Bird corpses, bits of birds and ornithological research


Corpses of birds, and bits of birds, have a usefulness that is often insufficiently appreciated by those who find them. Specimens that survive can continue to provide new information for tens, or hundreds, of years (e.g. British Birds 93: 61-73, 2001).

Although the finders of some rarities are keen to retain them in their possession, the plumage may fade very quickly (due to light exposure) lessening their scientific value. Such specimens are also prone to damage or total destruction by insect pests such as moths or beetles, or they may rot away as the fat in the skin decomposes. In any case, personally held specimens are not accessible to other researchers. Characteristically, few such specimens survive longer than a couple of decades and ultimately they are lost to science. During the most recent review of Grey-cheeked Thrushes (Catharus minimus) in the British Isles, it was discovered that only 4 of the 9 dead birds were traceable (British Birds 89: 1-9, 1996).

Fresh corpses should preferably be passed to a museum where the specimen will be preserved. Research use is likely to go beyond identification. Depending on circumstances, other material may also be preserved, e.g. whole or part carcass, tissue or blood samples, external and internal parasites, stomach contents and skeleton. It is usually possible to salvage parts with valid research potential even if the specimen is fragmentary - perhaps only a wing or a few feathers - or is partially decayed. In some cases, single feathers may be significant.

The BOURC strongly encourages finders of rare bird corpses, and also of birds in less well-known plumages or with plumage aberrations, to deposit them with a collection where they will be preserved and made available for research. Skin collections at national museums are generally recognised as the most suitable depositories for rarities. In the UK these are at Tring, Herts (The Natural History Museum), Edinburgh (National Museums of Scotland), Liverpool (National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside), Cardiff (National Museums and Galleries of Wales) and Belfast (Ulster Museum). Contact details are given below. Some museums, both national and local, are also keen to receive good specimens of commoner birds, but this should always be checked with them before supplying specimens.

The relevant museum should be contacted for specific instructions and advice for the transmission of specimens. For interim storage, fresh corpses should be wrapped in absorbent paper (e.g. kitchen roll), labelled with date and locality of collection (and fresh weight if possible), packed in a polythene bag and frozen. Some institutions will reimburse postal charges. If you have a specimen at the moment and no longer need it, please consider passing it on to a museum now. Alternatively, if there is a chance that someone else may have to deal with it in due course, please add a large label to it now, with full data (if it doesn't have it already) and the following text:

DO NOT DESTROY: This is an important specimen. Please contact address/details of museum.

Ringers handling rare birds are encouraged to preserve feathers that may come loose (making sure they DO come from the bird concerned - not just stray debris from the bottom of the bird bag!). Feathers are best placed in a small envelope and labelled with the ringing details, and then passed to one of the museums listed below.

The Natural History Museum

Bird Group, Akeman Street, Tring, Hertfordshire, HP23 6AP.
Tel: 020 7942 6158
Email: bird-enquiries@nhm.ac.uk

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National Museums of Scotland

Department of Geology and Zoology, Chambers Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1JF.
Tel: 0131 247 4262 (Bird Section), 0131 247 4231 (Taxidermy)
Email: b.mcgowan@nms.ac.uk

National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside

William Brown Street, Liverpool L3 8EN.
Tel: 0151 207 0001
Email: clem.fisher@nmgm.org

National Museum and Gallery Cardiff

Peter Howlett, Dept. of BioSyB, Cathys Park, Cardiff, CF10 3NP.
Tel: 029 2057 3233
Email: peter.howlett@nmgw.ac.uk

Ulster Museum

Botanic Garden, Belfast, BT9 5AB.
Tel: 028 903 8300
Email: angela.ross@um.nics.gov.uk


The Natural History Museum, Tring, Hertfordshire HP23 6AP, UK
Tel: +44 (0) 1 442 890 080
Fax: +44 (0) 20 7942 6150
Email: bou@bou.org.uk
Website: www.bou.org.uk/www.ibis.ac.uk

Written by: Bob McGowan and Steve Dudley