Lessons in Preservation

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Down the hall from the Arboretum office, in the New Science Center at Saint John’s University, is a collection of preserved creatures that once lived nearby, as well as a few exotic species. Songbirds, ducks, cranes, and many large mammals are intimately available for education.

Besides local natural history, the museum also reflects an interesting chronicle of the history of Saint John’s Abbey and University. The preservation work for most of the specimens was done by members of the monastic community who have shown a sustained interest in the natural world. Several specimens have been in the collection since the 19th century.

While this long history offers insight into our human relationship with this place, it also presents problems. Many of the specimens are fragile to the point that they can no longer be properly cleaned, and fading colors threatens to misrepresent the appearance of some species.

The need to maintain and update the collection has recently spurred Father Bruce Wollmering, O.S.B., to learn the traditional art of taxidermy, extending the line of Saint John’s taxidermists across three centuries. Fr. Bruce has been an amateur birder since the 1960s and has collected bird specimens for the biology department since then. As an Arboretum Advisory Council member, he sees his work with the Natural History Museum as a unique and personal contribution to the Arboretum’s education mission.

During his apprenticeship with a world award-winning taxidermist in February of 2005, Fr. Bruce was presented with a unique opportunity. While much press has been given to the influx of Great Gray Owls into Minnesota, the unusually harsh Canadian winter has also driven other uncommon species south. Father Bruce was notified of an unidentified bird carcass below a window of the Quadrangle at Saint John’s, and quickly retrieved it.

It turned out to be a Boreal Owl,which has a normal range that is limited to the boreal coniferous forests and muskeg bogs of Canada. Sightings in central Minnesota are almost unheard of. His preservation of this specimen not only documents this season’s unusual migration (thought to be a once in a lifetime event by many birders), it will also serve natural history education at Saint John’s for years into the future.

As with the Boreal Owl, Father Bruce’s future gleanings will come from window-kill and road-kill on the Saint John’s campus. Because of legal considerations (it is illegal to possess many bird species without a license)and the need for fresh specimens, Father Bruce asks that you not save your own finds for him.

After a lifetime in teaching, Father Bruce retired from the CSB/SJU psychology faculty in 2004, and is now pursuing his first dream of field biology. If you are interested in pursuing your own dreams of birding and biology, contact your local Audubon Society or visit them on the Web at www.audubon.org.

Lessons in Preservation
Ryan Kutter
Abbey Banner
Spring, 2005
Lessons in Preservation

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Topics: Bruce Wollmering, John Klassen, Review Board

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