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From Death to Drawer: A Snipe’s Tale

December 15, 2016

By Emily Matthews, Teen Newsroom producer.

Collections Manager of Ornithology Brian O'Shea holds the body of an unfortunate snipe. Photo: Brian O'Shea/NCMNS.

Collections Manager of Ornithology Brian O’Shea holds the body of an unfortunate snipe. Photo: Brian O’Shea/NCMNS.

Tucked away in the catacombs of the Museum lies a tray of snipes. This isn’t a conspiracy theory. These snipes aren’t the fictitious creatures you send your little brother on a wild goose chase for; they’re birds — common ones. And recently, another member of this species has found its way to the Museum post-mortem.

Likely orienting itself during migration, this snipe died by flying straight into the brick wall of the North Carolina Museum of Art. A few hours later, a woman scooped it up, packed it in ice, and dropped it off at the Museum for Brian O’Shea, the Ornithology Collections Manager, to take care of. “Taking care of” the snipe began, as for every bird that finds its way to the collections, by taking attendance. Date, location, weight — all recorded in a large binder, noting every bird admitted. Tissue samples, providing information on DNA and contaminants, may also be extracted to join the dozens of test tubes already sharing a tub in storage.

After data-collection, the snipe was packed into a plastic bag and stowed in the freezer like a marinating steak. Its future can follow many paths, from being stored for study to being used in public educational programs. While this bird’s fat content makes preservation for the research collection difficult, the snipe may still find its final resting place in a drawer of the Museum’s basement collections to brush wings with other, decades-old snipes.

These birds, along with the rest of the species held below, serve a purpose.  Snipes are common, not rare or even vulnerable, but the future of every species is too foggy for any degree of certainty as to its fate.

“We don’t know,” admitted Dr. O’Shea. “What’s common today might not be common tomorrow.” If history has taught us anything, he’s not wrong. He noted that passenger pigeons were a prime example of this phenomenon; while these birds once blocked the sun with their massive flocks, humanity caused their extinction.

“We can’t go back in time,” remarked O’Shea, but these specimens give us a glimpse into the past. Even for living species, each of the over 25,000 birds stored preserves a snapshot of the period and region they lived in, and these samples help illustrate variation over time.

But obtaining specimens isn’t always easy. Upon seeing a dead bird, most people wrinkle their noses and continue by without realizing the corpse’s possible benefit to research. Most specimens come from people affiliated with the Museum, but anyone can provide samples — as long as they’re properly prepared.

O’Shea still remembers being passed “smelly bags” of decaying birds on the loading dock of the Museum. Paper wrappings, he lamented, were common offenders, since they draw water from the body. If you find a dead bird on your property and wish to donate it to the Museum for research, what do you do? After you note the time and location the bird was found, O’Shea recommends you place it in a Ziploc bag surrounded by ice. Then contact Dr. O’Shea and arrange the delivery of the specimen. By providing fresh, properly packaged specimens, everyday citizens can help the Museum collect and preserve data for decades to come.

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