Rhagor - Opening our national collections

Frozen in time: the National Bird Collection at Amgueddfa Cymru

[image: Kingfisher: one of the new freeze-dried bird specimens]

Kingfisher: one of the new freeze-dried bird specimens

[image: Red-eyed Vireo: a rare migrant from North America killed at Bardsey lighthouse]

Red-eyed Vireo: a rare migrant from North America killed at Bardsey lighthouse

[image: Dotterel: a scarce migrant in Wale, killed at Bardsey Lighthouse]

Dotterel: a scarce migrant in Wale, killed at Bardsey Lighthouse

[image: Short-eared Owl: a scarce breeding bird and winter visitor to Wales, killed by a car]

Short-eared Owl: a scarce breeding bird and winter visitor to Wales, killed by a car

One of the founding collections of Amgueddfa Cymru back in 1915 was the Cardiff Museum's collection of birds. These were displayed in cases, along with their nests and eggs in small dioramas of their habitat.

This collection continued to form a major part of the Museum's galleries until as recently as 1992. Over the years, the Museum has become a centre for many bird studies, such as the Red Kite — in conjunction with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (R.S.P.B.) and the Countryside Council for Wales (C.C.W.)

Deep freeze

Today, Amgueddfa Cymru has large-capacity freeze drying facilities in order to preserve new additions to the collections. Specimens are frozen in a vacuum chamber at about -20°C.

Under these conditions the frozen water in the specimen is forced out as a vapour rather than becoming a liquid. This leaves the specimen completely dried out and, importantly, its shape and size are more or less unchanged from when it was living.

Freeze-drying is also a much simpler procedure than skinning - the traditional method of preserving most museum specimens.

The birds are arranged to allow the plumage detail on the wings and tail to be examined. This determines the age and sex of specimens. The collection is aimed at field ornithologists and artists alike and adds to the existing skin collections at the Museum.

Bardsey Island

The primary source of specimens for this collection is Bardsey Island, off the Lleyn Peninsular, North Wales.

Birds migrating at night need clear skies to find their way, should it become cloudy or foggy they can become disorientated and under these conditions are attracted by the light from the lighthouse on the island.

They circle or fly down the beams of light and are killed hitting the tower. The island warden checks the base of the tower every morning and any casualties are picked up and frozen before being transferred to the Museum in Cardiff.

The focus is on British birds but also includes some rare species from around the world.

These and other casualties received from the public are used for display and education, encouraging a deeper interest in birds and making people look harder at their surroundings.

The collection is used to highlight current biodiversity and environmental issues, including raising awareness of the effects climate change and loss of habitat can have on birds migrating between Britain and Africa.

Article Date: 12 June 2007


Timothy Hale on 3 November 2008, 12:14


I would like to request your assistance. I have a dove/pigeon (doveon) chick that is half way hatch but died during the process. The unusual thing is that there are two heads showing from the opening of the shell. My plan is to remove the shell and preserve the bird inside in a container with whatever formula needed to keep the specimen intact and in the best long term condition as possible. I am going to donate it to my daughter’s high school biology class for show and study. Can you tell me what is the best preparation and formula to preserve this specimen? We currently have it in a zip-loc bag in the freezer. We hope that is ok temporarily. Any help would be greatly appreciated.


Timothy Hale

Amgueddfa Cymru on 3 November 2008, 12:14


Your best option is probably to leave the egg and chick in the position you want it preserved and place it back in the freezer, but leave it open i.e. don't cover in plastic or seal in a box. This way it will gradually freeze-dry. However this will take a while in a domestic freezer - over 6 months. Freeze drying can work very well but the specimen will be open to insect pest damage from species such as clothes moths and dermestid beetles so will need a good storage box afterwards.

Other methods of preservation use ethanol (alcohol) or formaldehyde. Here in the museum we use Denatured ethanol (basically methylated spirits without the purple colour) diluted to 70 - 80% with water or a 4% formaldehyde solution (popularly called 'formalin') but it will be difficult to buy these chemicals as an individual. Some taxidermy supply companies may be able to help e.g. Snowdonia taxidermy supplies. You will also need a good storage jar that allows a good view of the specimens but can contain the preserving medium. Again these can be hard to source. Also if preserved this way it is unlikely the school will want the specimen due to the Health and Safety issues with chemicals such as ethanol and formaldehyde.

Julian Carter
Zoological Conservation Officer

Timothy Hale on 3 November 2008, 12:14

Thank you very much for the information, it is very helpful and we appreciate you spending the time to help us.
Timothy Hale

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