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My Column: Zombie Bird Closet

IMG_8133 (1) Lorrimer Sanctuary’s “closet of zombie birds” was full of surprises.

My new "Bird Watcher" column is all about a magical closet at New Jersey Audubon's Lorrimer Sanctuary. A thank you to Lorrimer's Mary Birrer for her help.

You can read it here:

By Jim Wright

Special to The Record | USA TODAY NETWORK - NEW JERSEY

  In huge Gothic lettering, the sign on the door warned: “Closet of Zombie Birds and Other Animals.”  Slowly I opened the door at New Jersey Audubon’s Lorrimer Sanctuary in Franklin Lakes, only to discover that the sign wasn’t that far off.

   Inside, on shelf after shelf, lurked the creepiest collection of taxidermied birds and other critters I’ve ever seen. IMG_8132The collection also included a stuffed – and extinct – passenger pigeon that had brought me there in the first place.

   With a lot of help from sanctuary director Alexa Fantacone, I identified several former birds, including a stuffed gannet on the floor and a large former tern suspended from the ceiling. 

   Alexa and I wore rubber gloves and Covid-style masks, but the smell of mothballs and other preservatives hung in the air and clung to our clothes as we sorted through the feathered menagerie.

   From what little paperwork and ephemera we could find, we figured that many of the taxidermied items were donated by various museums trying to distribute unnecessary specimens.

 An old suitcase with a Newark Museum label contained another dozen or so taxidermied birds, while a nearby tray of bird skins had an ovenbird with labels from the Smithsonian that said it was collected on a ship in the Bahamas more than a century ago. Quite the trove.

   What should you do if you find a taxidermied bird or other creature in your attic, basement or zombie animal closet?

   For answers, I consulted expert taxidermist George Dante of Woodland Park. Dante preserves animals for the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan and other leading institutions.

    “I’ve encountered this situation several times over my career, especially with old environmental centers clearing out their collection rooms,” Dante says. “I even had a gentleman purchase an old home on Martha's Vineyard and find a mounted Heath Hen in the attic.”    

    Dante tries to educate everyone on the significance of these specimens and how people should do a little investigating before they throw any away: “Ironically, the nature centers and small museums are usually the first to toss things in the trash without hesitation unless there is someone on hand that wants to do a bit of leg work.”

   Whether you have an entire collection or just one specimen, Dante suggests the following:
  1. Carefully handle the specimens with nitrile gloves and move them to an isolated safe space that is climate-controlled and free of pests.
  2. Look for any provenance, such as paperwork or labels (and save it).
  3. Contact a qualified taxidermist and send simple photos. The images can be as low-tech as cellphone shots, so long as the specimen can be identified.
  In a future column, I’ll write more about Lorrimer Sanctuary’s passenger pigeon that George Dante is restoring.
   The Bird Watcher appears every other Thursday. Jim’s next book, "The Screech Owl Companion," will be published by Timber Press. Email Jim at [email protected].