Introduction: How to Preserve Bird Wings, Legs, and Heads...the Native Way!

Picture of How to Preserve Bird Wings, Legs, and Heads...the Native Way!

Native peoples have been preserving the body parts of a wide variety of animals for many thousands of years. One way to do it with bird parts is easy and produces nice results.

All the birds I've used have been found already dead. No animals were harmed. The unneeded parts were returned to the Earth with respect.

At the time of this instructable, I have no dead birds to work on, so I will post drawings along with photos of the finished results.

Birds can be carriers of salmonella and various parasites, so please wear gloves for your safety, and wash your hands and all tools thoroughly afterwards.

Step 1: FAQ

***NOTE: Hi folks, I just want to add a note before continuing with this instructable:

Since I published this I have been receiving a lot of questions regarding your own preservations. I'm noticing that many recent questions are ones that can be answered by reading some of my replies to others, so to avoid typing out the same answers over and over I am putting a FAQ here. If you are sure these do not answer your question please proceed to ask me. If I do not answer it within a couple days you can presume the answer to your question is in fact in the FAQ.

Q: I found a bird that has some insects/maggots. Will it still preserve properly?

A: No. Even if you manage to get all the insects off, they more than likely have laid eggs that can still hatch and continue to destroy the parts, even after they're dried. Additionally, their digestive enzymes will contribute to a bad odour and the continued breakdown of the flesh.

Q My bird parts have no bugs but they do have a bad or rotting smell. Will it ever go away?

A: No, not even after preservation. The acids and gases of decomposition, once allowed to form, will never leave. The smell may lessen slightly over time, but the parts will always smell unpleasant. Before, during and after preservation it is normal for your parts to smell like warm (but fresh) raw poultry, but they should not smell like they are rotting. Ideally, found carcasses should be no more than a day old.

Q: My parts have been in the box for a few days but now there is a bad odor coming from the box.

A: At no time should any smell be coming from the box. If this is happening, something has gone wrong and the part is not preserving properly. In this case I recommend discarding the part.

Q: How do I know when the parts arefully preserved?

A: They should feel dry and completely stiff. The severing points should be completely dry and hard, and not sticky or moist. If they do not meet these criteria, bury them again for another month. As a rule, legs and wings take at least a month. Heads can take longer, two or more.

Q: I just want feathers, not the parts they're attached to. How do I get them off and clean them?

A: You can simply pluck them. Use your hands as any tools may damage the quills. It will take a lot of time, so be patient. To clean feathers, place them in a bath of 5 parts warm water, 1 part vinegar and 1 part witch hazel. Let them soak for 24 hours. The astringents will help sanitize the feathers and kill any possible feather mites. Remove and spread out flat on a towel to dry.  You can use a blow dryer to help speed this up.

Q: I've found an owl, hawk, eagle, or other bird of prey.

A: Before you claim it, first be sure that it is legal in your country or territory of residence to do so. In the US and Canada, it is illegal to possess parts or feathers from birds of prey or migratory birds without a special permit, even if you've just found a single feather in the woods. Being caught with feathers or parts carries a heavy fine or even jail time.

Q: What's the best climate to preserve my parts at?

A: Parts should be stored indoors, at room temperature, in a dry location. Do not preserve outdoors as changing humidity levels and extreme temperatures can add too much moisture, or freeze the parts.

Q: Does the species of bird I have affect how it will preserve?

A: No, the method to preserve it is exactly the same for all birds.

Q: I want to preserve a wing or foot to pose in a certain position. Can I do this?

A: Yes, but in order to do this you will need to nail the part down on a thin piece of plywood or particle board, which then must be placed in the box along with the cornmeal. Otherwise, simply placing it in the shape you want before covering it up will not work, since the muscles and tissues will contract naturally as the part dries.

Q: Can I use something other than cornmeal?

A: Borax and rock salt will also work to preserve, but Borax tends to form a crust on the severed ends and it is near impossible to completely brush out of feathers due to its dustiness. Salt has the potential to cause some mineral staining on the feathers.

Q: I have an already dry part that I want to pluck the feathers off of. Can I do this?

A: Removing feathers from dry pieces is nearly impossible without damaging them. As the skin shrinks and dries, it essentially cements the feather quills into it.You can re-soak the part to restore moisture to the skin; however, this will permanently damage it and should not be re-dried.

Q: Will this method work on rodents or other small animals?

A: Yes, however, fur doesn't have the same coverage as feathers do, so the finished product may look a bit emaciated and patchy whereas feathers do not.

Now back to the instructable!

Step 2: Tools & Materials

Picture of Tools & Materials

What you will need:

- An old newspaper
- X-Acto knife or box cutter
- Wire cutters
- Large bag of cornmeal
- Old shoebox (or other cardboard box, can be any size to fit parts as long as it has a lid)
- Hacksaw (optional for larger birds)
- Protective gloves
- Dead bird

Step 3: Removing Parts

Picture of Removing Parts

Put on gloves. Use the knife to gently slice into the skin and muscle. Stop when you feel the bone.

For the wings - Pull out the wing by the tip to extend it fully. Put the wire cutters against the body and press down to cut through the bone. The bones of small birds (sparrows, robins, etc) are delicate and should cut easily with the wire cutters. If you are working on a larger bird (goose, etc). You may need to use the hacksaw to cut through the bone. If the cutters did not slice all the way through the remaining skin/muscle, cut through the rest with your knife.

Head - Cut away skin and muscle as necessary. Hold the body up off the work surface by the top of the head or beak. Place the cutters right under where the neck connects to the skull and cut. You may also cut further down if you wish, leaving more of the neck intact.

Legs - The legs are usually lean enough that you should not have to cut through much (if any) extra flesh. Extend the leg by holding up the foot and use the wire cutters to either cut where the leg joins the hip, or at the knee.

Step 4: Preserving

Picture of Preserving

Open your box and pour about 2" of cornmeal into it. Make sure it's evenly distributed over the bottom of the box. Then, place your bird parts on top, without touching each other. Pour more cornmeal overtop, enough to completely cover the parts. Place the lid on firmly. Use your knife to cut a few slits in the lid to allow for air passage.

Now, place the box in a cool, dark, dry place and forget about it for a month. The cornmeal will absorb the fluids from the body parts during this time, essentially mummifying them. There should be no strong or bad smells coming from the box during this time.

After a month is up, remove the lid, take the bird parts out and inspect them. They should be dry and stiff, and should not feel moist at all. The exposed flesh shold be dry and hard with bits of cornmeal stuck to it. The parts may smell slightly 'meaty' still - this is normal. As long as there are no rotten smells, they should have been preserved perfectly. If the parts are still flexible, or feel or look moist, they have not completed the dessication process. In this case, put them back in the box and add more cornmeal, and leave for another two weeks.

Step 5: Cleanup

Picture of Cleanup

If your parts are ready, now it's time to clean them off. Take a small, flat paintbrush with stiff bristles and brush all the excess cornmeal off of the parts. Do this over a garbage can or paper towel to catch the excess. Make sure to get the granules between the feathers as well. Brush in the direction that the feathers grow, so as not to damage them.

Step 6: Crafting and Storage

Picture of Crafting and Storage

Now your parts are ready to be used to make pretty things! Attached are images of a couple items I made - a robin's head spirit stick and a robin's foot necklace pendant. Whatever uses you give them, make sure that the parts are always kept dry. If moisture is allowed to soak into and remain in them, they will eventually rot.

If you are keeping parts aside for later use, store them in a box or baggie with a mothball or two. Carpet beetles, a very common household pest, produce larvae that normally eat dust, hair and other natural fibers. The larvae will also readily eat feathers. Keeping mothballs with the parts will ensure they stay away.

If properly cared for, your bird parts should last for many years to come. Enjoy!


JoshuaN72 (author)2018-01-19

how do i preserve feaathera

EadynC (author)2018-01-18

And im also curious on how i will keep the head! what do i do with the eyes? and where do i put it to dry. thanks.

EadynC (author)2018-01-18

I recently got dove feet from a bird my cat was eating. Plucked the feathers off and placed the feet into a container of rock salt. Is all of th is okay?.

RebekahW19 (author)2018-01-11

i am also curious about the thawing process...

RebekahW19 (author)2018-01-11

i am also curious about the thawing process...

RebekahW19 (author)2018-01-11

i found a crow that is perfectly intact & looked to have been dead for less than 12 hours. i will not have time to dismember it for a couple of days. So, i am wondering what the process for freezing is. 1. what sort of container should i put it in to keep as much moisture off as possible, as well as to keep any bugs or bacteria from getting into the freezer. 2. Should i expand the wings, etc. into the shapes that i want before freezing? Any one that can answer asap would be great, as i want to get it taken care of before too much decay sets in. Thanks!

ogdenfripp (author)2017-01-07

I want to preserve the whole carcass, intact, of a dead crow (Raven). (1) Do the same procedures apply that you have listed here, or are there any additional things to do ? (2) I guess that I will need to at least remove all of the internal organs before placing the bird into the box with the cornmeal. (3) will the final preserved carcass survive a couple of weeks out in the weather? Thanks in advance ...... If you would rather answer me by email. It is gezza222 at g mail dot com

MeganT62 (author)ogdenfripp2018-01-05

Did you ever get a reply for this? I too found a whole carcass I want to preserve.

nina.drecq (author)2015-03-11

Hello. I have a question. I cut the wing of a falcon i founded on the highway. But i dont know exactly where to cut it exactly? Now i have a part of the umerus going out of the wing with flesh... should i have to cut the umerus (until where?) or let it like that ?

Thank you so much (author)nina.drecq2015-03-17

Well depending on where you are and your laws you might wanna discard it. If in the U.S.A. then you just posted that you are committing a federal felony. And I'd say at the shoulder joint if it's legal where you are.

centuryx (author)

Local laws can override this. Check with your state wildlife..

GreenMagpie (author)2016-09-26

Hi guys - I know this is mentioned in passing in the FAQ, but I feel the need to reiterate: if you are in the U.S., virtually ALL BIRDS are protected by law and you cannot possess even a single feather without a permit. This includes everything from songbirds like robins to hawks/owls/falcons. The law applies even if the bird was found/salvaged, and covers the bones, eggs, nests, and other parts as well.

PLEASE read the information regarding the Migratory Bird Treaty Act before you try this process:

The law does not apply to pigeons, starlings, and European house sparrows, as well as birds that can be legally hunted (turkey, grouse, ducks, etc.)

centuryx (author)GreenMagpie2018-01-05

Local laws override this.

centuryx (author)2018-01-05
Q: I've found an owl, hawk, eagle, or other bird of prey.
A: Before you claim it, first be sure that it is legal in your country or territory of residence to do so. In the US and Canada, it is illegal to possess parts or feathers from birds of prey or migratory birds without a special permit, even if you've just found a single feather in the woods. Being caught with feathers or parts carries a heavy fine or even jail time.

It depends on local laws in the US. It's okay to hunt for migratory birds. Check with your state wildlife. For example, in my area.. it's okay if you shoot it down on your homestead.

psychedelic_goddess (author)2017-11-19

I just finished burying a pair of wings, talons, and the head of a bird in cornmeal. I really hope it works out. For the head I completely gutted it. I used uniodized salt to soak up whatever was in the head and scooped it out. I did this a few times. I then stuffed it with a cotton ball so the head wouldn't look so sunken. I didn't remove the eyes, I hope that's ok. So I sewed up the neck and stuffed it with cotton and then buried it. For the wings I just fanned them out and buried them. The talons I posed and then buried. However I left the meaty part with the feathers on. I liked how it looked. I hope this is OK... Will it dry? I hope everything I did was ok let me know what you all think maybe I can make changes if it isn't ok. Thanks in advance :)

psychedelic_goddess (author)2017-11-19

So I'm just wondering does it have to be a cardboard box or can it be a foil pan?

ShaB3 (author)2017-03-09

I found a bird wing today next to my car - immediately came to Instructables looking and hoping for just this kind of info - I'll let you know when it's finished!!

WillowS8 (author)2017-02-04

Can i add lavender essential oil to the cornmeal, just a drip or two. I have 2 thrush claws im preserving. Would it harm or be ok?

ChristyF20 (author)2016-12-23

I'm wondering if I can disinfect the wings after drying them, or if I do it before hand? I saw the FAQ address the feather soak, but not the whole wing.... I have a crow that I found dead in good shape, but not roadkill so possibly disease... I am also double checking that I do not have to remove brains in the head. Thank you so much for these instructions!!

CollinM23 (author)2016-10-16

Hi i just hunted my first pheasant and have a head a wing and and 2talons. I know i shouldn't with the talons, but with the head and wing, do i need to do the sanitize thing for wing mites and such? I wouldn't think so because of the skin and bones since its a whole wing and head and not just feathers but I'm not sure?

Isabelmvinson (author)2016-09-30

I froze my wings, should i thaw them before i begin the process? Thanks

badxhannah (author)2016-09-20

Can this be done with a whole bird, without removing any limbs? Please reply asap.

Blaze0444 (author)2016-07-06

I found an entire body of a deceased baby turtle.
I would like to preserve it just the way that it is, as it's completely intact.

Do you think it can be done, and if so could you please tell me how I could do it?

Blaze0444 (author)Blaze04442016-07-06

Thank You! :-)

ChelinaR (author)2016-06-29

hi i would like a wing that isn't stuck in one position. Is that possible? I know that it will rot if i don't do something like what you've been writing about here, but i also know it will be stiff. I would like to know if you got any idea how to get a bird wing that isn't stuck in one position?

SkylarT (author)2015-06-16

May i add a correction?
If the bird is covered in maggots, ants, flies, or what have you, you can still save it. Rubbing alcohol will kill literally everything.

milestone77 (author)SkylarT2016-06-24

Interesting ...will a vinegar bath for two weeks and wood ashes, do the sane (2 weeks)(fully submerged. .

milestone77 (author)2016-06-19

The stuff I used...I was going to just do lye ashes and seas am in a plastic bag and bury it, but I think.this is safest ...based on research here... guess the vinegar cooks it...and I'll be able to figure out some proper steps in 24 hours...if I should just salt it or borax any case bugs shoukd be dead if any existed....I'd try alcohol but I'm trying not to kill the feathers luster....ADVICE !! I used a shovel and haven't touched anything it's staying outside weighted by rocks

milestone77 (author)2016-06-19

Vinegar bottles times 2...I think....maggots were only on the chest because I found the while bird submerged in a 68 gallon vat of rank rain just the chest center was exposed...the water didn't smell dead...I figure it's two days old tops.....

milestone77 (author)2016-06-19

Steps in reverse... 2 huge gallons of vinegar fir ten minutes/then added one equal part lukewarm rain water....ten minutes then added salt and lye mixture.....I think.ill do this for two weeks...not sure?

milestone77 (author)2016-06-19

Below....and three brillo...pads for soap benefits

milestone77 (author)2016-06-19

Okay I found a dead RAVEN IN SOME RANK RAIN WATER...I DON'T KNOW HOW LONG IT WAS SUBMERGED BECAUSE I WAS IN VACATION FOR THREE WEEKS AND NOTICED IT YESTERDAY...I thought it was a black plastic bag....anywho, today I saw it's I'm trying to kill maggots on its chest part...the only exposed area by submerging in 2 gallons of vinegar, one gallon warm water....8 OZ OF ashes.(LYE)..from my wood stove mixed with 8 Oz of REAL SEA SALT. THE IDEA IS TO KILL EVERYTHING FOR TWO WEEKS WET SUBMERGED....THEN CUT PARTS/WINGS/HEAD/TAIL/*TALONS ?/***(I'LL PUT IT IN PURE BORAX AFTER THIS NINE VINEGAR BATH....FREEZE IT FIRST, BEFORE BORAX...JUST TO BE CERTAIN NOTHING GETS INTO IT/OR STAYS IN IT....I GUESS....I'VE LOOKED AT SEVERAL METHODS BUT DUE TO BRACKISH BUT PURE RAIN WATER...I'VE AM TRYING THIS....I weighted down with rocks. Any suggestions? ***oddly I found a raven feather today before this all happened. ...and so I think it's a sign.... I have many folks that make NTV, REGALIA SELF INCLUDED....SO HERE GOES.....

RosariaC (author)2016-05-19

I have a baby crow who just died. I want to preserve its wings, but they have poop on the feathers. What is the best way to clean them? She is in my freezer right now, until I am prepared to preserve her. Thanks for the help.

portaokie made it! (author)2015-05-24

I made this from roadkill its a hawk wing

Bruja Chingona (author)portaokie2015-07-28

That is a beautiful piece! Great work!

How did you attach the leather to the wing? I purchased some bird wings that I'd like to decorate and make smudging fans with, but I'm having trouble locating a how-to or instructable on how to do that. Would you possibly be able to post an instructable about this yourself? Are there any links you could share with me? Any help would be GREATLY appreciated.

antikmama (author)Bruja Chingona2016-03-18

did you ever get instructions?i would love to know as well!

BenitaG (author)portaokie2016-01-10


antikmama (author)2016-03-18

i sadly found a hawk along the roadside last year and i put it in a box with salt for months..thought it was treated/preserved but the wing is disintegrating at the bottom of feathers...looks like it may have mites...i was told to put it in my freezer in a bag..but not sure if this fixed issue..
any advice?
many thanks!!

Anniemalia (author)2016-03-01

Hi. I followed your instructions to preserve a black Ani I found on the path here in Ecuador. It preserved well in the month, but I found the wings are now very closed - a shame as they are quite iridescent fanned out. A pity I didn't read other comments... before

kaeleedb (author)Anniemalia2016-03-14

Did you remove its innards?

Anniemalia (author)kaeleedb2016-03-16

Yes, I severed all the parts from the body and buried the body. I am just asking about a way to fan out the wings, but it's probably too late?

kaeleedb (author)2016-03-14

I found a dead humming bird in my garage a few days ago. There are no bugs and it it's slightly dry, I have placed it in a jar in a dry place and i would like to preserve it. I think the garage may have slightly mummified it. There is a slight decomp smell but it is not overwhelming.
Is there anyway I can wet preserve it or should I try to preserve it whole with or without removing it's innards?
I don't want to lose its color though.

Anniemalia (author)2016-03-01

Continued: is there any way to spread them again now? Seems not.

Frank1e (author)2016-02-15

HI our beautiful black cockrell died this morning/over night - how long have i till i need to remove wings to preserve? as I have no cornmeal the house & I don't want to miss the opportunity to save them. Ia m however plucking the rest of the bird this afternoon. look forward to your comments

KikiN2 (author)2016-02-04

Hi, I found a dead swan on the beach. It has either been eaten or lying there for a long time, the whole body is gone, only ribcage left, and it's pretty dry.. Is it possible to conserve the wings? Feels like there might still be some meat in there..


Kiki from Denmark

Renee Ridenour (author)2015-10-29

Hi I was just reading about how to dry animal bones. It also read that you can use rock salt, what kind of rock salt do you use.

_oleander_ (author)2015-09-24

Hi there I was wondering if I can use this method to preserve a raccoon heart and hands?

Cara MichelleS (author)2015-09-15

My cornmeal treatment grew mold and now there is a little bit of mold on the edge of the bird wings and feet. Is there a way to safely remove the mold and still preserve the parts? Thanks.

barbminot (author)2015-09-01

My talon has been frozen for 10 i thaw if before putting into cornmeal? Thanks for all this help, its wonderful!

Picklejuice (author)2015-09-01

I got ahold of some dead bats and theve been sitting outside to dry. They dont really smell anymore and theyre all very stiff. Is there anything i should do to them? I want to put them in shadowbox frames

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More by Mahekun:Easy Eco-Friendly Laundry Detergent!Cheap & Easy Rat Toy & Treat!How to preserve bird wings, legs, and heads...the Native way!
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