Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Specimen preparation: Lesser Prairie Chicken

Last Friday morning I braved the brutal (BRUTAL!) freeze and walked into campus, even though I was still on holiday. The Big Walu and I don't have parking permits for the campus (why have them when you live less than a mile from your offices?), and so driving in, which would have been the sensible thing to do, was not an option. Still, I figured that if I just bundled up Real Good, I'd be all right.

It was a little over a mile to the Biology Building, my destination, and by the time I got there, I could no longer feel my appendages (I suppose I had not bundled up Real Good enough). No matter, I thawed out nicely as I sat in the warm office of my colleague and friend, Dr. Nancy McIntyre, waiting for her to begin work on the carcass on a Lesser Prairie Chicken, Tympanuchus pallidicinctus (LPC). Nancy is, among other things, an ornithologist and avian curator at the TTU Museum of Natural history.

What Nancy was preparing to do was a necropsy to determine cause of death, take tissue samples to catalog for potential future study, and to turn the carcass into a "skin," which is what the preserved specimens in museum are called. Skins are used for the twin purposes of study and teaching, and back in the olden days, the birds were often killed for this purpose. Now, however, new skins are more likely to be made from birds that have died through accident or disease and are donated by wildlife rehab centers, game wardens, scientists, or other agents. When this happens, Nancy will usually stick the bird in a freezer in her lab to wait for a time when she can work on the bird without distraction.

Well, Friday was the day and Nancy knew I'd be interested, so she posted a note on my wall on Facebook, pulled the bird out of the freezer ahead of time, and waited for me to show up. Which I did, though only slightly less frozen than the bird had been a few hours before my arrival. Here's a shot of me holding the bird shortly before the action started, both of us mostly thawed out at this point:

The worth of a skin for study is almost priceless. Though I've watched LPCs through spotting scopes and binoculars and examined countless photos of them, there simply isn't a substitute for the amount of detail that can be seen when it is held in the unhurried hand. For example, the male LPC has feathers on the back of the head that are used for the purpose of display during breeding season. Called "pinnae feathers," in the field and photos they have always appeared uniformly dark to me. However, here is a close up shot of them, in which you can see that they are unexpectedly more complex than that:

Part of the reason we don't see this bi-coloration very well in the field is because they rotate the pinnaes forward during display and we see mostly the backside:

Here is another shot, in which Nancy is graciously holding open the mouth so that I can get a good photo of the bill for study, since it is always a troublesome part of the anatomy for me to draw on any bird:

And here is one more photo, showing one of the air sacs on the side of the neck that are inflated (and red) during courtship displays:

I don't have good photos of the courtship display myself (it is always pretty dark when I'm watching this, since the action starts around sunrise) and I don't want to use anyone else's for copyright reasons, but here are some little thumbnail sketches I've drawn in the field of the craziness of LPC hormones at work (note all the pinnae feathers at work):

(Note: "my feet are cold" is referring to the condition of my feet at the time, not the LPC's)

Finally, here is a shot of Nancy as she begins the preparation of the skin:

My students in the Introductory Fieldcraft course I am teaching this spring will get the opportunity to study this very bird later in the semester, shortly before we go to the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival in Milnesand, New Mexico (I'm tentatively scheduled to do a book signing, too), to watch living specimens doing their courtship displays. Hopefully, they'll be making their own thumbnail sketches of bird craziness by then.

I took many more photos--both of the bird's anatomical components and the complete preparation of the skin--and will post the process on my teaching blog later so that students in my natural history illustration course can see what goes into the making of the specimens they draw. When I do that, I'll note it here and provide a link for anyone who might be interested.


  1. Susan, I remember when cold temps hardly phased me...I was acclimated to zone 5 and we walked everywhere. After 30+ yrs in Middle TN I am totally unable to tolerate the cold~LOL!

    I've really come to appreciate the beauty of birds and the LPC is a beauty...Thanks for sharing these photos with us.


  2. Thanks for this. Fascinating -- my son who is heavily into birds will get to read this later today.

  3. A fascinating process, for sure -- thought, when I saw your title, I thought you might be preparing Prairie Chicken under glass or something. Hee!

  4. Interesting article you got here. It would be great to read something more about this matter. Thank you for giving that data.
    Joan Stepsen
    Wise geek

  5. Very interesting! Those look like beautiful birds, even in a semi-frozen state. It must be so much fun to watch their courtship displays.

  6. Uh, that was me commenting as anonymous, I hit the pusblish button too soon!

  7. Wow! I can't believe I had to miss this trip, but I am certainly going to make it out this April - can't wait.

  8. loved this post! I'm glad you added the note explaining how it was your feet that were cold- it looked for a second like the chicken was jumping up and down exclaiming that for himself!

    I still haven't seen the prairie chicken ritual...the day we tried to go we got there too late. So sad! Hope the new crop of NHHers get a good look at them.

  9. Gail--I'm not sure I ever remember being used to the cold, though I've always lived in places that got that way in the winter...

    Casey--Glad to hear that the young people types are still interested in birds.

    Nancy--Not surprisingly, these used to be a fairly common game bird, so your first impression was not that far off!

    Joan--more on the LPC later in the spring. Stay tuned.

    Michelle--I never fail to be moved by the LPCs booming on the lek. Puts me in my place in the grande scheme of things.

    Daisy--if you're going to the festival this year, you'd better sign up quick! It's filling up.

    Sarai--Yes I've always regretted that the crew didn't get to see it that year. Maybe some year it'll happen for you, though. We've had pretty good luck the past two years, so we're hopeful for this one, too.

  10. Thank you so much for these detailed photos. I've always wanted to observe them in the field but have never had the opportunity. What a beautiful bird. Have you found out yet what caused his death?

  11. I'm glad you showed us this. The day before, we were searching for a suitable glue for repairing the refrigerator, and I noticed one package that listed 'taxidermy' as one of the uses.

  12. Very cool post - brought me back to the semester of ornithology and many hours spent in the lab studying the skins.

    so - as a dweller in the north woods just have to ask: how cold was it that day?! ;->

    Thursdays are my day to run to work - about 3 miles give or take depending on route - and I run no matter what the temperature. Last year was the record - 20 degree (air temp) run. This year the lowest has been -3 or -4... so far.

    Seems crazy, but I am often warmer on the run then in the car ;->

  13. Jean--It was probably blunt force trauma; in short, an accident.

    Nell Jean--Ha!

    Wildknits--it was only about 18F. I know that's not a big deal to you northerners, but it was plenty cold for me.


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