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.

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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!

1 Person Made This Project!

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288 Discussions

None
arlee24

Question 2 months ago on Introduction

Can you do this without cutting the bird into pieces?

None
BrennaB9

8 months ago

Question: Can I use the suggested vinegar and witch hazel solution to clean the wing before preserving it? If not how do I clean it first?

3 replies
None
ferrotypeBrennaB9

Reply 5 months ago

I suggest quickly yet gently using a paintbrush.
But honestly. Clean up those details of your feathers AFTER preservation.
Before that, you run the risk of brushing off bird mites into the air.

None
vmz126ferrotype

Reply 2 months ago

How vinegar and witch hazel do we use?

None
ferrotypevmz126

Reply 2 months ago

5 parts warm water, 1 part vinegar and 1 part witch hazel. Let them soak for 24 hours.

None
vmz126

Question 2 months ago on Introduction

So I have a pheasant, my sister froze it...do I need to thaw it before I can get the head/wings/ tail to preserve?
How long do I need to thaw it out?
And best way to keep the tail together?? If possible

None
ferrotypeBarbaraC189

Answer 5 months ago

It is in the post. :)
You need to extrapolate from there as to what you need depending upon how much volume of solution you need.
Cheers!! =)

None
IndiaM3BarbaraC189

Answer 8 months ago

It depends on how much solution you feel you will need to cover/soak the feathers. Just know that you will have 7 parts total (5 parts warm water, 1 part vinegar, 1 part witch hazel). So, if you feel that you can cover all your feathers in 1 3/4 c. solution, you could make 1 part = 1/4 cup. Therefore, 1 1/4 cup warm water, 1/4 cup vinegar and 1/4 cup witch hazel would be the ratios. Just decide on how much solution TOTAL you will need and divide that Total by 7 to determine how much each part will be for your project.

None
ferrotypedebbieburnette

Answer 5 months ago

Frozen birds still retain all of the mites (they always have), bacteria, larvae and other nasties that start the instant they die. The only difference is that it is "frozen".
The moment you take it out of your freezer, the burst of heat is like a shot of performance enhancing drugs.
Residential freezers do not provide the freezer protection that a bird would need to actually stop decomp. It is still happening. Just very very slowly.

If you want to preserve, have your box ready, and instantly move from freezer to box in one move.
Cross your fingers, keep in the box a month longer, and hopefully you will be all set!
Good luck!

None
CloudwalkerW

Question 10 months ago on Step 1

I was wondering if it had to be done in a cardboard box, I have a plastic tote...can I use that? I mean it's obviously not native at that point but... Will it affect the process? Does the cardborad allow for some air transfer that the plastic wouldn't?

1 answer
None
ferrotypeCloudwalkerW

Answer 5 months ago

You can use your plastic tote/tub. I would poke holes in the lid.
*Keep in mind your plastic tub is useless for anything else after this unless you give it a long bleach soak .
Still, I would not use it for anything personal.

None
Formlessbliss

Question 5 months ago on Introduction

I was told to put in rock salt and preserve in the freezer for a month or more.. can I just let it thaw and then pursue the same process?

None
KathleenC73

Question 1 year ago

How can I preserve the entire Bald Eagle/skin it but keep head, feet, and all feathers entacted . ?

2 answers
None
TammyT77KathleenC73

Answer 1 year ago

The law: “Anyone who possesses an eagle feather, and doesn't meet the requirements, could face fines up to $100,000 and a year in prison. A second offense is upgraded from a misdemeanor to a felony, and carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison and a $250,000 fine.Jun 9, 2009

None
ferrotypeTammyT77

Reply 5 months ago

While it is law and [this] law has been addressed more than once already, that was not the question.

So, KathleenC73 - your best bet would to go to a taxidermist. Mind you they need to report citizens like you, who may bring them birds of prey or songbirds without proper licensure to accompany the specimen. May I suggest contacting your local University's Biology/Ornithology Dept.? Historical Society? That bird also needs a necropsy :)

None
eptisamt

Question 11 months ago on Introduction

I had some wings and want only the feathers they have been sitting in a bag outside for a week i soaked them in vinegar and water. I wanted just the feathers. Some smell the other ones I got just the feathers semi attached to some meat are they all damaged if they all soaked together?

1 answer
None
ferrotypeeptisamt

Answer 5 months ago

Hi Eptisamt! :)You have (or had at this point), some wings and only want the feathers?
Unfortunately they sat outside in a bag for a week, you soaked, plucked, have some smells and meat. You're wondering if ALL of the feathers are ruined?
Yes, they are. Good news! This is what Mahekun says about feathers:
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.