Day Hiking The A.T. and Taxidermy

Appalachian Trail Taxidermy

This past Saturday my nephew Bernard and I did a little day hiking on the Appalachian Trail in the Delaware Water Gap. During our expedition we chewed on teaberry leaves and foraged a few wild raspberries and blueberries – leaving plenty behind for fellow hikers to discover. The forecast called for thunderstorms but the weather was on our side, gently raining shortly after each time we set up the hammocks for trail-side siestas. We stopped at Rudy’s Tavern in East Stroudsburg for a few pints and delicious bar pizzas for some post adventure refueling.

Sunday was filled with catching up with many odds and ends around the house. I worked a little on my Magic Mirror carving which I hope to complete soon. I also did some taxidermy experimenting with a song sparrow my sister provided me with a few months ago.  To my surprise I find the task of taxidermy relaxing. Freezer storage, however, is at a minimum at home and I have many big woodworking projects (some started years ago, some to start soon) on my horizon so I’ll likely pause the taxidermy hobby for a while.

My first taxidermy experiment

Little sparrow, little sparrow
precious fragile little thing…
flies so high and feels no pain

Dolly Parton

sparrow taxidermy

The art of taxidermy has been on my bucket list of things to explore. I go through phases of rambling to my wife Amy and choice friends about my intent to attempt taxidermy on various expired creatures found while walking Fleur in town and country. For instance, a few weeks ago I came across a beautiful raccoon laying in the grass fresh for the picking. I chickened out and decided to leave it where it lay. I’ve never hunted or killed any warm-blooded creature; therefore I have little experience in the delicate art of dismembering such things. Besides having little clue of the preservation of flesh, I was concerned on how I’d stomach the process. In my mind a carcass is a balloon stuffed to the breaking point with guts; the smallest puncture and Kaboom!

Megastorm arrived last January slamming us with a few feet of snow. During the cleanup Amy stumbled upon a lifeless sparrow in the snow. Remembering my rants about taxidermy she placed the creature on a snowbank, located me and explained her discovery. I placed the sparrow in a zip-lock bag and put it in the freezer. Shortly after I ordered a Standing Bird Mounting Kit online containing “practically everything [necessary] to get started” including an “instruction booklet.” The package arrived after a few short days. Filled with excitement I tore into the kit: wires, borax, dry preservative, clay, hemp, thread and needles spread across the table.

The instruction book does not provide one illustration or photo and assumes you understand the process and terminology of taxidermy. Before tackling the kit I needed to do much more independent research. To my surprise there is very little thorough information on bird taxidermy on YouTube. I found a few articles and book excerpts online and decided I probably seen all I was going to see with regards to useful information. Over the weekend I had a free day and decided it was time to thaw the sparrow and plunge into deed at hand.

I gathered tools and supplies I thought I would need: scissors, tweezers, x-acto blades and such. The instructions indicated to make the first incision from the center of the breastbone to the vent (anus). I dawned a pair of rubber gloves and raised the sparrow in my left hand, x-acto in my right. I used my fingers to gently part the downy chest while gently scanning for the breastbone. Ready to make the first incision I softly placed the blade on the skin and slid the blade towards the vent. The skin, thinner than cellophane, parted revealing bright red meat. No squirting blood, no gross scent – instead, something beautifully surreal.

sparrow taxidermy

With the incision open I was able to slowly use a blade to separate the skin from the muscle. The skin was separated from the legs, and snips were used to break each leg bone at the knee. When the tail was separated from the muscle the skin was able to lift up to the base of the head, like removing a shirt. While the skin is neck high the wing muscle easily separated from the skin; I cleaned the muscle from the bones and snipped the wing bones at the elbow. Once the wing bones were snipped the skin was completely separated from the bird, except for the head.

To remove the cranial matter an incision was made across the back of the head, starting at the ear. I guess I knew birds had ears, but I never really thought about where the ears were. Towards the back of the head, low and near the jaw, I felt a pair of bumps. Closer examination revealed ear holes. The skull is pushed backwards through the incision to where it connects to the beak. The spinal cord is snipped releasing the body from the skin. The brains were removed with a tiny hook, not nearly as gross as I expected. Using a toothpick I was able to loosen each eye into a position easily clipped away with tiny scissors, also not as gross as expected.

The sparrow was ready to be washed. Following the instructions I prepared a soapy bath. I washed the skin and let it soak for a half hour. I was amazed how light and fragile the wet soapy skin seemed to the touch. To dry the skin the instructions suggested running a vacuum cleaner in reverse setting. I did so with my shop vac and unintentionally sent the skin across the room for a final flight. I switched to an alternate method, placing the skin in sawdust. The dust seemed to stick to the skin, I couldn’t imagine how I was going to remove it. But as everything dried the sawdust easily brushed away from the skin.

Due to a lack of time and information I didn’t build a manikin to stitch the skin over. I packed the skull with preservative, returned it under the skin and sewed up the incision. The skin was rubbed with preservative and I carefully positioned it on a board. When I have the time I’ll find a nice piece of wood to permanently pin the skin to. I don’t know where this experiment will lead me. I know I enjoyed it more than I first thought and, to my surprise, I discovered a deeper appreciation for life and nature.