The window, 2013
To have a stranger die in your hands is a sad thing indeed. I remember that first beautiful red-headed male Western Tanager with a lemon yellow belly as it went limp in my hands. It taught me that life is valuable, and not to hang the feeders so close to the windows.
The funeral pyre, spring 2016
Death is something you have to deal with frequently when you monitor well over fifty nest boxes. Most of the chicks I find out are dry and flattened. I chuck them deep into the bushes where no kids can see them, along with the rest of the nest. Sometimes I cut off a leg to retrieve the band, wielding my big clumsy pliers like a medieval surgeon. The band comes off and into an envelope. Then the rest goes into the bushes.
Today heat drips off the feathers of the flying swallows. The metal clasps on the boxes are hot to the touch. I cover the hole of nestbox B24 with my hand, imitating a parent Tree Swallow bringing back food to its fledglings. Silence ensues. The chicks have fledged already.
One chick has remained in the box, eyes closed in slumber. Ants meander over the body. It is still plump, as large as it was in life. I cradle the freshly dead body. Maybe it’s the heat making me irate, but I suddenly have a death wish for the ants crawling over it. I carry the body to the water and lay a sprig of sage on its back. The body floats. I imagine the beady black insects crawling on their tiny island, desperate and stranded, destined to drown or starve. The body circles gently along a current. I place another pink blossom on it, to complete the funeral pyre. As I leave, I see it bobbing, like a fallen leaf. I cry, just a little, for the dead bird.
In the next box, all three chicks are dead. They are flat. I chuck the whole nest into the bushes.
The Hillside, Summer 2017
Sometimes I feel like a bird whisperer. The birds summon me. They chirp and fly around my head and beckon me up where the hillside, where I discover that their fledgling is being swallowed by a gopher snake. The snake is rather tiny. It shall be a tad larger after this encounter, and the Orange-crowned Warbler fledgling shall be no more. C'est la vie.
The Museum, Fall 2017
A woodpecker wing hides in my refrigerator. It was taken from a once-live Acorn Woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus. Alas, birds die. Dead birds aren't normally found in freezers. It was months ago that upon discovering a body swarming with ants in a remote forest, a wing was snapped off with a sharp crack and smuggled into a soft duffel bag. The rest is in the earth. Only the glossy feathers of a single black wing remain.
17-year olds aren’t interested in dead things.
The musty smell of the San Diego Natural History Museum lab, where specimens are prepared, hits overwhelmingly; the skinless bodies stacked in the fume hood are guilty. This week they are skeletonizing a tuna. The fan is broken. Dead fish-smell overpowers the room.
Philip Unitt, my mentor, places a stack of Brown-headed Cowbirds recovered from a cowbird trap on the table. They are fresh, recently transported from the site of collection, Dos Palmas Preserve. Cowbirds are easy. They have a simple shape, easy to nail for early learners like me. “Birds are harder,” says a woman working on the opposite side of the table. In her hand, she fiddles with a tiny bat body.
Phillip approves my cowbird selection: a juvenile, with brown streaks running down its throat and belly. My scalpel splits the skin open in a neat line. Huge yellow globules peek out. Damnit. Fat birds are easy to soil; grease stains feathers and turns it an unattractive orange color. Memories of a fat Rosy-faced Lovebird, my last specimen attempt, resurface; parrots are sparse-feathered, and my rough handling of the greasy skin left the lovebird balding. The cowbird has more feathers. I hope it will look better.
The work of skinning a bird is methodical. The bell tower in Balboa Park tolls every few hours. My mind is immersed in the rich anatomy of the cowbird. Skin down the thighs, separate the thigh and drumstick meet, then a caudal cut, peeling down of the skin. Now the bird is inside out. Ask Phillip questions. Pull the ears and cut the eyes. “Do you have your own private collection?” I inquire. Snip neatly along the skull. Clean the brains. “No, I don’t,” he replies. Pull the bird back right-side out. Clean the wings, tie them together shoulder-length. Realize that keeping a woodpecker part in my freezer might be illegal. Wash the bird, it was slightly soiled. Dry it. Run the cotton eyes up the throat. Wrap the body. Take your needle and your thread, and sew the belly of the bird up. A clock chimes for noon. The smell of dead fish is less distinctive.
“I will be in Baja California next week,” Phillip says. My cowbird lays pinned on a cardboard platter, Phillip’s completed specimens beside it. The juvenile bird’s shape is a little too dense. An adult male laying beside it is perfect and fluffy.
“How about the week after?” I ask, eager to rid my woodpecker wing. I begin packing.
Outside is a brilliantly blue sky. The bus stops by every twenty minutes. Last week, the doors were closing as I walked down the sidewalk. Today, I am on time. Week-by-week, I perfect the timing in my routine. Sundays are for taxidermy. Two weeks from now, I will be returning, this time, with a jet-black woodpecker wing.
The beetle room, winter 2018
Volunteering at a natural history museum means you often come face-to-face with death. Today, my mentor, Phil. takes me to the “beetle room,” where meat-covered corpses are left to naturally decompose in a beetle colony in the process of skeletonization. The warehouse is in Chula Vista. Phil drives me there. His truck still has one of those window cranks, that you have to physically wind to move the windows up and down. Our conversation about Trump seems out of the time period.
We stop in the parking lot of a storage center. Phil and Leah, another taxidermist, gesture towards the biggest unit, one big enough to fit five people comfortably. They open the lids of our containers. In the biggest one, a deconstructed orangutan skeleton is nestled among jars. “I think it had a human name,” Leah remarks. “Bertha, or something old fashioned like that.” The other box contains a half-decomposed lynx corpse. I remember seeing it being gutted earlier in the week. The taxidermist had appeared like a wild hunter of the West, carving out the meat with a knife while chiding the “kitty,” in a raspy voice.
The inside of the unit is stacked high with jars. Leah immediately opens a big storage bin that occupies one fourth of the floor. She sifts through boxes of half-decomposed skeletons. Stringy, dry meat hang halfheartedly from unidentifiable bones. A spider scurries over her finger.
I jump back. I’m arachnophobic.
“We have a spider problem,” she says. I take one step back, noticing the foot of cobwebs to my right.
“I’m arachnophobic,” I say apologetically.
Leah nods. She and Phil browse through the shelves, occasionally asking me to hand them jars, or giving me jars of skeletons to put away. There are not many: most of the beetle colony dies off in winter.The outside breeze shifts around layers of insect exoskeletons. I make sure to stand upwind. Five more spiders scurry out from between the shelves.
In between passing jars, I find myself staring again at the human-like visage of the orangutan. It has crooked teeth. Orangutans don’t have dental care.
The time comes to say good-bye to the oragutan. I will miss Bertha, or Debbie, or whatever her name was. But I will see her again, maybe in a year’s time, when the rest of decomposition has been completed.
When we return, we fill the jars containing skeletons with water, where bacteria will continue the next stage of decomposition. The process feels impersonal. Each animal is assigned a tag with its scientific name and date of death. Some were beloved zoo animals. All will go through the same four steps, and eventually they will all end up in a dark, small, cardboard box on a shelf in the back of the museum.
“Special Cashews,” reads the label of one of the jars. The smell of ammonia wafts from another.
Before I leave, Phil asks me to string together the vertebrae of a Harpy Eagle retrieved from the zoo. Each talon measures three inches across. I fit together the tiny pieces like a jigsaw puzzle, feeling the groove between each bone carefully.
I wonder if death always feels this scientific.
I never want to go to the beetle room again, not until they clean it out and get rid of the excess of spiders. The scurrying black arachnids evoke some sort of adrenaline-pumping impulse in me. At the sight of a spider, my parasympathetic nervous system activates my flight-or-fight response, as if I am in a life or death situation. Even in a warehouse dedicated to the ritual of death, my primitive brain wants to live.
The vertebrae of the eagle are clean and easy to grasp. I will be content to see Bertha again, in the relatively spider-free shelves of the lab.