>I went to meet an acquaintance who works at the American Museum of Natural History this afternoon, and she gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of the bird department of the museum. I cannot tell you how lucky I feel to have had this unique opportunity. It reminded me a lot of the behind-the-scenes tour I had at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston a few years ago, only this time all the birds were dead. In fact, some had even been dead for over a hundred years.
The first things my friend showed me were the dead birds in formaldehyde. Some of the specimens had been preserved for many decades. The really old ones were in super funky vats with crazy pressurized lids. Those intrigued me most. My friend said that a few weeks ago, a co-worker picked up one of the antique specimens and the jar shattered. How disgusting would it be to be splattered with reeking old formaldehyde and dead bird leakage?!?! Mad gross. Anyway, the specimens came in various sizes and were suitably gross looking. I asked my friend if there was any DNA left in these birds, or if the formaldehyde destroyed it. She said that it was definitely destroyed. (Not that you should remember this if you want to commit a murder or other heinous crime.)
Next we went to the boxes where the museum kept the bird skeletons. When the museum wants to preserve only the skeleton of a bird, they throw the corpse into a tank of flesh eating beetles. By the time the beetles are done, all of the juicy bits are gone. Brains, muscles, eyes – everything but the skeleton, which is very clean. One skeleton had something rattling around in its skull, and when we looked in, my friend noticed a bit of brain that the beetles missed.
Finally, I saw the stuffed birds. I learned that before 1970, birds were stuffed with arsenic. One of the birds that she showed me was a sea bird. It had a funky ridge in its beak to sort out some of the salt from the water and air. It was able to touch it a bit, and it was quite soft, almost like fur. This very much surprised me. The specimen was from 1898. I think I was more impressed by the fact that I handled a bird that had been dead for over 107 years than I was by its natural beauty. I also saw some large birds from the South Pacific or New Zealand (I think) that have lizard-like legs and hard feathers that are like long fingernails. My friend mentioned this is one species that illustrates well how birds evolved from dinosaurs. I poked its leg and pointy feathers. Believe me, I scrubbed my hands but good when I got home.
The whole thing was amazing. This trip just reminded me how sorry I am that I never liked science class as a kid. It is yet another field that interests me (crazy behind-the-scenes work at a science museum) that I will not be able to ever work in. Hopefully, I will continue to meet people with awesome jobs and get to hobnob with them to make up for it.