Introduction: 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

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

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

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

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

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!