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Department of Vertebrate Zoology

Division of Birds

Labrador Duck
Labrador Duck
Christina Gebhard © Smithsonian Institution
Preserving Tissue Samples
Christina Gebhard © Smithsonian Institution

Carcasses of captive birds can provide valuable research material for museum collections. Some may be prepared as taxidermy mounts for use in exhibits or educational programs. Others may be used to augment the museum's holdings of traditional study skins, skeletons, and fluid preserved specimens, which are used for studies of taxonomy, geographic variation, anatomy, etc. Specimens also offer museum scientists access to tissue samples of rare species for a variety of molecular DNA studies. .

Preservation of Specimens

  • Carcasses should be individually stored in tightly sealed plastic bags and thoroughly frozen soon after death. If there is a need to have the bird necropsied please do not freeze but keep refrigerated until taken to the veterinarian. Wrapping the specimen in tissue paper or paper towel will help keep the feathers from becoming ruffled. If necessary long tails can be curled. It is easier for us to deal with curled tail rather than plucked feathers.
  • ¬†Include with each specimen as much data about the bird as possible including: scientific and/or common name; date of death; date of hatching if known; collection locality, date and collector name (for wild caught birds); weight before necropsy; sex if specimen had been laparotomized or necropsied; etc. If a captive's ancestry can be traced to a specific breeding population include that data. The label should be written with a pencil or non-soluble ink (ballpoint or felt tip pens are not recommended). Also, please note if the specimen(s) is thought to have died from any avian viruses. This will alert our staff to take additional precautions if necessary.
  • If the specimen is to be necropsied, please have the veterinarian do a "cosmetic postmortem". The skin should be opened by a single mid ventral cut; the ribs, not the sternum should be cut for access to the body cavity; the specimen should be sexed with reproductive state noted; removal of brain tissue should be done with care to preserve the skull. Removal of the top of the brain case is least damaging. Feathers should not be plucked.

Shipment of Specimens

These shipping instructions are for sending specimens to the Division of Birds, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

  • Contact the museum about the specimens you wish to donate to be sure they are needed. Please do not send any specimens without contacting us first.
  • The specimen(s) should be packed in a sturdy Styrofoam or plastic ice chest. Wrap the plastic bags in newspaper for insulation. Pack the specimens with dry ice. As little as 5 pounds of dry ice can last about 2 days if not broken into small pieces. Packets of blue ice can be used if dry ice in unobtainable. Seal the outside seams of the container to prevent cold loss.
  • Please include your full name and address with the shipment. Otherwise we cannot properly acknowledge your donation, or contact you in case further information is needed.
  • Clearly mark our address and phone number (202) 633-0800 on the outside of the container. The container should be marked as "Perishable." Also, if dry ice is used, mark the outside of the container to indicate such.
  • Perishable shipments must be sent by overnight delivery. Most shipments can be sent by overnight delivery (Post Office, Federal Express, UPS. etc), but not all services will ship containers with dry ice. Check before packing. The museum can generally pay shipping charges when Federal Express is used, but we must be contacted prior to shipment to make certain we have the funds available. Packages should NOT be sent collect by UPS or other overnight services as we do not have accounts with anyone other than Federal Express. In some cases it may be necessary to send the shipment by air freight. Shipments can be sent collect by marking the package "For Conversion to a U.S. Government Bill of Lading at Destination." Again, contact us prior to preparing any shipment so we can get make the most appropriate arrangements.
  • When possible send shipments Monday or Tuesday for arrival no later than Thursday, so if delayed in transit they do not sit in a warehouse over a weekend. For air freight, please try to arrange for a flight landing at Washington National Airport (Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport).
  • Please contact us immediately after shipping to inform us that a perishable package has been sent and provide information on the method of shipment, expected arrival date, and the tracking number for overnight delivery services. For air freight shipments let us know the airline name, airway bill number, flight number, expected arrival time, and the airport (there are three commercial airports around Washington DC).
  • The Division of Birds, National Museum of Natural History, can be contacted at: Telephone (202) 633-0800 Ask for Christopher Milensky. Our fax number is (202) 633-8084.

Our postal mailing address is:

Division of Birds
Smithsonian Institution
P.O. Box 37012
National Museum of Natural History
Room E 607, Mail Stop 116
Washington, DC 20013-7012

Our overnight delivery service or freight delivery address is:

Division of Birds
Smithsonian Institution
National Museum of Natural History
Room E 607, Mail Stop 116
1000 Constitution NW
Washington, DC 20004

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