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How to preserve bird wings, legs, and heads...the Native way!

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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 are fully 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!
 
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I tried to rescue a fledgling towhee, but was too late. He died, so I am left with an extremely fresh body. I'm curious if this method could work to mummify a whole, very small, bird. If I opened and cleaned out the body cavity, could it work?

Mahekun (author)  jasmine.collins.3711 days ago

Hi, sorry for the late reply. I have tried to mummify a small bird before (a hermit thrush), but it did not work. You could give it a try by stuffing the body cavity with rock salt, where staining from the mineral would not be seen, and surrounding it with cornmeal on the outside. If it developed a smell within a few days though, that would mean it had failed.

I know this post is kind of old, but I hope you're still around to answer questions. I'd like to preserve entire wings of muscovy ducks that I raise for food. Their wings are quite large, like the size of a goose. How long would a goose-sized wing take to dry? And how can I splint it so that I can pose it fully extended without leaving permanent indentations on the feathers?

Mahekun (author)  leisha.farrell11 days ago

Hi! This is no problem, but be prepared to need a large box and a lot of cornmeal! This could be expensive (for the cornmeal), so if you like you can add some rock salt (the kind used for pickling) into the mixture. This will help dessicate the wing just like the cornmeal, but salt does have the potential to cause mineral staining on the feathers, so keep that in mind if you decide to go this route.

For that size of wing I would give it at least 2 months. The best way to arrange it in a fixed position is to nail it to a thick piece of particle board. It won't leave marks on the feathers.

bkenway5 months ago
Hello! I live in Australia. I found a bird (cockatoo) killed by a car a week ago. Its been in my laundry in a plastic bag since, the temperature of which gets to almost freezing point at night, maybe seven degrees higher in the day. It was killed on the day I found it. One car tire seems to have gone down the middle of its body, leaving the whole wing span intact. Today I cut off the wings, but there is still some flesh. Wondering whether its fresh enough for the salt water preserving? Thank you! It doesnt smell fantastic, that slightly sweet fishy smell (: is that a rotting smell. It doesnt make the room smell, but I suppose its in plastic.
...Perhaps the cornmeal is the safer bet, it seems to be the case, having read through these posts.. Hopefully I can get that in Australia. We have polenta, but I havent seen cornmeal..
Mahekun (author)  bkenway5 months ago
Hi, that sickly sweet smell is the smell of decomposition. I would recommend discarding the wings as that smell will never leave. You can always pluck the feathers beforehand if you want to keep those.

For future reference, polenta and cornmeal are the same. What it's called depends on the region it's distributed in.
bkenway Mahekun5 months ago
Thankyou so much for replying, and so quickly! Ill just pluck the feather then, my housemates will probably be more comfortable with that than a dead bird in our laundry anyhow (:
Thanks again! Its been hugely interesting reading your site!
Bess

I am so happy to have found you! Thank you for sharing these things, we must maintain their traditional context in the world. My nation is Belarus, and we have some rich 'majiya' which is same as medicine to first nations people. Bison is our national animal, and we believe everything in nature has a spirit. Of course much of this was squashed with the genocides, as the system spread to north America. It is important for us to keep these traditions alive. SO I thank you so much!

I walk a path close to nature, and am gifted often. Lately people have been sending me things, I received a whole Owl shoulder the other day, which can make two fans. I have learned how to know when not to touch something in nature though. We can feel it, or I see you talk about the parasites. How it was explained to me by elders, is once the parasites come to a animal, that animals spirit has been claimed to take on a new life by something else, so its off limits. We are supposed to leave them be if they have another purpose. I have noticed when I find things or things are sent that are meant for me, they are clean of other life forms-the first big clue. If they have no connections to anything, they are ready to be transformed and begin a new life.

Today I buried a Pigeon. I diddnt 'feel' like pulling its wings apart and off, because when I walked up to it, the wind blew the wings over its open carcass, like crossing them over its chest. The Raven (Hannibal!) ate its insides and left the rest perfectly intact, a precision job if you ask me, I did take pics. I saw that as a sign the spirit wanted me to treat this bird with dignity & gentelness. It was a healthy adult, some good meat for Raven I guess. The families of Pigeons always hang around the deceased, so it is important to drop tobacco, and take away and bury the body...amazes me how they get it, the tobacco.

I can hardly wait to make Owl fans, I see two on this shoulder. I shampooed as it is already dried, and its soft and shiny now...wating its new life. It sure smelled like musk-which I memorized for connecting with its spirit, but not now after shampooing it. I can hardly wait to dance with her at Indigenous day, June 21, 2014 at the Pow Wow with my first nations neighbors. She is a female eastern Great Horned, wanting to continue life as a power object. I am so honored that I can share traditions that are so same with the Indigenous ones of this country. I would love some input on wrapping, making a handle on the fan.... Thanks again for your blog.

bianca hlywa6 months ago

Hi!

I am trying to preserve chicken wings, I put them in the corn meal but the concern I have is that there quite a bit of meat on the wings which holds together the feathers. The smell is bad but im not sure if its the normal meaty smell or if it means that I should throw them away and try again.

Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Bianca

Mahekun (author)  bianca hlywa6 months ago

Hi Bianca, it sounds like decomposition has set in. The meat should not smell bad, it should smell like fresh raw poultry. I would recommend discarding the parts. Sorry! If you try again, use more cornmeal (3-4 inches below and above the wing).

my dove pulls his head back then his wings just open up and he's weight is lighter than a feather,do you know how can i cure him,or any instructions cheers,jamilla

RuchGal9 months ago
How would you make sure that the end result would be free of germs and/or bacteria that could be harmful to the person wearing the piece you made like a necklace from animal parts. Thank you. ~RG
Mahekun (author)  RuchGal9 months ago
Hi there, the kind of bacteria that could live on animal parts that could make you ill need moisture to survive. Once the part is dessicated, the bacteria die. If the part were to become moist again and stay moist, it is possible harmful bacteria could recolonize the part. But as long as it is kept dry, it is safe. Proof in point: First Nations people used dried parts for thousands of years for food containers and eating utensils (bladders for bags and bones for utensils). Women would chew on dried pieces of deer sinew to make them pliable enough to stitch with.
Neyra11 months ago
Hey Makehun, first off I wanted to thank you for the info.

My father found a male pheasant that had been shot but not taken a while ago. It has been in his cellar for 2 weeks as he forgot about it, he then plucked it and gave me the feathers and the wings as a whole. All this has been in my room for another week, at least. One of the wings was damaged so I plucked it, but I would love to preserve the other. Is that still possible after such a long time? It doesn't give off even the least bit of odor, except for some ordinary meat-scent, and the meat already seems relatively dried at the edges. The wing is still flexible however.

Cheers!
Ney
Mahekun (author)  Neyra11 months ago
Hi Neyra, as long as there is no bad smell you should have no problem preserving it. It sounds like you're in a dry enough environment that the meat has begun to naturally dessicate.
Hello! Thank you so much for this tutorial!

I just used cornstarch instead of cornmeal. Will this work? I need to know ASAP so I can go buy cornmeal if I need to. Thanks again!
tlee411 year ago
Osiyo! I have some wings and tails that I've traded for. Some salt dried, some air dried. How long should I soak them in order to start removing the feathers? I imagine it will vary depending on the flesh. Should I start checking after a few hours or a few days? Wado!
ekrab11 year ago
I want to ask how to make sure the feathers don't come of the wings and tail part of you bird. Does this happen automatically or do you later need to reinforce them in some sort of way?
Mahekun (author)  ekrab11 year ago
Hi, as the parts dry, the skin shrinks around the quills of the feathers and more or less cement them into the skin. I have never had feathers come out of a dried part on their own. Case in point: I once had to extract feathers from a dried turkey wing, and needed pliers to pull some of them out. Some of them wouldn't even come out so I had to cut the quills. So, no reinforcement needed :)
Mahekun (author) 1 year ago
Hi there, sometimes the body fats and salts can dry at the edges of cut flesh and form a crusty substance. That's what this sounds like to me, but I cannot say for sure without a picture. As long as it's not moist and doesn't smell, it should be fine.
5andacat1 year ago
HELP PLEASE! I've become an avid birder and love anything birds. I recently went out for a walk in the "woods" behind my house and my husband and I found the feathers and feet of a bird! Looks like it might have gotten mauled. I took the feet and did the whole cornmeal bit. The month is up, I went to pull them out and they are nice and dry. However, it looks like some mold or some kind of white, crystal like fungi has grown and hardened around a small portion (I put them in a shoebox, covered with the cornmeal and put them up high on a shelf in my laundry room which is nice and cool cuz we have a/c in there). Can I just clean this off or do I have to disinfect
it or is it destroyed? IF ANYBODY KNOWS ANYTHING ABOUT THIS, I WOULD GREATLY APPRECIATE YOUR HELP!!
Thanks again :)
Thank you very much for instructions! I just have one more question: do you know anything about cleaning, desinfecting the parts? I have preserved bird legs and would like to use them to make earrings, but would really like them to be hygienic. Thanks a lot!
Mahekun (author)  totally.tot1 year ago
Well, once the parts are dried you don't have to worry about harmful bacteria. The kind of bacteria that could make you ill can't survive without moisture. My only suggestion would be, since you are using legs (presumably with no feathers attached), you could apply 2-3 coats of polyeurathane varnish, glossy or matte finish, whatever you prefer. This would create a permanent seal over the skin so you wouldn't come into any actual contact with the skin of the legs.
the rev.1 year ago
i just wanted to drop you a THANKS!!
i successfully preserved my first bird foot!
im a glass blower by trade and i always thought it would be cool to make a bird foot pendant clutching a marble.
thanks to your direction and tips i made the first one!!
it was tough waiting that month...lol...
i want to finish it with a classy silver loop with maybe some wire wrapping...
one question...
do you have any tips on finding the deceased birds?
i dont want to go around killing birds for jewelry, i just have a ton of ideas....
thanks again
-Rev.
Hi there,

great instructable and after thread, very helpful. I have a question. I have a bird foot that i allowed to air dry. I never had any bad smell or bugs and the entire foot is now hard and dry. However, I never disinfected the foot or treated it in any way. Do you suggest doing this and if so how should I go about it?

Thanks so much in advance,
Granitegiant
My friend is gifting me with two fresh very large wings from a highway kill. I preserved a wing at another time from the same kind of accident. I cannot remember how I preserved the wings that time, but do remember that I did not do such a great job. I do not know how much flesh is left on the wing, as I do not have it yet. But, I would truly love to honor the wings and do this properly. Could someone please help me with some instruction? I remember soaking the last wings in salt water (I think), but it was not that good a job and just is not the right way, I am thinking. I preserved the feet and talons before in cornmeal, but don't really remember how I did that. Any help is appreciated! Thank you
As far as what I have been told, you have to cover the whole wing in the corn meal make the box the size of the wing a few inches on either side for space. Half a inch of corn meal in the bottom, place the wing on top cover with meal then time does the rest. The feet, for me the easiest way was to get the talons extended into cardboard, puncture it with the talons, it will stand up right. Place this peace in a box again few inches on each side and half inch of meal on bottom. Ensure that there is enough height to compensate for the height of the talons to the joint.. Cover with corn meal and wait. I waited a little over 2 months and it was done. I also rubbed the oiil of oregano on the talons and skin of the foot to take care of any residual bacteria. Sorry for taking so long hope it went well...:)
jaycrow2 years ago
Thank you for all of this great information!
I have just found a crow roadkill a couple of days ago. I removed the wings and feet similar to how you said to do and I put them in the freezer uncertain of how to preserve. Now I know to use the cornmeal...
I am wondering if freezing for a couple of days does any kind of damage to the process of drying? Should I defrost them before placing them in the box with the cornmeal?

Shucks, if I'd have known about how simple it is to dry I would have used the head as well!

Thanks again, Jay
Hi

I found an spotted eagle owl and got a friend to preserve the wings for me. They have been preserved closed. Is there anyway I can get them open as I would of like them to be preserved open. Or is it too late.
Hello...I'm not an "authority" of any type--I was just browsing and came across this page--but I have had the same dilemma and found that soaking them in water, then gently working them back and forth a little at a time until they are open worked for me. (they were duck wings) Hope this helps...
debnucket2 years ago
Do you know how what I need to do to preserve and treat a frozen eagle? I saw a website that gave instructions a few years ago but now I cannot find it. This bird would need special care because it has been frozen for about 7 years. Please offer any insight/advice you may have. Miigawech!
I have successfully preserved bird wings, head, feet. Thanks for all the great advice on here. I used a combination of corn meal and salt mostly salt for the head. Another great solution for feat and head or any concerns of species carrying bacteria. Oil of oregano rubbed on feat dropped or in/on areas of concern and with salt. This has worked so well no smell and no effect on changing integrity of the skin. Sage (not the cooking type, ceremonial) is also great to add to bird head just stuff in there after preservation is done.
When in doubt, go back and read the instructions, which I just did. As I haven;'t seen the wings yet, not sure what size box or how much cornmeal I will need. Thanks for the instruction. Any further bits of advice are appreciated.

Sherry Whitefeather
I am a roadkill fanatic and love me some birds but just a fair warning so yall don't go prancing around publicly with your bird parts.
In the lower 48 states all species except the house sparrow feral pigeon common starling and non-migratory game birds like pheasants gray partridge turkey sage grouse... are protected by the migratory bird act .
eware2 years ago
Hi Mahekun, thanks for all the info...
I'm wanting to preserve bones to use for jewellery, all kinds, at the mo I have chicken and lamb shoulder bone. Do they smell if preserved properly? Do I need to boil them down at all or just clean them up and leave them in the corn meal?
Cheers, Emma
Mahekun (author)  eware2 years ago
Hi Emma, with fresh bones there is very little in the way of preservation that you will need to do. If there is any tissue still attached to the bone, you can simmer them until the tissue can easily be pulled off. Simmer just off a boil, as boiling can cause the bones to crack. Once this is done all you need to do is lay them out to dry. If you want them to bleach naturally, you can let them sit out in the sun, but this will take some time. You can bleach them artificially by painting on a solution of v40 strength hair developer and baking soda. Brush it on and let it sit overnight. It will not be a dramatic difference but will get them at least a shade whiter.

If you want the bones to remain their natural shade, you don't have to do anything beyond letting them dry. :)
eware Mahekun2 years ago
Brilliant, thanks loads :)
zatarra2 years ago
I found a beautiful spotted hawk..didn't smell, did have what appeared like termite-looking bugs and ants on it, just a little....the eyes were gone....

I used a wooden chopstick and kind of opened the whole from it's underside btwn it's legs, upwards..then I poured salt all the way inside...i burried it in borax and salt and a wee bit of cornmeal.

I think it should be outside, but my cousin didn't wantrs the cats to get it, so it, covered in a cardboard box, in the attic..with a heater on the box...trying to dry preserve it...IS THIS OK?

I don't want anyone getting sick from this. I have had smaller birds in the past that i just sunbaked/airdried, and that seemed to work fine...I am concerned because this is a much larger bird. It has been less then 24 hours now...

SUGGESTIONS PLEASE!!! Has anyone ever cured a bird by stuffing salt into it?
hippieeric2 years ago
Hi- it's great to find you on here.
I use salt to dessicate chicken feet. which is always easy because I buy them frozen or fresh and they are clean and no decomp. I bury them in salt for 3 or 4 days, and then with the salt still pretty much caked around them, shape them and bake them in the oven at app. 175 degrees for at least 8 hours or longer if nesessary. I'm very pleased with the way this works for the chicken feet.
I have never yet tried any other kind of bird foot. Let's say I found a Robin whose feet were in good shape. there is so much less meat than a chicken foot, would this same process work or would it ruin the Robin leg/ foot? Or would just leaving it in the salt for a week or two be best?
OK, now for a head (undecomposed) like on your spirit stick, since the head would not yet have decomp do you just stick the head in the dessiccant brains and all?
Thanks for your help! -Eric
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