“I Vacuumed a Passenger Pigeon Today”

I arrived home after work one day last week and my wife asked “So, what did you do today?” I casually answered, without giving it any thought, “Oh, I vacuumed a Passenger Pigeon”. As soon as I said that, I stopped myself and thought “Now THAT is why I work in a museum”! In what other occupation can you do interesting but unusual things like working with a specimen of an extinct species!? So here is how I came to vacuum a passenger pigeon that day…

The Ohio Historical Society has a live-mounted passenger pigeon named Buttons which has been on exhibit for many years in the natural history mall. It was originally collected in 1900 near Sargents, Pike Co., Ohio where it was shot in the wild by a young boy. It was taken to an amateur taxidermist to be stuffed, but the taxidermist didnt have enough glass eyes so she used a black shoe button in at least one of the birds eyes, hence the name “Buttons”. It was always considered to be the last wild passenger pigeon. However the author Joel Greenburg, in doing research for his new book, recently discovered credible reports of two other specimens of passenger pigeons that were collected at later dates. However, Buttons is still a valuable specimen and represents one of the last wild passenger pigeons in the world.

You’ll be hearing lots more about Buttons, since she will be the featured specimen in an exhibit opening next summer at the Ohio Historical Center. This exhibit will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Martha, the last surviving individual of her species, who died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo. We will use Buttons as a focal point in the exhibit to discuss how a species which used to number in the billions of individuals could become extinct in a relatively short period of time. It was wiped out from over-hunting and from destruction of its woodland habitat. The story of the passenger pigeon will be used as a jumping off point to discuss extinction and endangered species. You can see that between Buttons and Martha, Ohio has a very prominent place in the story of the passenger pigeon. If you want to see Buttons before next summer, she will also be featured in a new exhibit titled “Transformation”, which will open September 7th at the Ohio Historical Center.

Anyway, to prepare Buttons for these new exhibits, we carefully removed her from the natural history mall exhibit, returned her to the original wooden base that she had been perched on, and brought her to the lab for cleaning. But how do you clean an irreplaceable, historic and fragile taxidermy mount without doing any further damage? To make things even more complicated, taxidermists used to apply arsenic to mounts which acted to keep insects from damaging the mounts. Arsenic certainly worked to prevent moths and beetles from chewing on the skin and feathers but it sure isnt good for curators to handle! Bob Glotzhober had previously tested Buttons for the presence of arsenic and found that she tested positive. So we decided that we needed to remove the dust and the exterior arsenic (which appears as a white powder on the feathers) by using a very low power vacuum. A special HEPA vacuum was used to collect the arsenic and prevent it from becoming airborne. But then how do you apply a vacuum to a bird without ruffling the feathers? These old mounts are very fragile and it would be easy to pull out or displace feathers even with a low vacuum. So the technique we used was to place a fine, flexible piece of screening over the bird, one section of the bird at a time, and then slowly apply the vacuum. This was a two-person job, one holding the screen and one vacuuming. Bob and I wore nitrile gloves to protect ourselves from exposure to the arsenic, which can be readily absorbed through the skin. In the end the technique worked great! The dust and arsenic were pulled up through the screen and not even one feather was moved during the process.

So after I told my wife about the passenger pigeon and was feeling pretty smug, she said “Oh yeah!? If youre so good with a vacuum, why dont you finish these carpets that you promised to do last weekend!?”

Back to reality…

Posted August 19, 2013

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