Bye-Bye Birdie: Taxidermy Talk at the Museum

Bird Watching features a sketch your own bird activity, allowing museum-goers to add their own artistic talent to the exhibit.

“If you want to learn about dead birds, you’re in the right place,” said artist, field biologist, and taxidermist, Jordan Chalfont. On Thursday, November 2nd in the Mirken Education Center, Chalfont alongside Lunder Curator for Whistler Studies, Justin McCann, led “Franken-Bird: A Taxidermy Talk and Demonstration,” which combined both a discussion of the Bird Watching: Audobon and Ornithology in Early America exhibit currently featured in the Colby Museum of Art and the dying art of taxidermy.

Kicking off the talk, McCann discussed Audobon’s role and process as a “reanimator” in his ability to bring birds back to life through his artistic representations. The life of John James Audobon (1785-1851) was characterized by his deep connection with nature and desire to capture the life and beauty of birds, for both artistic and scientific purposes, in his paintings. Audobon’s relationship with nature, according to McCann, was twofold. “He didn’t just want to paint from nature, he wanted to capture it alive and moving, which is a real challenge for an artist in a pre-photography era,” said McCann. In an effort to achieve this goal, Audobon killed a bird and stuffed it with straw so that he could paint it. Unhappy with this first effort due to its static profile, Audobon tried to create a puppet by applying strings to the bird in order to manipulate it in a life-like manner. However, Audobon was left disappointed. In around the year 1805, Audobon finally achieved his goal by killing a kingfisher, filling it with wire, and fixing it upon a board using wire and pins. “He had finally took a dead bird and made it look alive so that he could draw it and paint it in real life. Using visual memory and the thing that he had created, Audobon was able to match his observations with his artistic representation,” said McCann. Audobon published his illustrations in The Birds of America, pages of which are on display in the Colby Museum of Art.

Driven by a strong desire to reanimate life, hunting, art, and science, were fluid processes for Audobon, a part of a larger artistic process, fueled by a love for birds. Through his illustrations, Audobon effectively brought nature to a larger group of people. “The goals of a taxidermist are very similar to those of Audobon’s,” Chalfont began the second half of the discussion. “I’ve always been obsessed with birds and nature. It’s kind of morbid but there is also something really beautiful about taking a dead bird and giving it a second life.”

The difference between good and bad taxidermy, Chalfont explained, is how many hours the taxidermist has logged watching the bird. Taxidermy is both artistic and scientific, you have to study the nuances of a bird’s movements and postures, you have to understand the bird inside and out, in order to capture its life after death. Chalfont worked on Great Duck Island on a bird migration study, studying songbirds on the coast of Maine. As a taxidermist, Chalfont’s process is the reverse of Audobon’s. “I took a lot of cool photographs and did the illustrations first and then used those to create the taxidermy mount,” she said. Chalfont gathers as much information as she can about the life of a given bird in order to best reflect it in a mount or study skin.

With the projection of graphic images of cut open, dead, bloody birds, Chalfont described the process of creating study skins and mounts, like that of the great horned owl lying on the table. The process begins by stripping the dead bird of all biological material to prevent deterioration. Borax is used for preservation and sprinkled inside the bird. Using wire and string, a metal frame is sculpted as the bird’s body and stuffed with excelsior. It is both a scientific and artistic process. “I didn’t want to choose between art and science and found that taxidermy is the perfect marriage of those two things,” said Chalfont. Hours of scientific observation and intense attention to detail make the artistic production of a bird accurate and realistic.

With her love of birds, Chalfont fears the deterioration of taxidermy. She urges the importance of being able to create life-like mounts and study skins due to the tremendous amount one can learn from their study. With an emphasis on the restoration of life, both Chalfont and Audobon find a unique form of beauty within the scientific and artistic study and representation of birds.