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Home Taxidermy for Pleasure and Profit

A Guide for those who wish to prepare
and mount animals, birds, fish,
reptiles, etc., for home, den,
or office decoration

By Albert B. Farnham, Taxidermist 

Published by
A. R. HARDING, Publisher
Columbus, Ohio

Copyright, 1944
By A. R. Harding Pub. Co.
Publisher's disclaimer: Information provided is dated and is for information purposes only.

CHAPTER V.

FIELD WORK, COLLECTING.

While it is unlikely that many readers of this book will undertake the collection of natural history specimens in any great numbers or as a special business, a few words on the subject may not be amiss.

It is well to bear in mind that the better the condition of the specimen when it first comes to hand, the greater will be our chances of success in properly preserving it. A small bird shot with a rifle is not worth bothering with unless excessively rare, and a fur bearer which the dogs have been allowed to maul and chew is very difficult to put in satisfactory condition.

One rule of the collector in the field is to shoot each specimen with the smallest possible charge of shot and powder which will kill it. I speak of shooting, as probably three-fourths of the objects mounted by the average taxidermist have been killed with fire arms.

Of late years a number of collector's guns have been put out by the arms makers, though any good small bore shotgun will answer for collecting all of our small and medium sized American birds and mammals. Some of these guns of about .44 cal. are exceedingly accurate and reliable performers.

In one case this small bore shotgun has been combined with a rifle, and the light weight and portability of this little arm makes it about the last word in guns for collecting all small specimens.

MARBLE'S SHOT GUN AND RIFLE COMBINED.

It as well as other single guns of the same bore, is built to use a round ball in the shot barrel, making them capable of stopping deer or bear at short ranges. However, choosing a gun is like choosing a wife, every one has their own tastes.

I would advise the would-be collector to load his own shotgun shells, at least those for small birds and animals, as it is almost impossible to get factory loaded shells but what are charged too heavily.

For the collection of animals for taxidermic purposes the use of traps will probably yield some of the best as well as the more rare and unusual varieties. Such styles of traps as least injure the appearance of the finished specimen are preferred.

The old-fashioned snare, dead-fall and box trap are as good as any in this respect. The wire spring or choke traps of Stop Thief style are ahead of the common steel trap in this respect, but like the homemade traps cannot be used in so many various situations.

THE "STOP THIEF" OR CHOKE TRAP.

Water animals taken in steel traps may usually be quickly drowned. If set on land they should be tended often to prevent suffering and usually mutilation of the trapped game. Full information on this subject will be found in Science of Trapping and other books on special animals by same publisher.

The naturalist uses more small traps than large ones in most cases; many, many more specimens being taken in No. 1's than in bear traps. Several styles of mouse and rat traps are useful in collecting the smaller mammals, such as mice, rats and ground squirrels of various species.

Fish are to be collected any way you can get 'em, (legally at least). Many varieties of these are to be bought at the large markets and many rare and hideous specimens are discarded by market fishermen when culling their catches. A few years ago before much restriction was imposed on the sale of game it was possible to purchase many desirable things at the markets of Washington, D. C. Not only bear and deer, but elk, ptarmigan, arctic hares, sage and prairie grouse, fox squirrels, pileated woodpeckers and many other odds and ends were offered for sale as well as all the usual land and water game.

However you take your specimens or how badly damaged they may be when they reach your hands it behooves you to see that no further damage befalls them.

Specimens when shot should have all possible blood and dirt brushed or washed from feathers or fur and all shot holes, as well as mouth and nostrils plugged with a wisp of cotton to prevent further soiling. An awl, or piece of wire will be useful for this. Blood should be removed from white fur or feathers as soon as possible or it will be stained more or less. Small birds should be dropped head first into a paper cone, and laid in a basket or box if possible, the common hunting coat pocket is apt to break delicate feathers, though if the bird is well wrapped it may do.

Fur bearers will stand more rough usage and may be tied together by heads or feet or packed in game bag or pocket. Fish should be wrapped in paper to protect the scales.

It goes without saying that specimens which it is planned to preserve should be kept cool if possible until work can be started on them. Some varieties spoil more quickly than others; fish eating birds need quick attention; most birds of the hawk and owl family keep well, as do the pheasants, grouse, etc. Frozen animals keep perfectly in that state but spoil quickly after thawing.

Keep away from blow flies. Specimens are often sent to the taxidermists in apparent good order and when received are entirely ruined by fly maggots; the eggs being deposited before packing and shipping.

CHAPTER VI.

SKINNING AND PRESERVING SKINS.

With a suitable specimen at hand it is for us to decide if we shall mount it or preserve it as a skin temporarily or indefinitely. To illustrate we will presume that we have a muskrat just from the trap which is to be mounted at once.

Before skinning it is best to get some measurements to guide us in the later work. In this case where the skin is to be mounted immediately a simple outline is sufficient, as we will have the body in the flesh and all the leg bones, etc., to guide us in rebuilding the creature.

To get such outline, lay the animal on its side on a piece of blank paper, put the feet and legs in some natural position, fasten them in place with a few pins and mark around the entire animal with a pencil. The eye, hip and shoulder joints, and base of skull may be indicated on this outline sheet. Our muskrat is a trapped and drowned one so we will not have to replace the shot hole plugs with fresh ones, as would be best if it had been killed with the gun. Also it has been dead long enough for the rigor mortis to prevent the free flow of blood and body juices which bother the operator if it has been killed but an hour or less.

OUTLINE OF MUSKRAT. HIP AND SHOULDER JOINTS MARKED

Laying the animal on its back, make the opening cut by pushing the knife point through the skin at the juncture of neck and chest. Run the blade down between skin and flesh, separating the skin in a long clean cut to the root of the tail. Open the tail also along the under side from the tip to within an inch or so of its base. Slit open the sole of each foot from the middle toe to the heel and further if necessary so the leg skin may be turned down over the foot.

Beginning at this central cut, skin back each side until the shoulder and hip joints are encountered. Bending the limb will show the exact joint where the muscles are cut apart and the legs severed from the body. Cut off the tail near its base, leaving it in the skin for the present. Loosen the skin from back and shoulders and turn it wrong side out over the head. Skin down until the ears are reached, cutting them off close down to the head and continue on to the eyes. Work carefully around these and cut close to the skull to avoid hacking the eyelids. Cut through the nose cartilage, and when the lips are reached cut them away close to the gums, leaving both their inner and outer skin on the pelt. Cutting them off at the edge of the hair is a frequent cause of trouble as they are full and fleshy and should be split, pared down on the inside and when mounted, filled out to their natural shape to perfect the anatomy.

SKINNING SMALL ANIMAL FOR MOUNTING. CUT ON DOTTED LINES.

Now the skin of each leg may be turned wrong side out down to the toes and all flesh and muscle cut away from the leg bones with knife and scissors. The tail also is to be removed from its skin and the ears turned wrong side out to their tips. In skinning no flesh of any consequence should be left adhering to the skin and it should never be pulled off by main strength, but rather separated by the knife or fingers, pushing the flesh away from the skin rather than the reverse. The skull should now be cleaned as the leg bones were and if a number of specimens are being prepared at the same time the heads may be put in a kettle and boiled a short time, when on trying with a fork or awl the flesh becomes tender and may be rapidly removed with a knife.

The brain may be removed with a hooked wire, the skull well rinsed inside and out and given a good coat of arsenical paste or other preservative. The next step is determined by what you intend doing with the skin. If it is to be kept for purposes of study without mounting it should be made up as a scientific skin. If to be mounted at once or in the near future it should be put in the jar of salt and acid or alum. It can of course be mounted at once without this bath but I believe it is well worth any extra work it entails.

Some young furred animals and others with very delicate skins do not work up well from the bath and had best be mounted without it, being handled more as bird skins are.

In skinning the larger quadrupeds we make two additional cuts, from the right to the central line and out to the left fore foot and a similar cut connecting the hind feet. These opening cuts are on the back and inside of the legs, you will understand.

With most large subjects another cut from the shoulders up the back of the neck is necessary. On animals having horns or antlers this is terminated in a Y or T shape, reaching the base of the antlers. After loosening the skin around the antlers the head is removed through this incision. As it is hardly possible to make an outline sketch of a large animal, as full a set of measurements as possible is useful in all cases.

SKINNING LARGE ANIMAL FOR MOUNTING. CUT ON DOTTED LINES.

The bones of the legs will be in the way attached to the skin and the two upper bones of each leg may be detached and if lack of space or transportation make it necessary, thrown away, though if the bones of one hind leg and one front leg are preserved artificial duplicates may be carved.

SKINNING BIRD-BREAST CUT.

In skinning birds, after fresh cotton plugs have been put in place the feathers are parted and the opening incision made through the skin only from the middle of the breast to the root of the tail. Separate the skin and flesh on each side until the knee is reached, push this up until the knife or scissors can be passed under it and the leg severed at the joint. A little corn meal sprinkled on the exposed flesh and the operator's fingers will prevent the feathers adhering and becoming soiled as the work proceeds.

Cut off the flesh in which the tail quills are rooted leaving it on the skin with one or two of the last vertebrae. Use care in this or you will cut the skin above the tail too. The body may now be hung up by a cord tied to the stump of one of the legs and both hands used in separating and turning the skin back until the wings are reached. The skin is loosened around these and they may be severed at the elbow joint unless the bird is to be mounted with wings spread, when it will be best to unjoint at the shoulder and preserve the entire wing bones.

HOODED MERGANSER.

With the wings detached we skin on to the base of the skull. In some of the ducks, and other water birds, woodpeckers and owls the neck is so slender and the skull so large that it is necessary to cut the neck off here and making a cut down the back of the head and neck continue the skinning of the head through it. Do not cut or tear the membrane of the ears but pull it out with the forceps and work down over the eyes, cutting the membrane connecting the skin but not the lids or eyeball itself. The liquid contents of the eye are particularly sticky and difficult to remove from feathers.

Continue skinning to the base of the bill, scoop the eyes from their sockets and cut loose the forward part of the skull from the neck. This is usually accomplished with four snips of the scissors much easier to practice than to describe.

Make one cut on each side of the head, through the small bone connecting the base of the lower jaw with the skull, another through the roof of the mouth at the base of the upper mandible and between the jaws of the lower, and the last through the skull behind the eyes and parallel with the roof of the mouth. This will free the skull of the neck and most of its flesh and muscle.

In most cases the head should be returned to the skin as soon as possible to avoid its drying out of shape and giving the feathers a wrong set. After cleaning and poisoning the skull and filling the eye sockets with cotton this reversing is undertaken. If working on a small bird the learner is apt to come to grief here, as only by careful and patient work without the application of some force is the returning process accomplished successfully.

The wings and legs may now be skinned down to the first joint and all flesh and muscle removed from the bones. This is done expeditiously by snipping off the end of the leg bone and stripping it down with adhering flesh to the ankle joint where it (the flesh) is cut off.

The wings are skinned to the first joint, stripping the wing primary feathers from their fastening on the bone with the thumb nail, clipping off the large bone near the end and detaching the small bone with all flesh and muscle adhering. If this is clipped off at the wrist joint the entire wing is cleaned. This method applies to all small and medium birds not wanted with spread wings.

OPENING CUT ON BIRD. Opening and Cleaning Wing from Underneath For Spread Wing Mounting.

In case wing spread is wanted the primary feathers are not disturbed but that part of the wing is cleaned from a slit in the under side of the wing. All but the smallest birds should have the tip joint of the wing slit open on the under side and some form of preservative worked in the opening. Specimens the size of a crow and larger should have a cut made in the bottom of the foot and the tendons of the lower leg drawn out with an awl, and in the case of very large birds it may be necessary to soak the unfeathered part of the legs and feet in a pan of strong pickle for 24 hours, to prevent decay and damage from insects. Our bird is now entirely ready for the application of such preservatives as we may be using.

The main principle in the preserving of skins may be stated thus: All skins must be removed and cleaned of flesh so the preservative may be applied to every part of the inner surface, where it will act directly on the roots of the hair or feathers.

The preservative applied, we must decide on the next step, whether it is to be mounted at once, in a short time, or laid away indefinitely as a scientific skin.

If we have to lay it away until tomorrow, put a little cotton inside to prevent the inner surface sticking together, wrap in a damp cloth and unless the weather is very hot it will be all right.

If very hot or it is necessary to lay it aside for some days, the inner side should be well coated with the carbolic and glycerine mixture. As a scientific skin it should be made up at once, tagged with a full set of measurements taken before skinning and laid aside to dry. These measurements are not needed if we mount it at once, as the skinned body is at hand for comparison, but the sex, date, locality and collector's name should be attached to the completed specimen.

Alligators and the lizard family are skinned like the other four-footed species, as are snakes and fish, with the exception they have no limb bones to be cleaned and preserved. Fish are better opened along one side than the central line of the body.

Reptile skins if not put in the pickle jar had better be packed in salt after poisoning as when entirely dry they are practically ruined. Skins of fish are best kept in either a saturated solution of salt (water with salt added until no more will dissolve), alcohol or formaldehyde solution. Whatever method is used the delicate colors will vanish and unless you can have a fresh specimen at hand when mounting it you should make the best color record you are able. This is true to some extent at least of all coverings of fur, feathers, or scales, and the stronger the light the more damage. I have seen a mounted mink placed in direct sunshine, bleached to a drab and the yellow feathers on a 'flicker faded almost white.

In order to preserve turtles, after killing with chloroform preferably, it is necessary in the case of the box or land turtles to cut a square opening in the under shell through which the body may be removed and the legs and neck skinned.

The water species can have the lower shell detached from the upper at the side and after cutting the skin around the rear two-thirds this shell is turned over to the front and the skinning and cleaning proceeded with.

If not mounted at once make into a dry skin after poisoning or small turtles may be put in alcohol.

CHAPTER VII.

MAKING SCIENTIFIC SKINS.

Probably most bird skins which are not mounted at once are kept in the form of "scientific skins." In other words they are skinned, poisoned and without wiring, given the shape of the dead bird. Their plumage, size, etc., may be examined, they are easily packed or shipped and, if properly made, may be mounted at any time but at the expenditure of considerably more work than a freshly taken skin requires.

The instructions on skinning leaves us with the skin wrong side out with the exception of possibly the head. The leg and wing bone, cleaned of flesh, should be well poisoned as well as the skin and after wrapping with pieces of cotton bat to their approximate size, returned to their places. It is well when doing this to under rather than over fill.

Connect the bones of the wings with a bit of thread or cord. After filling out around the eyes and upper throat, wind a small stick or piece of wire with cotton to a size a little smaller than the natural neck and push it into the opening at the back of skull.

The body can be filled out now with raw cotton, tow, or any similar substance not of animal origin. Fine excelsior is about right for large birds. The edges of the opening cut may be drawn together by a few coarse stitches. After the feet have been tied together it is time to adjust all the feathers become well rumpled in handling.

Our fingers, forceps and a setting needle made of a large needle or part of a hat pin in a wooden handle will accomplish this. Stained or dirty plumage should be cleaned before the skin is filled out, by first sponging with tepid water, then with gasoline or benzine and drying with plaster of paris or corn meal. Never apply this without the gasoline first or you will have trouble indeed.

Now the skin is ready for its label, which should supply the following information:

  1. Length in inches from tip of tail to end of tail.
  2. Distance between the tips of outstretched wings.
  3. Length of wing from the first joint.
  4. Color of eyes, feet, bill, etc.
  5. Date, locality, collector.
  6. The sex.

The first three items are often combined, in the case of a bluebird for instance, 7-12-4, the order being understood.

Unless the plumage plainly indicates the sex this should be assured by examination of the skinned body. By making an opening in the side of this near the back bone the inside surface of the small of the back is exposed. In the case of the male there will be visible two rounded bodies, varying in size with the season and species, and in the female a flattened mass of spheres.

After labeling and fastening the bill together with a pin or thread the skin should be slipped inside a paper tube to dry. Water birds with long slender necks should have the head bent around beside the body and the long legs of waders are bent at the ankle and left resting on the body; this to prevent breakage.

Duck, geese and any fat birds need the inside of the skins well scraped, sponged with gasoline, partly filled with plaster paris and left for several hours so all grease may be absorbed. This grease should be removed prior to applying the preservative as it will prevent any effectual penetration by the latter.

After cleaning either the inside or out of a skin with plaster it will be necessary to gently beat it with a whisk broom or something similar to dislodge the particles of plaster. A current of air (from a bicycle pump, for instance) will remove the dust from the feathers when dry.

SCIENTIFIC SKINS, SMALL ANIMALS AND BIRDS.

Fewest dry scientific skins are made up from the quadrupeds, but in case the matter of transportation prevents wet preservation or they are wanted dry the all around taxidermist must practice at making them up also. Like the bird skin they should be thoroughly rid of flesh and fat after skinning but do not require such finical handling. Rinsing in water with a little washing powder or soda added will remove blood stains and some grease but the benzine bath with the drying after, as recommended in the chapter on tanning, etc., will be needed in case of very fat specimens.

All small animals are made up about the same as birds, wrapping the leg bones in tow, oakum or cotton and filling out the body with the same material. The skull cleaned and poisoned had best be put in the centre of the body with the filling, when it can be found at any time by ripping a few of the stitches.

The skin of the head is filled out with the same material and the tail may either be bent up under the body or drawn together by a few stitches around a wrapped wire extending into the body half its length. Of course the operator will see that the entire inner surface of the skin is treated liberally with some preservative, arsenical paste preferably, before the filling process.

After stitching up the opening cut the skin is laid on a board, back up and the legs neatly disposed, the front feet beside the head and the hind ones drawn back beside the tail. The feet are fastened with a pin each and after smoothing down the fur with a small metal fur comb the skin is laid aside in an airy, shady place until fully dry.

With each scientific skin a record should be made of the following details:

  1. Length, end of nose to root of tail.
  2. Length of tail from root to end of bone.
  3. Height at shoulders.
  4. Color of eyes, lips, feet, etc.
  5. Name of species, sex, locality, date, and collector's name.

These may be noted down on a corner of the outline sheet, which is numbered and filed away; the skin tagged with a duplicate number is put in the pickle jar or made up as a dried skin, whichever is desired, or the full information may be put on a tag attached to the skin. Many collectors simply number all specimens and preserve all information in their note books. The foregoing details are sufficient for animals less than bear and deer in size.

The larger animals should have as many as possible of the following additional measurements:

Distance hip joint to shoulder joint.
Circumference of forearm.
" " neck.
" " body.
Back of leg.
Weight if possible.

Skins of large animals, a bear for instance, may have a slight wrapping of tow or excelsior on the leg bones to prevent their coming in contact with the skin and the whole skin laid to dry on a scaffold of poles or something similar. When nearly dry fold up with the legs inside in a square shaped package. This can be tied up with heavy cord or even sewed up in burlap to prevent damaging the skin in transit. Fish and reptiles are not a success as dry skins.

Chapter VIII - PREPARING DRY AND WET SKINS FOR MOUNTING.

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