Taxidermy is, as many collectors know, a true form of art. Taking a dead animal and bringing it back to life in sculpture form takes talent, patience, and an eye for the natural world. Personally, I never thought I could taxidermy anything; I was afraid of the gore involved and the technical aspect of skinning and wiring, preserving, etc. After taking one of the taxidermy classes hosted by Curious Nature and Katie Innamorato this past September, I was surprised by just how much I learned, as well as how decent my finished piece turned out!
I participated in the European Starling mounting class. Starlings are an invasive species of bird in the United States, introduced to Central Park in the late 1800’s by Eugene Schieffelin, President of the American Acclimatization Society, whose goal was to introduce every bird species mentioned in works of William Shakespeare to the States. They have now cultivated such a large population that they are considered pests in many cities and cause damage to crops every year, thus resulting in culling operations initiated by the government.
Birds are widely regarded as one of the more difficult animals to articulate in taxidermy. This is nothing short of intimidating to hear before going into a class with no prior experience. We began the class by thawing our frozen birds out. We ran them under warm water until they started to become more mobile. Soon after, we began the skinning. Before you shy away at the thought of this (as I did at first) think back to any experience of dealing with raw chicken: if you’ve handled that, you can handle this. We used our scalpels to peel back the skin and feathers and pull the main meaty part of the body away and out of the bird, as this would be sculpted with wood wool later. I would say the worst part of this step was breaking the wing bones and leg bones from the hips—a bit tricky! (You keep the leg and wing bones as a guide for wiring later).
With bird taxidermy, the original bird skull is left in the finished piece, which requires you as the taxidermist to get out anything that could decay i.e. the eyes and brain. This also sounds much worse than it really is. Bird eyes have an uncanny resemblance to blueberries, and since they had been frozen, the half thawed brains looked sort of like red jelly (yum). After a while, the whole process felt reminiscent of being in science or biology class, learning all of the inner workings of an animal.
And then we began the wiring, the part that I personally struggled with the most. For support and to position your bird later, you need to insert thin metal wires through his wings, feet, and neck. We left quite a bit of excess on these wires. First off, it’s not half as simple as it sounds. Sticking a wire though a bird wing and following the path of its bone while trying to not rip through the skin but get it in deep enough for it to stay was pretty difficult (I ripped my bird’s wing skin, but sewed it up at the end). The feet were quicker to wire, as they pop out the pad of the bird’s foot and runs much smoother than the wings. Once all four wires were in, we were faced with the new challenge of trying to position a skin puppet with wires catching on anything and everything and getting tangled up with each other. I was frustrated with this, but once we had modeled a body and neck with cotton and wood wool, it was smooth sailing. Sewing the skin up where we had made our incisions was surprisingly the easiest part of the process. This probably had to do with the fact that we were almost done with our pieces at that point also, so I was pretty excited. We mended any tiny holes we had made in the skin, and completed the stitching. Then, we mounted our birds on a temporary base to position them. Mine ended up working well with his wings spread out, and by the end of the class, I was very proud of myself and the bird I had brought back to life (see photo below). Knowing that taxidermy can easily end up looking botched and terrible, it was wonderful knowing that with Katie’s help, we all went home with beautiful new pieces that we made ourselves!
At the end of the class, I was mentally exhausted. It had been scheduled to run 1:00pm-7:00pm but we didn’t end up finishing until 9:30, so it was about 8 hours in total. Overall though, I had a ton of fun working on this project with other like-minded people. We laughed, joked, and learned together, and that was pretty special.
Be on the lookout for the next time we host taxidermy classes, likely sometime next year! After taking one myself, I highly recommend them to anyone looking for an introductory course to the art.