Kristof Zyskowski, Bird Detective

[O]n a Friday afternoon in October, Kristof Zyskowski dons his monogrammed lab coat and takes a dead bird out of the fridge in his lab. Zyskowski is a scientist who manages a collection of bird specimens at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. Today’s bird is a baby Violet-green Swallow, an aerial artist that would have snatched insects out of the air had it reached adulthood.

Zyskowski moves quickly to a table in the middle of the room. He gently shifts the swallow to a tray, its head flopping atop a limp neck. Next to the swallow, he places the most important tools for preserving birds: cotton, a small knife, three pairs of scissors, a needle, and thread.

Zyskowski bends his salt-and-pepper beard down low over the tray, and writing down all of the known information about the swallow: who found it, where it’s from, and when it died. Every preservation starts with some dissection, and today is no different. Zyskowski will use the tools in front of him to learn more about the eleven-year-old dead bird he just took out of the fridge. Eventually, the swallow will live on forever in the Peabody’s collections, preserved for further scientific inquiry.

Zyskowski’s mission is to preserve every bird that passes through his fridge. Each one holds within its body a lifetime’s worth of information, and Zyskowski is one of the best in the world at understanding it. Zyskowski helps scientists use birds to learn about nature’s past. And with more knowledge about the past, scientists can better protect life on Earth. 

When Zyskowski was just a boy in Sejny, Poland, he knew he was interested in animals. In elementary school, he wrote down when migrating birds left for the winter. The following spring, he would record their returns. “They’re from the 1970s and today they’re pretty good data,” Zyskowski says, still proud of his handiwork from decades past. “We can compare them to today’s reports.” 

He didn’t yet know that his obsession was bird-focused.  “First it was broader,” he says. “I kept mostly frogs and lizards. I also raised caterpillars.”

Soon after he started bringing caterpillars home, Zyskowski’s windowsill became laden with jars. In the middle of the night, the flapping sound of a caterpillar-turned-moth would wake him up. “Most of these things I prepared and started building a collection as a teenager,” he says.

As he got older, Zyskowski’s collection grew, but he left it all behind when he spent a summer in the United States. He took a bird-related job: finding nests in Texas and Arizona. Zyskowski parlayed that work into a master’s degree at the University of Arkansas, finishing in 1993. 

The next order of business became a PhD. “I was craving working in the tropics,” Zyskowski says. He wanted to get his degree with a professor named Scott Lanyon in Chicago, but Lanyon had recently accepted a museum directorship in Minnesota. Next in line was a professor at the University of Kansas, Richard O. Prum. 

In 2000, on the other side of a PhD with Prum, Zyskowski had come to a realization—he “really loved working in museums.” Zyskowski applied to collections manager positions coming straight out of graduate school. He was deciding between two positions: one in Seattle, and the other at Yale. 

In 2001, Zyskowski started working at the Peabody. He’s been there ever since, working with specimens that may predate him by more than a century. Zyskowski’s predecessors at the Peabody began the collections when they traveled around the world in search of new species, eventually filling the collection’s drawers with birds and other animals from across the globe.  

For Zyskowski, looking at these birds from centuries past brings him somewhere else  “It’s kind of this virtual travel for me,” said Zyskowski. “If you go from drawer to drawer in a collection, you actually move in time, and move in space.” 

The Yale Peabody Museum’s collections have specimens from all seven continents. From the concrete jungle of New Haven, Zyskowski can use different drawers to travel from the kiwis of Australia to the robins of North America and back again. During his virtual visits to different countries, he can also observe changes in birds’ appearances over time. The collections at the Peabody are both a history through time, and an atlas across space. Standing at the collection drawers, Zyskowski can see evolution at work. 

Sometimes, Zyskowski’s work for the collections lets him actually travel to other countries, where he works with other scientists to acquire more specimens for the collections. Specimen acquisition can involve hunting, which causes some people to express concerns about the ethics of collecting, but Zyskowski thinks that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Having specimens on hand in the collections is the most effective research strategy, he thinks. “You may think that I go on these collecting trips and I kill some birds, but I do it with the understanding that if I help to learn about them more, we can eventually conserve them better,” Zyskowski tells me.  

For Zyskowski, preparing specimens is important for scientists both now and in the future. “It’s the best way to preserve their color, their body, feathers, and wings,” he says. Better preservation makes research easier for scientists.

Diving into preservation, Zyskowski cups the swallow’s body in his palm. With his scalpel, he makes a deft cut on the bird’s belly to unzip its jacket of skin. Gloved fingers help Zyskowski peel away the newly cut skin, little by little, revealing the bird’s skeleton. 

Zyskowski is almost as comfortable in a bird’s skin as he is in his own. He brings his obsession with birds home from the lab. “He’s surrounded with birds at home,” says Yulia Bereshpolova, Zyskowski’s wife and a neuroscientist at the University of Connecticut. “Our mugs have birds, plates have birds, bowls have birds—everything at home has birds.”

The high degree of order in the collections comes home, too. If she doesn’t know where a bird-emblazoned object is in the house, Bereshpolova just asks Zyskowski. “Everything is organized,” she says, “It all makes sense.” Within an organized arrangement of muscle and bone on the inside of this swallow, Zyskowski finds his bearings in an instant amidst the fleshy landscape. He reveals points out maroon masses, and yellow flecks: fat and muscle.

Zyskowski’s observations tell him about the swallow’s eating habits when it died eleven years ago. He points out the abundance of the yellow flecks. “See how delicate the skin is? Fat is everywhere. Wow, what a healthy bird.”

In search of more information, Zyskowski hopes to determine the swallow’s sex. It’s impossible for an observer to distinguish between young male and female violet-green swallows. This information is locked deep inside the bird, but Zyskowski has the key. He knows exactly where to look.

His hands move with practiced ease to continue removing the swallow’s skin from its body. He turns the body inside out in one motion, removing a deep red soup of organs. For a closer look, Zyskowski slides over to his microscope. The soup comes into high-resolution focus in a blink, and he quickly finds what he needs. 

He points out a clue that reveals part of the bird’s story, which had gone unknown for the past eleven years. “See? There is a single ovary. Female,” he said. In triumph, he indicates a small, white sphere under the microscope. 

Detective work over for now, Zyskowski moves on to the preservation stage. He prepares his cotton stuffing. He ties crisp knots with thin white string to join the wing and leg bones together. Zyskowski gently presses cotton into the swallow’s body. Finally, his swallow has new insides. 

Adriana Rubinstein, who worked alongside Zyskowski for ten years, admires his focus when he prepares birds. “He aims for perfection, to preserve, in his specimens,” she said.

In pursuit of perfection, Zyskowski feeds a wooden from the now-spineless swallow’s beak to tail. “When people measure, they can be pretty rough with these,” he tells me. “It’s a good idea to make them sturdy.”

With needle and thread, Zyskowski sews the original skin back together. When he’s done, the Violet-green Swallow looks well-groomed, but not quite alive. Soon, it will enter the collections. Zyskowski hopes his swallow will stay there for the next several hundred years.

Almost twenty years and 2,500 birds removed from the beginning of his time at Yale, skinning birds has become second nature for Zyskowski. 

“It’s somewhere between an art and a science,” said Matt Hack ‘20, who skins birds for the collections alongside Zyskowski. “Even your twentieth one probably won’t be very good. Kristof is a master.” 

Kristof Zsykowski’s artful birds are akin to books in libraries. “The specimen is a book written in a language you don’t know,” said Greg Watkins-Colwell, a manager of collections at the Peabody who has worked with Zyskowski for the past nineteen years. With colors and chemicals, rather than written text, the specimens tell their life stories; scientists must know how to decipher the stories. “You are trying to read them, understand them,” said Zyskowski. His specimens travel all around the world for scientific study.

Scientists in the 1960s observed increasing amounts of mercury in bird specimens in a museum in Sweden from the 1940s and 1950s . They found more mercury over time, which coincides with the growth of human pollution. From specimens, scientists can draw conclusions important to the world’s past and the present.

“Birds are sentinels of a healthy environment,” said Zyskowski. “We should care about them.”

Outside of the collections, a large part of Zyskowski’s life is teaching others about wild birds. His teaches friends about birds in their backyards. Further afield, he takes scientists on expeditions to remote countries to collect specimens. Through it all, Zyskowski’s hope is to increase the world’s knowledge about birds. 

Zyskowski recently took Bereshpolova and a close personal friend, Shari Jones, on a recent expedition to Silver Sands State Park in Milford. Before Zyskowski travels to an area, he studies the most common birds and their songs. Zyskowski’s way of working in the field is starkly different from the way he hovers over a bird in the lab. He wears neither gloves, nor a monogrammed lab coat. Instead, he sports jeans, hiking boots, and a gray fleece, toting a giant camera and a pair of binoculars mounted on his chest. 

Zyskowski moves quickly through a gray morning haze across a small stretch of beach on the Connecticut coastline. The rest of us are almost jogging in pursuit. Zyskowski stops on a dime alongside some tall marsh grass, looking for shorebirds. 

A cloud of shrieking seagulls assembles overhead, a wall of noise that leaves the four of us puzzled for a moment. Zyskowski emits a small gasp of excitement. As usual, he’s the first to spot the large shape responsible for the commotion. 

Whenever Zyskowski sees a bird, new or old, familiar or unfamiliar, the reaction is the same. “It’s like Peter Pan,” says Watkins-Colwell. “It’s childlike wonder, and fascination.”

“Bald Eagle!” Zyskowski says. “I was wondering what spooked the gulls.”

Jones and Bereshpolova had been looking the other way, and wheel around to gaze at the predator cutting through sky. The eagle swoops down low without flapping, showing off a seven-foot wingspan, and then it’s gone.

In search of food, and no longer threatened, the gulls return. We watch as they pick up shellfish, dropping them onto the rocky beach below. Zyskowski points out two gulls: a young one and an adult, each above our heads in the sky, holding a clam. “The younger ones have more trouble,” he says. 

Sure enough, each gull drops its clam. The adult’s finds its mark directly in the center of a rock. Mission accomplished. The younger gull’s clam hits home—in the sand. 

[J]ones voices her appreciation for Zyskowski as an educator. “He’s amazing,” she said. “He knows so much about birds.” Before he continues moving down the beach, Zyskowski waits, making sure his company is ready to go. 

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