Ornithology (or why Jenny collects dead birds)

Jenny collected this Junco on November 1, 2012. It will be donated to Drake University's museum curation class this spring.

Jenny collected this Junco on November 1, 2012. It will be donated to Drake University's museum curation class this spring.

By: Jenny Koska, SCI Programs Coordinator

"I saw a dead bird. It made me think of you."

Most people would probably be insulted, shocked or a little put off if this was said to them. I’m not. I just ask where they saw it and the state of decomposition it was in. 

You collect dead birds?

You see, when I find a dead bird, I pop it in a freezer and then take it over to Drake University. 

Drake has a program in its biology department that stuffs birds and turns them into study skins. I used to participate in this program while I was in school. Now that I've graduated, I still support the program by providing birds found around the Science Center of Iowa. 

You see, sometimes, birds get confused by windows… That whole being clear thing, it’s tricky. When the birds don’t quite win the battle against the window, I’ll take them and have them live forever in a museum or a university. 

I suppose I should be clear about my dead bird collection, because I fear that you're all judging me. I don’t have freezers full of dead birds: that would be weird. But, at times, you can find one or two birds nestled between my ice cream and popsicles.

Why bother?

When creating the study skin (kind of like taxidermy, but less for art and more for research), you find a lot out about the life of the bird. You can find out how old it is, what its diet consists of, what season it died in and how it died. Essentially, the life of the bird is immortalized. 

Scientists will use the skin and the information gathered in their studies for hundreds of years! The skins will be used in papers that examine the evolution of certain features on a bird. For example, how the coloring of feathers change over time, or how the eye of a birds evolves. The skins also can be used to figure out how a disease spreads in a bird population. 

Get it yet?

I hope you’re starting to see that it’s actually pretty cool (and not that weird).

The benefit of collecting dead birds is that they can be sent all over the world to be studied! In fact, the next time you are at a museum or taking a tour of a university and you see birds that have been preserved, check where they were collected. It just might be the Science Center of Iowa.


Jenny Koska is a Program Coordinator at SCI. As part of her job, she figures out different ways to blow things up and light things on fire to further program development here at SCI and for the entertainment of SCI’s participants and staff. Jenny studied Environmental Science and Environmental Policy at Drake University. She has worked at SCI since May 2011, when she started as a Programs Presenter.

Category: General SCI