The first incision is along the keel. My glove-covered fingers comb the European starling’s gray down feathers to the side in order to get a cleaner cut, but they keep drifting back to the bird’s belly. The top part of the chest is good for practice. When I cut too deep, I pierce the bird’s muscles, but don’t have to worry yet about accidentally releasing its last meal. Once I move down toward the stomach and intestines, however, the extent of my cuts starts to matter.
Over my shoulder, Steven Sullivan pops in and out to check my progress. His long, sharp fingernails double as tweezers, a fact he proudly demonstrates when he reminds me how to safely attach the blade to an X-Acto knife.
As the director of the Hefner Museum of Natural History, located on the first floor of Upham Hall, Sullivan coordinates Taxidermy Tuesdays. This new initiative invites anyone over the age of 18 to try their hand at taxidermy — or, as Steve puts it, “moving skin.”
Due to a snafu with the freezer, my starling was still frozen when I arrived. As we wait for it to thaw, Steve pulls up a PowerPoint presentation detailing all the precautions needed to protect against diseases.
“Have you ever touched a dead bird before?” he asked.
I pause to think, then mumble something about a time when I was 10 or so and a sparrow crashed into my kitchen window. I might have touched its tiny wings before my dad placed it inside a plastic container that served as the coffin for its garden funeral.
“You’re telling me you haven’t touched a dead bird since you were 10,” he says. “Then let me ask you this: Have you ever celebrated a traditional American Thanksgiving?”
My first assignment is to inspect the starling lying on a newspaper in front of me in order to make sure it’s suitable — that it doesn’t have any broken bones or punctured organs. I sniff the still-cold specimen, but it doesn’t smell anything like death. Its muscles are still stiff from rigor mortis, so I jostle its legs loose and, with prompting, expand the bird’s wingspan, posing it as if it were in flight.
There are two types of taxidermy: study skins and display skins. Display skins tell stories and require more craftsmanship. Hefner Museum displays many of these, from tigers, a bear and a warthog to ibexes, a zebra head and a coyote. Study skins, on the other hand, are more focused on recording information about an animal. They are quicker to make and easier to store, which is why Taxidermy Tuesday focuses on this form.
Steve moved from Chicago to Oxford in May 2016 when he took over as the Hefner Museum’s director. Taxidermy Tuesday came out of his desire to engage with students outside of biology.
In order to keep on schedule, Steve skips past the slides on measurement and documentation, moving ahead to the dirty work. Once I have opened up enough of the starling’s chest, he shows me how to shimmy the skin off the starling’s leg, then leaves me to mimic his actions on the other side. After scraping away at tendons, I trade scalpel for scissors to snap through the knee, separating the drumstick from the rest of the carcass.
Unlike the factory-packaged frog I dissected in middle school, the starling is not injected with any colorful dyes to aid me in my endeavor. Nevertheless, I lean on color to guide my way. I aim for the thin, white skin, carefully separating it from the red muscle. Along the bird’s sides, I encounter an orange, gummy tissue between the white and red. Per Steve’s instruction, I scrape it away with the grip of my knife.
I notice that somehow, some of the intestine had sprung free. Thankfully, it had remained intact, but its presence is threatening. If I was cautious before, my pace grinds to a crawl as I try to find the best place to make a horizontal slice through the bird’s colon. Cutting too low will cause the tailfeathers to fall out, but too high will spray my workspace with God knows what. In case of emergency, I have a plastic cup of Borax powder on standby to hold the contents in place, but for now it is for naught. With the cut complete, the bird’s poop and tail feathers stay right where I want them.
At this point, Steve leaves to run an errand, leaving me with just the PowerPoint’s pictures as a guide for the next step. Fortunately, working my way up the back is easy, like symmetrically unpeeling a fleshy banana. I still cut the occasional tendon with a knife, but for the most part I work with my hands. Much like with the legs, I snip the bone of each wing, then pull back the skin as far as I feel I can.
When Steve returns, I feel confident enough to tackle the head. Between the squishy, naked carcass and the floppy skin hanging behind it like a cape, I’m not quite sure what to hold on to as I pull the skin-cape inside-out over the skull.
Once the neck feathers hug the bird’s beak and I’ve switched into a tighter pair of gloves, Steve demonstrates how to reach in with a knife to cut out the eardrum. For once, I don’t worry so much about damaging the skin when I go in for the other side. Any tiny, ugly gashes I make will be forgiven by nature of being inside the head and out of human eyesight.
The rest of the face is riskier. Because there are so many nerves in the cheeks, I second-guess every cut as I nick away at what I fear might be skin in disguise. Alas, the museum is closing and the skin has dried out from my time-consuming timidness. With no better stopping point, my final tasks for the day are to poke holes for the eyes and to slice into the brain. I steady the scissors across the skull, then squeeze my knuckles into the brittle bone. Confirmation comes in a crack, then the unmistakable pink goo.
“Did you get out the tongue?”
I have not, but with a few quick scissor snips to the jaw, Steve sees to it that the thin white organ is out of the bird and on the table. With that, I bundle my study skin into a damp paper towel and place it in a Ziploc bag along with the carcass, which now looks like a small red potato with a spine and half a head. Before I leave, I wash my hands and tools in the sink, then leave the tools in a metal rack to dry.
As its name implies, the European starling was not native to the United States until 1890. A Shakespeare superfan named Eugene Schieffelin brought a box full of 60 birds with him across the ocean from England, along with enough insects to keep them fed. The man intended to introduce every bird mentioned by Shakespeare to the United States, regardless of how they’d affect their new ecosystem. In the third act of “Henry IV,” the Bard praises starlings for their mimicry, which was all the justification Schieffelin needed. Upon returning stateside, Schieffelin released his starlings in Central Park, much to the delight of the American Acclimatization Society. The flock didn’t survive the winter. A year later, Schieffelin tried again. Today, descendants of that second flock number 200 million birds across North America.
As expected, the European starling population explosion has had unpredicted consequences. The species is highly adaptable, thanks to its ability to eat almost anything and to roost almost anywhere. Other species couldn’t compete with their new neighbors, resulting in the decline of bluebirds and woodpeckers. In 1990, Congress passed the Lacey Act to outlaw the practice of importing animal species, but by then there was no stopping the starling. True to its namesake, the European starling has colonized coast to coast, spreading grievances from Alaska to Mexico. Some farmers use nets and poisons knowns as starlicides to protect their crops from the pesky peckers.
“You have seen a starling today because Eugene released those, and you have not seen a bluebird today because Eugene released those [starlings],” Steve says. “And that, in some way, has impacted your life whether you are conscious of it or not.”
Two weeks later, I’m face-to-face with my starling again, paring away the remaining nerves in its grape-like head. My first targets are the eyeballs. Steve warns me that they can be explosive, so my caution level spikes. I stab my scissors behind the eyeball toward what’s left of the brain, then twist underneath to lodge it out. No dice.
“Just yank it out,” Steve says. “You’re taking too much time here. We’re not going to get done by 4.”
Feeling pressured, I succumb to his command and reach to pluck the eye out with my bare fingers. It takes a few tries to retrieve the pulsing blueberry, but after switching back to my scissors, it finally breaks free. The second eye comes out roughly the same way, joining the first on the corner of my newspaper page.
Today, I am not alone at the table. Beside me is Yun Fang, another student who has been practicing her taxidermy skills all semester. She works on a mourning dove, a test from Steve that leaves her in quiet frustration whenever a knife nip lets a small feather break through the bird’s delicate back. Across from us, Steve brushes a preservative onto the dried remains of a garter snake that he has coiled into a defensive stance.
“This guy is one of my old breeder snakes,” Steve says. “He’s 20 years old and he didn’t make it out of brumation this year for whatever weird reason. It’s kind of a sad day that he passed, but he’ll live on.”
Before I’m done with the starling’s head, I’m left to deal with the remains of the brain. Steve hands me a pair of tweezers — a real one this time — that hold a clump of raw brown cotton. This will be my broom as I scoop the pink goo out of the skull. For the first time in this whole process, a wave of nausea passed over me and I force myself to look away as I wiggle the tweezers from side to side. Steve chimes in that my broom is dirty and I require a clean tuft of cotton so I’m not just smearing the brains around. After a liberal sprinkling of Borax turns some of the stubborn bits into a friendlier putty, I go through four more rounds of brushing to empty the tiny noggin. Steve is satisfied, so I move on to roll two small cotton balls and plop one into each eye socket.
Steve goes to his office to make a call, leaving me in Yun’s charge. To make the mannequin’s body, I tightly pack cotton around a wooden spoke, kneading it as if I were rolling up a miniature sleeping bag. Like with sleeping bags, it takes a few attempts to get it right. Yun picks a few tufts from my mannequin so that it better resembles my carcass and helps me dampen the cotton in the sink so that it will compact to the optimal size. She also clears my confusion when I have to revert the skin to a sense of normalcy, showing me how to use the beak to drill back through the neck.
Before I can fix the skin to its new body, Yun points out the muscle still clinging to each of the starling’s limbs. Reluctantly, I pick up the knife once more to hack away at the rest of the red. Perhaps out of zeal or a readiness to finish, I steady my scissors to cut out the bone entirely. Before I do, however, I turn to Yun for confirmation.
“Oh no,” she says. “You need to keep the bones to maintain structure.”
Unfortunately, my finagling has already left a massive opening around the left shoulder, but Yun assures me that with some adjustments to the plummage, no one will notice my error.
Sure enough, when Steve returns to inspect my progress, he gives me his blessing and arranges the starling into its final position. With the wings down at its side and the legs crossed into an X, I take a needle and black thread to baseball-stitch the belly shut. For once, my hands work quickly as I weave right to left from the neck on down. Finally, I pin the bird in place to a pink styrofoam slab. Yun suggests I run a strand of thread through the nostrils to keep the beak from falling open, and at last my first study skin is complete.