feature By: Alan Liere | November, 17
In late January, when many of my bird hunting buddies are escaping to some exotic sun-bleached destination, I stay home and mount birds. The process of filling out the skin of a game bird with plastic foam, clay, cotton batting and wire goes by several names. Some call it “mounting.” Others call it “stuffing,” but so far, coming up with politically correct terminology has not been possible, for no matter which one I use, I come off sounding like a pervert. When I am finished, though, the pheasant or quail or grouse looks almost as it did in the field and a whole lot better than it did in the freezer. It will evermore occupy a place of prominence in my home – not necessarily a trophy – but a remembrance of great times afield with friends and family and enthusiastic hunting dogs.
Currently, my home provides lodging for 24 mounted game birds. There would be more but for Penelope, a deranged black cat I took in despite my allergies when she showed up wet and skinny and ever so pathetic at my door one Halloween night. During the three years she was with me, she didn’t pay any attention to a single mounted bird. Then, one night while I slept, she wiped out a whole flock. In the morning, my house looked like a featherbed had exploded. Shortly after that, a coyote ate Penelope, and that’s why I never shoot coyotes.
Most people know very little about taxidermy. Many think those mounted treasures still retain their mummified insides, that they are merely injected with some kind of chemical and arranged to dry in lifelike poses. Many people think that is why my den smells so bad. The truth is, mounting a bird is a tedious, time-consuming process – an art, really – and the results are never guaranteed. My den smells bad because that’s where I keep my shooting vests, and I sometimes forget to remove a ham sandwich from the pocket.
The first step in mounting a bird is to skin it. A couple hours and at least one back spasm is about average for me, though I hear the professionals can do it in 20 minutes. When I’m finished, the head, wings and feet are still attached to a tissue-thin membrane covered with feathers.
If the bird has a lot of yellow fat, it must then be tediously scraped away from the feather tracts. If this is not done, the mount will eventually attract grease worms. How they get in the house, I have no idea, but you will know you have grease worms if you get up some morning and the wings of your mounted grouse have fallen off.
Removing fat is an onerous task. A fat corn-fed ringneck takes me two hours, but I’ll spend two days on a Canada goose, ending up with something that looks like cheesecloth with feathers. At that point, I must sew up the holes. When this is completed, I wash the skin in Dawn dish soap and rinse it in clear water. Next, the skin is wrung out and washed in white gas to remove the moisture and remaining grease and then dried with air from a vacuum cleaner exhaust. This takes about an hour and is more boring than difficult. Time moves a little faster if I drape the skin over one hand and do puppet routines while working.
When the skin is almost dry, I rub it with powdered Borax. Then the skin is stretched over the plastic foam body in which wires wrapped with cotton batting have been inserted where legs, neck and wings should be; the head is stuffed with clay. If this sounds confusing, it is. The first time I tried it on a ruffed grouse, I ended up with a bill protruding from a pile of feathers. The feet were nowhere to be found, and one wing was raised above the head as if waiting in school to be called upon by the teacher.
The next step is to sew the skin up with a curved needle and heavy nylon thread while trying to keep feathers from being cinched under the thread. A fair amount of time is spent cussing. The feet are injected with formaldehyde, and the grouse has now assumed some grouselike features. It just sort of lies there, though, with its feet in the air looking like road kill until glass eyes are pushed into the clay, and the whole thing is positioned lovingly on a driftwood base to dry. Afterwards, bill and feet are painted.
When my shooting friends return from their tropical destinations with their sunburns, their goofy palm-frond hats and their maxed out bank cards, I’ll show them the newest addition to my little flock. It’s probably my imagination, but I can never help but think they seem a little envious.