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There’s only one way to skin a bird, pt 2

September 18, 2008
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OK, when we left off on Tuesday I had one slightly holey Audubon’s Shearwater. Now I’ll show you how we make it look like a bird again. No need for warnings today, this is pretty straight forward and not very messy at all, but certainly requires a deft touch and some fancy fingers. Honestly, it’s really more crafty than anything.

First I need to sew up the hole I made when I removed too much of the wing. I don’t need to be super precise, feathers lay like shingles and they hide a lot. Using a regular needle and thread I’ll cinch up the hole, leaving enough room for the string I tied to the opposite wing to get out.


Next I roll up some cotton balls to approximately the same size as the bird’s eyes that I removed and place them in the eye sockets using a long set of tweezers. For the next step I use a dowel rod and wrap a wad of cotton around one tip until I have a q-tip looking deal with a ball of cotton about the same size as the bird’s brain. The dowel rod is going recreate the bird’s spine, the cotton ball will hold the eye balls in place.


One end of the dowel rod goes through the bird’s vent, the other end goes up into the head. When I’m finished the whole thing resembles a bird puppet.

Next I’ll take a different type of cotton and fill in the cavity, trying my best to approximate the shape of the bird. This Shearwater is sort of bullet shaped. Before this I did a Dovekie, which is sort of Nerf football shaped, and before that I did a Bluebird, which is more comma shaped. It’s important not to overstuff as bird skins are pretty resiliant and can hold a lot of stuffing, but you run the risk of making a bird that’s way too fat.


Once you get the right amount of stuffing it’s time to sew up. Once again, using regular thread I make a few stitches in a “Z” pattern. It doesn’t take many, usually less than 4, because once again, the feathers hide a lot. You can see my first attempt below, I ended up undoing the stitches and redistributing the body stuffing, the bird is a little too pear-shaped for my liking (for anyone’s liking really).


Next you cut off the dowel rod so it hides under the undertail coverts, no need for birdscicles here, and use the remaining dowel to tie to the string that is attached to to the remaining wing. This will hold the wing in place and prevent it from coming loose.

Now all we have to do is pin the finished bird to an old piece of ceiling tile, wrap a small bit of electrical tape around the bill to keep it closed, and prepare to move it to the drying rack where the skin will dry out and stiffen.


Notice the pins don’t actually go in the bird, they’re there to keep the feathers in place while the bird dries, so that when it’s finished they’ll stay the way you want them. The wing is cleaned and spread and dried as well. The study skin will then head to the cabinets downstairs for use by any scientist or artist who comes along. The wing will be placed in a mylar sleeve and put in a different cabinet with all of the other wings.

And there you have it. One completed study skin from a stinky dead bird. As soon as I finished this guy I started on a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that while very cool, kinda fell apart on my and will require extra seamstress skills. I will certainly be able to sew up the holes in my pants after all this. Who says museum work isn’t applicable to the real world?

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2 Comments
  1. Greg permalink
    September 18, 2008 8:12 am

    Informative mini-series. Great job!
    Got my Birding magazine (pg 36 and 37) yesterday, and can see the value in what you are doing, besides learning to sew up holes in your pants, that is.

  2. Robin permalink
    November 22, 2008 11:24 am

    Thank you for sharing such an informative blog with us, I have never seen anything like this, it is really very good work and I liked it very much

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