A natural history museum flies into the future with 3D-printed birds

HP technology is making old ways of collecting and displaying specimens obsolete at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.

By Garage Staff — October 30, 2018

Michael Anderson never learned how to use a shotgun. “I'm not a hunter,” he says. But fortunately for the study of ornithology and unfortunately for the birds of Connecticut, his predecessor was.

Anderson is a museum preparator who oversees the dioramas, building models, exhibit creation and taxidermy upkeep at at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, including its Birds of Connecticut Hall. The hall is meant to be an identification guide of sorts — an amateur ornithologist should be able to describe a bird they saw and then be able to identify it at the museum. The hall contains 772 specimens of the state’s more than 300 bird species, but unfortunately, it is still missing some, even today.

While the previous preparator regularly shot the birds he needed for display, hunting fell out of practice when Anderson arrived three decades ago. Instead, he relied on people finding dead birds and bringing them to the Peabody to mount. “It's very difficult for me to find birds,” he says, “I've only found two or three birds that I was able to taxidermy and put on display.”  

That all changed in 2016, when his team at the Peabody received an HP 3D scanner and printer. The museum, and Anderson’s job, has never been the same.

Michael Anderson in his workshop at Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Sophie Butcher

Michael Anderson in his workshop at Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Filling in the gaps with technology

Anderson’s workshop is deep beneath the Peabody. Cavernous halls lead to numerous rooms, in one, a painter delicately applies iridescent pigment to a 3D-printed pigeon’s neck. Next to her on the table is a mounted pigeon from the museum’s collection; she uses that bird as a reference for its 3D-printed cousin.  

Eventually it will join the others in the Bird Hall upstairs where Anderson points out a display of grebes, a water bird, in a turquoise case. The fowl are posed atop a glass wave with their feet in a swimming posture. One of the grebes is 3D printed, and it’s nearly impossible to distinguish it from the mounted ones. Upon close inspection, the texture on the printed grebe’s feathers can distinguish it from the others, but the similarity is incredible.

Before Anderson had a 3D scanner and printer, he built model birds for displays by hand. “I had been making models from scratch with clay, molds and casts,” Anderson says. He describes the process as time consuming and says this new technology allowed him to create a diverse array of lifelike facsimiles of the missing bird species for the Bird Hall faster and more easily than ever.  

“It's transforming my job,” Anderson says. “I used to spend more than half of my time making molds and casts.” The printer has completely eliminated the traditional model-making process; the 3D scanning and printing process takes about a quarter of the time it would take to sculpt it by hand. “It's a game changer,” he says.

Sophie Butcher

Bird painter Linda Nietlisbach touches up the neck feathers a 3d-printed passenger pigeon.

How to print a bird

The museum attempts to display each bird species with all variations in plumage that exist. For some, the variations are between males, females and juveniles, for others it can be variation between breeding and non-breeding birds. Some species are rare, making them difficult to find.

To print a bird, you first need a real bird as a model. For example, if the museum is missing a female Connecticut warbler, but has a male Connecticut warbler in the collection, they could scan the male using a 3D scanner.  Then the virtual 3D rendering of the bird is sent to the 3D printer, where it is brought to life. “The machine just stitches all those scans together and creates a 3D model of the taxidermy bird,” Anderson explains. After it’s printed, Anderson files away any flaws and dips the whole thing in wax. This layer of wax allows him to easily carve details like feathers and protects the plastic from degrading over time. Once the bird is carved, an expert bird painter is brought in to hand paint the model and feathers are painted the appropriate colors for a female.

Then Anderson builds and attaches the feet and beak. In less time than ever before, the new female bird is ready to go on display with its mate.

The relative ease of creating these 3D-printed models for museums versus preparing a real bird or hand-sculpting one from scratch is particularly exciting to conservationists. “Detailed 3D printing can make it more accessible for public institutions to have beautiful, engaging displays of lifelike birds to captivate and educate more people on the importance of bird conservation,” says Kenn Kaufman, field editor for the National Audubon Society. “Realistic models in curated settings can inspire people to care more about protecting birds and the habitats they need.”

“Detailed 3D printing can make it more accessible for public institutions to have beautiful, engaging displays of lifelike birds to captivate and educate more people.”

Kenn Kaufmann, National Audubon Society

Bug-free birds

These fake fowl offer incredible advantages over their taxidermy brethren in other ways beyond the printing. Mounted birds don’t hold up particularly well over time; they tend to fade and lose their color under the museum lights. After years of display at the Peabody, Anderson realized a taxidermy cardinal’s signature red beak had been bleached white. He sometimes goes into the displays and repaints the faded fowl to restore their brilliant color.

But his birds' colors don't change. The plastic also won’t degrade, since it’s covered in wax, which protects it from UV light. “We're counting on it to last,” Anderson says. “Wax lasts.” It's also less enticing to bugs than real feathers and skin.

Anderson goes through the Bird Hall every year hunting for vermin and finds that small insects occasionally take up residence on and eat taxidermy birds. “These models will be impervious to that,” he says

Ready for the Bird Hall: the finished passenger pigeon.

Sophie Butcher

Ready for the Bird Hall: the finished passenger pigeon.

Museum-going in the 3D-printed future

There are other natural history museums making use of 3D printers, but they’re generally not used to recreate mounted animals. The American Museum of Natural History in New York has hosted events in which students can scan real dinosaur fossils and 3D print precise models to give young people a hands-on experience of paleontology. And the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, has digitized a huge portion of its collection to make it accessible and built a full online collection of 3D fossils that can be explored from your computer screen and printed anywhere.

Others use 3D printing for displays. For the traveling exhibit, “Lost Egypt: Ancient Secrets, Modern Science,” preparators scanned an Egyptian mummy and 3D printed a replica of the mummy’s skull. The technique is also used to reproduce fragile art for display, such as at Cornell University, where conservators are 3D printing replicas of the delicate glass animals created 100 years ago by German artists Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.

But Anderson and his crew at the Peabody really are on the cutting edge of museum technology with their 3D-printed birds. Thanks to these high tech ways of making displays, natural history exhibits like his can be more accessible, more hands-on and last for future generations to enjoy.


Learn what else is being 3D printed in HP's Immersive Experiences Lab, where researcher Alex Ju creates jewelry-inspired pieces.