Secretarial work

After Treatment 2

Our striking Secretary Bird stands at over 1 metre tall and should be one of the most impressive specimens in the Museum, but it hasn’t been looking its best for a while. This African bird of prey was looking rather sorry for itself, with scruffy feathers and moth damage. Conservation intern Ruth Murgatroyd stepped in to bring it back to its former glory.


Wrapped and ready for the freezer
Wrapped and ready for the freezer

The first step for any specimen undergoing conservation treatment is a 72 hour spell in the freezer at -30⁰C. This kills off any inhabiting webbing clothes moths, which can be very destructive to taxidermy specimens. Getting ready for the freezer required some creative packaging to protect the characteristic quill shaped plumage and tail feathers, before wrapping in plastic.

The feathers would need a good groom, which is a lot easier once they’re clean. I used dry methods first, including a brush dust with a vacuum cleaner and the very effective use of cosmetic sponges. The feathers were further cleaned with a gentle non ionic detergent in water and rinsed with a water/ethanol mix. I used a paint brush to dab the solution onto each feather individually.

Ruth cleaning tail feathers
Ruth cleaning tail feathers

When the feathers were clean and dry they were groomed to realign the filaments of the feathers, known as barbules. Parts of the bird’s tail and right wing were missing, so as this is a display specimen, we decided it was appropriate to recreate these areas to more accurately represent what the bird looks like in the wild. Any additions had to be easily identifiable and reversible. Goose feathers were sourced and colour-matched with Orasol dyes. They are now held in place by adjacent feathers and give a much more natural appearance.

Before treatment, with missing wing and tail feathers
Before treatment, with missing wing and tail feathers

The face of the Secretary Bird had been previously painted but this was quite faded in colour compared to the buoyant oranges and yellows of the animal in the wild. We decided to reflect this with a touch up. The new layer was painted in with acrylics, but a base layer of water soluble adhesive now protects the original paint, so layers of paint could be taken back at any time.

The finishing touch to the conservation of a taxidermy specimen is often to make sure the eyes are clean and gleaming. Saliva on a swab is really effective for this.

The Secretary Bird was then ready to go back in its newly-polished case. This had also been lined with UV film to protect the specimen from light damage. Just before it went back on display, the bird made an appearance at the Museum’s daily ‘Spotlight Specimens’ session where it met visitors keen to hear about its recent conservation.

Secretary Bird  back on display
Secretary Bird back on display

Pop in to the Museum to see the finished Secretary Bird on display and standing tall .

Ruth Murgatroyd, Conservation Intern

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More than a Dodo

I'm Public Engagement Manager at Oxford University Museum of Natural History and I look after permanent displays and other interpretation. I do a bit of social media on the side, too.

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