In order to better understand the structural instability created by the heavily corroded wires of many of the diorama specimens, it seemed essential to learn the basics of taxidermy as a craft. In a serendipitous fashion, I was recently put in touch with a local taxidermy hobbist who agreed to show me the process. Today we worked on preparing the skin of a young jay that had been frozen for several years after flying into a window.
After first inserting cotton wool into any offices likely to seep, the initial cut was made with a scalpel along the line of the sternum. From this cut, the skin could be gradually cut away from the muscle taking care not to cause any nicks.
Upon reaching the thighs, an incision was made through the knee joint allowing the femur or ‘drumstick’ to be removed along with the fleshy muscle. The lower portions of the legs and feet were left attached to the skin. The humerus bones of the wings and associated flesh were similarly removed to be cleaned and reintroduced later. At this point the skinning process continued until the back of the skull was reached and great care was taken to leave the ear holes and eyelids in tact.
Leaving the skull in situ, the rest of the body and neck were cut away but retained to enable an accurate body print to be made later. Next, the back of the skull was cut away and the brains swabbed out with cotton buds (not a procedure for the squeamish!) The eyeballs and sclerotic plates were removed from each eye socket along with any remaining fleshy material from the skull and wings.
Once as much of the flesh had been removed as possible, two incisions were made in the bottom of each foot and a hooked tool (a bit like a dental tool) was inserted to pull out the tendons of the legs. The removal of the tendons would create space for wires to be inserted during the mounting phase.
Using the body and neck portion of the jay for shape and scale, a form was created for the body of the mount by binding wood wool. The shape was approximated roughly at first and loosely bound. This form was then tweaked and tightened through the addition of extra wood wool and further binding. Finally, the form was synched in with stitches at the location where both the wings and legs would be wired on. A central wire was pushed through the body form and this provided the support for the neck and can also be bent into a more lifelike shape later. This wood wool form was then coated in diluted PVA glue and left to one side to dry.
After stitching up every orifice with the exception of the eyes , the final steps in stage 1 included rinsing the skin first in cold water followed by the application of a grease solvent. This was applied to the inside of the skin with a toothbrush taking care to reach all crevices and to go with the direction of the feather quills. The grease solvent was rinsed off and next the skin was soaked in a detergent to clean the feathers and skin. Lastly, the skin and attached skull were rinsed thoroughly in clean water. The skin was then placed in a plastic bag in the fridge to ensure that it stays moist ready for the mounting stage tomorrow.
Although obviously fiddly, the skinning process and washing of the skin appeared quite straight forward in the hands of someone experienced. It seems likely however, that creating a lifelike mount may be somewhat more complicated!
Stay tuned for the results tomorrow!