Bringing life to death

Dead birds teach students about species, taxidermy

By HANNAH JOHNSON – Stillwater Gazette

Students in room Stillwater Area High School Room C111 are learning the ins and outs of local birds.

A field biology class at the high school has students harvesting a variety of carcasses. Not only do students learn how to identify various birds, but they also learn the art of taxidermy by taking a bird’s lifeless body and turning it into a museum-quality display.

"We’re doing a different kind of activity here at Stillwater," said class instructor Andy Weaver.

The students aren’t picking the birds up off the road. Instead, they’ve collected the bird carcasses from the University of Minnesota Raptor Center. Plus, the class also had a member from the Science Museum visit the class to walk the students through the taxidermy process.

The students have spent the week dissecting birds’ tissues – including barn owls, falcons, great horned owls and Cooper’s hawks – and replacing the organs with cotton and dowel rods to make the birds "come back to life".

Each class has about 30 students. This is the first time junior Jack Delahunt has taken a class with Weaver, but he likes it so far. Delahunt spent Wednesday working on a short-eared owl.

"It’s a really sweet class," Delahunt said. "We’ve gotten to go to the zoo and be with animals outside."

This isn’t the first time Weaver has collaborated with the Raptor Center for one of his classes. Since he has a scientific collecting permit, Weaver has been able to bring birds to the classroom in the past to help students understand the diversity of birds in Minnesota.

"So we’ve had access to some critters to look at. When students have see a slide (show) of a snowy owl, I’ve thought wouldn’t it be cool to actually look at it?" Weaver said. "That’s why we’ve been changing the curriculum and inventing ideas to put diversity back in kids’ heads."

Weaver said in recent years, biology and science has shifted to focus more on molecular biology, but he argues there is value in being able to identify species and what’s in their own communities.

"Kids go home now and can identify DNA, which is great, but they can’t identify a tree or a bird in their backyard," Weaver said. "The overarching concept here is appreciating what kind of diversity we have in Minnesota."