A Conversation with Steve Rogers | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Conversation with Steve Rogers

Steve Rogers surely spends his workday among more dead vertebrates than anyone in town. As a collection manager at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Rogers is responsible for about 216,000 herpetological specimens (amphibians and reptiles) and some 195,000 late birds. The preserved skins and skeletons, as well as whole critters floating in jars of alcohol, are invaluable to researchers, educators and artists. Rogers, of Crafton, has worked at the Carnegie for nearly half of his 52 years. His tour of the collections hustles a visitor through the museum's back rooms and hidden warrens.


How old is this stuff?

We have collections that were collected long before the museum even showed up. So the oldest herp specimen we have is from 1870-something, and the oldest bird specimen we have is from 1841.


How does it all get used?

We have visitors who come and use the collection, and we have specimens that go out on loan. This over here is [going to] a professor from Duquesne University teaching a course on animals of the eastern United States. The bird collection is lending him about 37 birds. And then we're giving him examples of copperheads and milk snakes and different lizards and frogs and salamanders and turtles.


What about researchers?

There's a loan I'm going to pack up today in birds where someone is looking at historic levels of mercury that accumulates in feathers. He's taking Bicknell's thrush, which is a reasonably rare type of bird, and he's actually figuring that some of the reason they're disappearing is that the mercury level's too high. He only has to pluck three or four feathers from the breast of a bird and go analyze [them]. But then he needs to compare those feathers to a bird that was collected in 1950, or a bird that was collected in 1920. And the museum has these examples, so they can get pre-pollution.


Whoa. Is this room all frogs?

This room is all frogs. And that room is all lizards.

There's some really rare things that occur here. Nothing that the public would get that excited about, maybe ... just a little frog in a jar. But there's only two that we even know exist. And that part of the Amazon was slashed and burned, so it's probably gone. You try to get an example of what was there, at least.


Are you still adding to the bird collection?

The only things we're adding are occasional banding casualties at our field station. Occasionally the aviary or the zoo will have a bird that is of interest.


Why so few?

Legally, you can't pick up a dead bird. That law goes back a long ways for protecting birds. People like birds, a lot more than they like snakes [laughs].


Some fresh-looking bird skeletons here.

This is how we clean skeletons: We use dermestid beetles, a small beetle that eats flesh. And so we'll skin a bird and dry it, and then we feed it to this colony. They eat all the meat off and leave the bones.


Were you always interested in this stuff?

I'm from Ridgway, in Elk County. So I ran around the woods in Allegheny National Forest and the gamelands up there ever since I was a little kid. Collecting salamanders, collecting frogs and looking at birds.

I started a skull collection when I was 8 or 9. I boiled it back then. Occasionally you would bury them and let the maggots get to them, or the earthworms. There's 20 or 30 different ways you can clean a skull or a skeleton.

I did study skins of mammals before I knew there was study skins. I can remember when I was real little, making chipmunks and moles and things like that. There's not a whole lot of people up in Elk County!


So you're a taxidermist, too.

Back in those days, the only way you could learn taxidermy [was], if you picked up an Outdoor Life or a Field & Stream, there was always an ad in the back that said, "Learn Taxidermy in Your Spare Time!" And it was the Northwestern School of Taxidermy that had been started in 1903, in Omaha, Nebraska. You had this mail-order course where you would send in ... I think it was 15 bucks. Once a month, they would send you a little lesson booklet, and it would say, "This is how you skin a bird." The second booklet would be how you build the artificial body and how you mount it. The third one would be tanning small mammals. There was like nine books all together. And when you were done they would send you a plaque that said, "You're an official taxidermist!" And they never saw your stuff, except if you sent photographs to them.


Do you still spend much time outdoors?

I still hunt. I still occasionally trap. I still occasionally fish. I got a bear and four deer last year. You have a job and you have kids, and you have to make money to send them to college ... there's not as much free time. When I retire, I figure I'll be in the woods about 200 days a year.