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A Specimen for the Taxidermist


(Editor's Note: The following article is an excerpt from Lovett Williams' book, After the Hunt. For ordering information and descriptions of Williams' other published offerings, visit www.lovettwilliams.com.)

If you plan to have a taxidermist work on your trophy, discuss it with him beforehand. He can offer information about care and preparation of the specimen and tell you how to get it to him. Taxidermists do shoulder mounts, wall rugs and whole turkeys. Whole turkeys in strutting and flying postures usually cost more than standing. Expect to pay from $300 to $500 for a whole-bird mount.

ThreeBeardTaxidermy for web.jpgDon't allow an amateur to mount your trophy unless you plan to let him keep it. Amateurs who do acceptable jobs on deer heads will fall short on your wild turkey trophy. Birds are especially difficult for many amateurs. I have never seen a satisfactory turkey mounting job by a non-professional. Select a commercial taxidermist based on work you know was done by' him. Look at his turkey work and be sure that the same person in the shop will be doing your bird.

Looking at competition mounts is one way to judge taxidermy, but be aware that the job you get will not match the work done by the same taxidermist for competitive purposes. Contest work is done with the judges in mind and is very time consuming. Judges have esoteric ways to grade the work and taxidermists have to do contest work with that in mind.

Discuss with your taxidermist the mount's posture and substrate and the type of head and neck you want. The head types to choose from are freeze-dried, head skin from the dead bird, artificial material molded from the dead bird, or preformed of plastic.

Taking Care of the Specimen

If you don't get complete instructions on field care from a taxidermist, here is what to do. Be sure to have in camp a large plastic bag and a cooler large enough to hold the bird without jamming the tail. You will need ice or a refrigerator if you plan to take the whole specimen to the taxidermist intact, and a box of salt or borax if you plan to do any skinning.

Take with you to the woods a couple of paper towels. Shoot the gobbler in the head and hope that he dies calmly. As you have seen before, he will probably do some flouncing as he expires.

Do not try to restrain a turkey as it dies unless you have experience handling live turkeys. Don't pick up the bird by the legs--you can get a nasty spur stab. Don't try to hold him down--you'll just knock more feathers out. If you have to handle a dying turkey for some compelling reason, hold him by one leg in each hand and watch out for the spurs.

Broken wings and legs, plumage flounced in mud and smeared with blood, and shot-up wing and tail feathers will not make a good mounted specimen. Taxidermists can wash specimens, but washed bird plumage usually does not look as good as plumage that did not require washing. I have mounted birds myself and I know that a clean skin makes a better mount.

If a turkey is disabled but has its eyes wide open, approach ready to shoot again. Stand far enough away so that a second shot will not ruin the specimen and, if you do have to shoot, be careful to shoot him in the head. A taxidermist can fix up a badly shot head better than a shot up carcass.

Jim over bird.jpgIf the turkey does not die within a few minutes, finish him off with a blow to the back of the head with the nearest thing to a blackjack you can find. When the turkey stops moving, handle it by its bare legs or neck. Place no stress on the body feathers--they will come out easily while the specimen is warm. Poke one or two paper towels into the throat to block and absorb blood and mucous that might otherwise ooze out. Turn the specimen carefully and look for large spots of blood and pick off any you find. Avoid blotting globs of blood with tissue--that usually spreads it.

Check the gobbler's anus. If a formed dropping is on the way out, help it out. If there is excessive moisture at the anus, wipe it and poke a paper towel or toilet tissue two or three inches into the anus using a small stick.

Taxidermists can glue back in a few dislodged feathers, so save any large feathers that come out. If a large patch of small feathers is pulled out, save what you can of them but don't be concerned about only a dozen or so lost body feathers.

If you cannot get the specimen into a freezer within about two hours, remove the entrails in the field to hasten cooling. Make a small lengthwise incision below the breast. Don't extend the incision longer than required to get your hand inside.

 Reach inside and get a handful of guts, and pull them out. Be careful not to get blood on the plumage when you are gutting the bird. You'll need to cut the intestine off at the anus. Prop open the body cavity with a small stick and let it cool to air temperature. Even late spring air is cooler than the 102 degrees turkey body temperature.

Clean your hands with towelettes, which you should carry in your pocket. Don't get blood or other body fluids on your gun--they are salty and will cause rust.

It is best not to try to eat the specimen if you plan a whole body mount, but if you must remove the breast meat, open the skin along the midline of the breast just enough to remove the muscle with a long-bladed knife. Simply enlarge the cut in the skin you made when you gutted the bird. Cut the breast muscle out in pieces--it'll need to be cut up anyway for frying.

 girl dad.jpgA tote bag is useful in getting the specimen out of the woods in good condition. Let the carcass cool a few minutes and allow the feathers to set more firmly before placing it in the tote bag. Smooth the feathers into their natural positions and wrap the carcass neatly in the bag, being careful not to crumple the feathers. Haul it head first so as not to damage the tail feathers on vegetation.

Keep the specimen in the shade and away from sources of heat and flies. Do not place it in a plastic bag until it goes into refrigeration. A warm specimen will spoil quickly in a bag. If the specimen spoils, some of the feathers will come out and the taxidermist cannot save it.

If the specimen is to hang for more than two or three hours, do not hang it by the legs. That will cause body fluids to flow to the head and swell it grotesquely. Lay the specimen flat or hang it by the head.

To ready the specimen for the cooler, lay it out and wrap the head and neck in paper towels, tissue, or a cloth rag. Tuck the head under a wing. Press the wings to the body and wrap the whole body in a double layer of newspaper, like a mummy. Tape the paper in place on the body but leave the tail feathers sticking out.

Place the wrapped carcass on a piece of stiff cardboard that protrudes beyond the tail. The cardboard beyond the tail is to prevent the tail from touching the container. Tape the wrapped specimen to the cardboard like a body splint so that it cannot shift in transport. Be especially careful about cramping the tail. Stuff paper and other soft material into the cooler with the carcass to keep it from shifting in transit. Mark the top of the container "THIS SIDE UP."

It is much easier to get the bird in a cooler while it is still pliable, but it becomes very difficult to pack one after it is frozen. It is best to freeze the specimen in a portable cooler with the lid open. If you have to freeze the whole specimen before placing it in a portable cooler, be sure to freeze the carcass in a compact posture that will fit into the cooler after it stiffens.

If you are not freezing the bird, prepare the carcass as for freezing and refrigerate it with ice. Leave the ice in plastic bags without leaks. Double bagging is a good idea. If possible, stick a half-gallon plastic milk carton of frozen water into the body cavity. If you have "blue ice" bags, they are good. Use two plastic garbage bags or a thick cadaver bag for the carcass. If you know a coroner, ask him or her about a cadaver bag. Your taxidermist may have a suitable bag as well.

Deliver the specimen to a taxidermist on ice or in frozen condition. A hard frozen specimen in an insulated cooler will keep in shipment for three or four days. Even in a plain corrugated cardboard box, a frozen turkey will normally be in good shape after a two-day trip. If it thaws, refreeze it at the first opportunity. If you can't freeze it, keep it cold.

You won't be mounting every turkey you shoot and there will always be another. My suggestion is to be prepared to not mount any specimen that is in questionable condition. Wait for a perfect example of the beautiful wild turkey. If it's not in good shape, take a lot of pictures, save the beard and spurs, and eat it.

Skinning a Turkey

LongSpurTurkTaxidermy2 for web.jpgAs already advised, it is best to get the whole carcass to the taxidermist--don't skin it unless you are a taxidermist yourself or there is some compelling reason to do so.

If you know in advance that you will skin the specimen, you should read and take with you a how-to book on taxidermy. If you are really serious about this, practice in advance by skinning a bird you don't plan to mount. Use a pheasant or grouse if you don't have an extra turkey.

I will stress these things: Find out from your taxidermist whether to use borax or table salt on the skin. If your taxidermist routinely washes all turkey skins, he may say to use salt, but many taxidermists prefer borax. Also, ask him how he wants you to deal with the head--some say cut it off, some say leave it on, some say to skin it.

When you skin a specimen for taxidermy, the idea is to remove the skin without cutting any more holes in it than necessary. Ideally, you should make only one hole. If there is a dead turkey in camp that is not to be mounted, practice on it first to see what you are up against.    

Transporting and Shipping

Check with your airline company about how best to ship your specimen to the taxidermist. Most will accept plastic coolers containing frozen carcasses. Airlines do not permit shipment with dry ice because of the pressure the CO2 creates as it evaporates--an airtight container might explode in the baggage compartment.

You may be able to check the cooler as you would luggage and take it to the taxidermist yourself.
   

If You Are a Taxidermist

If you are into taxidermy as a professional, you may consider entering the National Wild Turkey Federation's taxidermy contest held annually in connection with the annual late winter convention.

The "Grand National" championships are judged by a panel of biologists and hunters. There is an entry fee and awards are given. For a copy of the rules and regulations, contact the NWTF at P.O. Box 530, Edgefield, SC 29824.

Whether you are a taxidermist or not, the Grand Nationals is a good place to see examples of excellent taxidermy work. You can see the body postures that taxidermists do. Take your camera to the Grand Nationals and show your pictures to your taxidermist before you have your trophy mounted. Showing him the pictures will let him know you have high standards.

One of the main errors I have noticed in otherwise good taxidermy work is the head coloring. The head and neck have to be painted after they dry. Taxidermists sometimes put too much or too little white on the top of the head and excessive blue on the side of the face. Sometimes the colors are not confined to the regions of the head where they belong and there is often too much red. There is sometimes far too much dewlap on a strutting gobbler.

If you have a good color photo of your freshly killed turkey's head, give it to your taxidermist. Head coloring changes slowly on a recently killed turkey; sometimes not at all for an hour or two. Take a close-up photo of your gobbler's head if you like the colors. If you have magazine photos that you like, leave them with your taxidermist. The figures on the color pages of this book depict the natural postures and head coloring of turkeys. Take the book to your taxidermist, but don't leave it with him--he'll get blood stains on it. Give him my address so that he can buy a copy of his own.

There may be small differences in head coloring among the subspecies, but I have not noticed anything significant. There is so much variation within the same populations that average differences would be very difficult to detect.

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