Proper field care is critical to produce the best mounts.
When two hunters brought a pair of blue-winged teal to Brent Nobles' taxidermy studio and bird-cleaning service, he wasn't sure what the men wanted him to do with the ducks. Fur, Fin & Feather Taxidermy of Colusa, Calif., is located in the northern end of the waterfowl-rich Sacramento Valley. Green-winged and cinnamon teal are a fairly common sight to Nobles, but bluewings aren't.
"I was kind of hoping they wanted me to pick and clean the birds," he recalled.
The taxidermist cringed at their request. The bluewings on the table in front of him had been carried around on a strap, their necks stretched eight inches, the feathers kinked and ruffled.
"They told me they wanted the birds mounted, which was fine, but I explained that a flying mount probably wouldn't look too good the way the birds had been handled," Nobles said. "Fortunately, I talked them into standing mounts, and they ended up turning out pretty good."
Preserving a prized duck or goose through the services of a professional taxidermist is a great way to relive a special hunt, commemorate a child's first duck or display a rare species that you might never encounter again in your lifetime. But before you take that special bird to a taxidermist, here are a few things you need to know.
Pellet holes in the beak are a non-issue if your taxidermist uses artificial bills, which do not discolor over time.
No Neck Straps
As a full-time taxidermist, Nobles has seen birds that were treated like a fragile piece of antique crystal and those that were handled like yesterday's lunch. They get tossed in the pile with the rest of the birds, stepped on, covered in mud or placed on a strap and hung from a nail in the blind.
"Whatever you do, don't place your bird in a neck strap," Nobles insists.
Rob Olson of Frozen in Flight Taxidermy in Richmond, Va., agrees, adding that a stretched neck can be fixed, or as Nobles did with those blue-winged teal, mounted in a way to hide flaws. To Olson, however, the biggest risk with a neck strap or any other rough handling is the loss of feathers or torn skin. Nothing can ruin a potential trophy faster than missing or kinked feathers, especially if the damage covers a large area.
If the bird is still alive when you retrieve it, don't wring its neck. That can damage the skin and feathers beyond repair. Instead, squeeze its chest to stop the heart and lungs, but make sure you don't damage feathers in the process. Then tuck its head under its wing and store it in a spot where it won't get stepped on, covered with gear or otherwise mangled.
Hard-mouthed dogs can be even tougher on birds than careless hunters. Of course, it's impossible to know the bird your Lab is carrying back to the blind is the one you want to mount, but a dog can ruin the most perfect specimen.
The best solution is to leave the dog at home if you are gunning for a mount, or simply keep the retriever in the blind while you fetch each bird you drop. Nobles has patched holes from rough-mouthed retrievers, but it's not an easy job, especially if the skin has been torn and feathers broken or damaged. Both taxidermists can close holes with a needle and thread, and Olson has even used patches of skin and feathers from different birds to fill larger holes.
To ensure the crests of ducks like this wood duck will stand up when mounted, taxidermists recommend freezing birds carefully in sealed plastic and only for a brief time.
"I'm not worried about blood because they get bloody, greasy and just plain dirty when they are skinned and fleshed at the shop," Nobles said.
The skin undergoes a thorough washing, and any blood that dried on the feathers in the field will come off in the cleaning process. So will mud and just about anything else that ends up on the bird. Blood, however, can stain the brilliant white feathers of a tundra swan, snow goose or goldeneye, although skilled taxidermists can wash or bleach out the worst stains. But that doesn't mean you should throw your prize in the bottom of the boat with the rest of your birds and forget about it. Instead, rinse the worst blood and mud stains right away, and then place the bird where it can cool without further damage from hunters or dogs.
Cooling a dead bird is vital, especially if it was taken on a warm day. It only takes a few hours of heat to start the decomposition process. Feathers are the first to go. Taxidermists stress the importance of putting a dead duck or goose on ice as soon as possible, and then in a refrigerator when you get home or back to camp. Olson recommends delivering your duck to a taxidermist within a few days of when you killed it, which allows him to assess the condition of the bird and determine if your preferred pose is possible.
If you don't have the luxury of dropping the bird off at a taxidermist right away, don't worry. Simply wrap the bird in a plastic bag, remove as much air as possible and seal it. Carefully place the trophy in a freezer, making sure it is not smashed by other items. Nobles vacuum-seals ducks and geese before he puts them in his workshop freezer, but that is not mandatory.
"A duck or goose wrapped in a plastic bag or Ziploc can last six or eight months before you need to get it to the taxidermist," Olson said.
Whatever you do, don't wrap the bird in newspaper or stuff it into pantyhose, which is a fast way to freezer-burn the bird. That's one of the worst things that can happen to any bird destined for the wall. Freezer burn is caused by dehydration and oxidation, and can make a difficult job even more challenging. Severe freezer burn, which can happen within a year or less if the bird isn't stored properly in a freezer, can dry out the skin around the eyes and
the beak, making skinning those areas virtually impossible. The feathers of a freezer-burned bird won't fully spread like they should, and the crests of hooded mergansers and wood ducks won't stand up.
Olson has mounted birds that were stored in a freezer for nearly three years, but it is a job he would rather avoid.
"I'll inject warm, soapy water into the freezer-burned skin, which helps rehydrate it and loosen it up, but it will probably result in a mount that won't look as good as if it was stored properly," he said.
A duck shot early in the season probably won't look too good, either. Olson sees a lot of wood ducks during the October season when the birds are the most abundant in his region. Unfortunately, he has to reject many of them. It's not that they are in poor condition. Instead, October ducks are often still molting and covered in pinfeathers. That's not a big deal until the mounting process begins. Once Olson starts working on the bird, however, those pinfeathers fall out, resulting in a ragged trophy that looks more like a 100-year-old mount in a dusty bar than a brand-new one.
Olson recommends gunning for a prime specimen as late in the season as possible. Not all birds will be covered in pinfeathers during the first split season, but there's a good chance they will. Few adult birds have any pinfeathers in December and January.
Pinfeathers aren't the only thing that can ruin a mount before the taxidermist touches the bird. Most birds will have pellet holes in the feathers. Pellet holes are not a big deal in smaller body feathers, but large holes in primary wing feathers will be visible in flying mounts. Aside from replacing individual feathers, Nobles can't do anything to fix pellet holes. Olson will attempt to replace badly damaged primary wing feathers if he can find matching ones. He keeps a few ducks of different species in his freezer for just such an occasion, and he will contact other taxidermists and friends to see if they have a specific bird on hand.
Pellet holes in the bill and feet, however, can be fixed. While some taxidermists use the bird's skull and bill, Nobles doesn't, and neither does Olson. They use artificial bills and skulls.
"It's a lot less labor-intensive than cleaning the meat and other tissue from a skull, and it's very difficult to tell the difference," Nobles said. "Artificial beaks will maintain their colors, while the real ones can fade over time."
What won't fade is your memory of that special duck, as long as you take care of the bird before you drop it off at the taxidermist.
David Hart ventures out from Rice, Va., in search of trophy waterfowl.