Driving along Boon Road, Matt Klope spots a large, dead bird on the side of the road.
He pulls his truck over, steps out to take a closer look, then grabs his gloves and a plastic bag to scoop the barred owl up. Once tagged, he puts it in his truck.
Back at his home south of Oak Harbor, Klope puts the carcass into a large freezer filled with dead birds, where the owl will remain frozen in time until he has a chance to pull it out and put his taxidermy skills to work.
“People don’t want dead birds in their freezer,” said Klope, “But I do.”
Klope sends processed bird specimens to museum and education institutions far and wide. Birds he has collected have been sent to nearby destinations such as the Burke Museum of Natural History in Seattle, or across the country to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Some of his specimens have then been traded by the Smithsonian in international exchanges.
Other birds brought in and prepared by Whidbey Audubon Society members may stay closer to home and get used in Audubon educational activities, or sent on to other museums in need.
Depending on how mangled the roadkill carcass is, Klope may prepare the entire body, or just the bones or feathers.
The barred owl Klope found may yet fly again.
If it is not needed locally for educational purposes, it will be loaded into a special box packed with about 20 other bird specimens that are being sent to the Smithsonian.
A red-tailed hawk and great blue herons were requested by the museum for this shipment, said Klope. He will also stuff the cooler’s cracks and crevices full of smaller songbirds, which will be a welcome surprise at the institution, he said.
Museum curators depend on people like Klope to provide them with the display specimens they need.
In the distant past, museums got their specimens from people who went out and shot live birds. But those days are long gone, Klope said.
“It’s not politically correct to go out and shoot them anymore,” he said.
But collecting specimens requires more than simply gathering up roadkill and preparing it for display.
The Smithsonian and other organizations typically have strict rules about documentation, so Klope must provide information about the date and location each animal was collected.
“The person who found it, their name stays with the bird for eternity,” Klope said, adding that there are a lot of birds residing at the Smithsonian tagged with the names of Whidbey Audubon members who discovered them.
While federal law prohibits most people from collecting roadkill birds, Klope, who serves as the Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard Coordinator for the U.S. Navy, holds a special permit from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“You can’t just pick up a hawk or a great blue heron on the side of the road and keep it,” Klope said, adding that most birds – alive or dead – are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The permit requirement prevents people from bringing a carcass to a taxidermist saying they found it as roadkill, when in fact they hunted their prey, he said.
This provides the birds with some protection so that they don’t become a decoration mounted on the wall in someone’s home.
If people happen to stumble across a body, they can pick it up – provided they transfer it to a permit holder for proper care, he said.
Klope, who began collecting birds on Whidbey Island in 1989 when he moved here, isn’t the only person on island who collects and prepares bird specimens.
Over the years he has trained several members of the Whidbey Audubon Society to perform the same work.
And it’s not a simple task. The skin of a bird is much like wet tissue paper, but with feathers attached, he said.
The Audubon members are also covered under the permit. There is a real art to it, he said.
“No one else does this,” said Klope, explaining that it is quite uncommon throughout the nation to voluntarily prepare birds. “No one in their right mind does this. It is very time consuming.”
At the same time Klope acknowledges that his volunteerism is a little bit different, he said the effort is entirely worth it since he can educate the public.
“For people to hold the bird and look at its feather patterns, beak and talons is amazing for them,” said Klope. “From a spotting scope, you can’t see that level of detail.”
Klope has handled birds of all shapes and sizes, from large ones like egrets and hawks to hummingbirds that can fit in the palm of his hand. The colors of the hummingbirds feather’s shift based on the lighting, said Klope.
“You don’t see these amazing colors unless you are up close,” Klope said.
Hundreds of birds have been prepared over the years, and he and the Audubon members will keep on processing.
“I have been interested in this since middle school,” Klope said. “It’s fun.”