portraits. Photo credits: Carolyn Byers

The important thing is that we are respecting these animals by giving them new life. I tell kids that it's sad that these animals died, but by turning them into teaching tools, we're allowing thousands of kids to see them up close. These kids get to compare the predatory feet of a screech owl with the more generalist feet of a crow. They can run their fingers through an otter's fur, and discover the differences between guard hairs and the under coat. Kids hone their observation skills, learn how to ask insightful questions, and wonder together about their findings.  

We use our teaching specimen collection for a wide variety of lessons. Our skulls help kids learn about comparative anatomy: we feel the bones in our own skulls and look at how they compare to different animals. Our collection of bird wings, feet, and beaks help kids explore the many different adaptations birds have evolved.  Some of my favorite lessons are scientific illustration (the kids call it "drawing dead stuff"), indoor scavenger hunts ("find an animal that is very well camouflaged. Find an animal that is adapted to be a good chewer"), and all about owls (our screech and great horned owl are minor celebrities in Madison classrooms). 

Kids LOVE skulls. Holding a skull is equal parts exciting, gross, cool, and wildly interesting. Questions usually flow too quickly for me to answer them all! Photo credit: Carolyn Byers

Kids LOVE skulls. Holding a skull is equal parts exciting, gross, cool, and wildly interesting. Questions usually flow too quickly for me to answer them all! Photo credit: Carolyn Byers

Exploring deceased animals doesn't require careful preparation or a classroom. We also take advantage of teachable moments while we're out on the trail. Dead fish along Madison lakes, rabbit fur caught in the brush, and a wild scattering of feathers under a fencepost all help me teach kids about the natural world. I'm careful to approach each situation with respect for the animals and kids involved, and we always help the kids to be good scientists and citizens. 

This sharp-shinned hawk died after it hit a window. One of our members delivered it to Madison Audubon, and I brought it to visit a classroom before handing it off to a taxidermist. The kids were amazed to see this bird up close, especially because they regularly see a sharpie hunting the soccer fields in their schoolyard. Photo credit: Shannon Richards

This sharp-shinned hawk died after it hit a window. One of our members delivered it to Madison Audubon, and I brought it to visit a classroom before handing it off to a taxidermist. The kids were amazed to see this bird up close, especially because they regularly see a sharpie hunting the soccer fields in their schoolyard. Photo credit: Shannon Richards

So the next time you're out on a hike with kids and come across a squirrel lying prone in the middle of the trail, stop and talk about it. Get a good stick to use as a probe, and flip it over. Look at it's fur, and teeth, and feet. Most importantly, tell kids you'll leave it there so that it can help feed other animals.

Kids use a stick to probe a dead carp found along Lake Waubesa. Photo credit: Carolyn Byers

Kids use a stick to probe a dead carp found along Lake Waubesa. Photo credit: Carolyn Byers

Written by Carolyn Byers, Madison Audubon Education Director