Monday, May 13, 2013

Barred Owl taxidermy: part II

I’ve been such a blogging slacker over the past month or so. But, as of last Thursday, I finished my junior year at SUNY Cobleskill! It’s a lovely feeling to work hard and then be rewarded with good grades and a summer off!

In my last entry, My SECOND experience with taxidermy: part I, I began explaining how I came to prepare a dead Barred Owl (Strix varia) for a taxidermy project in the ornithology class I was in this semester. In this entry, I will walk step-by-step through the process.

Just a warning though, this is a little messy. Please stop reading if you’re squeamish!

The first cut! A classmate of mine (who didn’t wish to be shown) was giving advice on where to make the cut.
The Owl is laid on it’s back, and feathers are smoothed away from it’s belly area, which is difficult with all of the Owl’s feathers! Then with a scalpel (the sharper the better), I made the first incision from the base of the breast bone straight down to the vent.

In the picture above, the meat you see removed is tissue from the legs.
During and after the skinning process.
To get better leverage while skinning, I hung the Owl. Gravity worked in my favor, and also kept the feathers mostly clean of blood. The picture on the right is the entire “innards” removed. As you can see, it’s not much different looking than your Thanksgiving Turkey! The little bits stuck to it is sawdust, which helps soak up any moisture. But really, it wasn’t a gruesome process. Trust me when I say that too- I’m NOT into blood and guts what-so-ever.

I started removing the skull from the skin by pealing back the skin and rictal bristles around the beak.
With this Owl mount, it was really important to remove as much as possible of the gushy stuff to prevent rotting. Even the skull gets removed! I had to buy a fake Owl skull, eyes, and body form. I used Van Dyke’s Taxidermy Supply for the eyes and the body, and McKenzie Taxidermy Supply for the skull.

Owl’s are WAY less attractive when their faces are removed!
Size comparison between a real Barred Owl skull, and a false skull used for taxidermy.
I had to paint the beak with similar colors, and I attached the eyes with super glue in the sockets of the fake skull.
Once all of the innards were removed, and the skull…I was left with cleaned bones in the legs/wings, and basically just a floppy skin with feathers. At this point, it looked NOTHING like an Owl, and I was having a hard time imagining my end product.

So, into the sink it went. I gave the skin a bath with warm water and soap to remove any grease from the feathers that may have gotten on the feathers when I was skinning it.

An interesting find while bathing the skin. This part of the anatomy is called the uropygial or oil gland. This little nub is found on the bird’s back, just above the tail. It’s a sebaceous gland full of the oil that birds use to preen with. It is required to keep their feathers in working order and waterproof. It was neat to see, but gross when I accidentally squeezed it….
Into the paint thinner bath it went! Just a few minutes of swishing around and thoroughly saturating it. The paint thinner, I believe, is to remove any of the grease/fats that may have been missed in the water.

NEXT: The Owl skin went into the tumbler. This is a plastic drum that turns, and it’s filled with sawdust and corn meal. This is to soak up as much moisture as possible.

Post tumbler. This Owl does not look pretty.

The last step, before beginning to rebuild the Owl’s structure, was to use compressed air and blow out the feathers and much of the sawdust.
At this point, I had to stop for the day. I had been at it for about 5 hours, which really wasn’t bad I was told. Other students had taken much longer than I had to get this far, but I was on a tight schedule and I was very focused on getting this bird skinned on the first day of the week. Because there was probably 40-50 of us using the Taxidermy Lab, we were scheduled over 4 weeks. We each picked 1 week to work in the lab. We had to skin it out and get it re-stuffed in the lab, then we could take it home to preen it and finally mount it. But we HAD to be in the lab for the first part.

So, after that first day, I stopped after I blew the sawdust out of the feathers. I wrapped it in a damp paper towel, and left him in the refrigerator in the lab that night, to return the next day. In my next entry, I’ll outline the restructuring and stuffing process. And I’ll reveal the final project!!!

Thanks for following along this journey!


  1. Hey Alyssa,

    Super interesting stuff, but have to admit that owls do look much better with their faces on! That is creepy looking. Looks like you are learning a lot and loving every bit of it.

    I see your spam note above as well. I've been getting plagued with the Anonymous spam as well and may have to make adjustments such as you did here:( Spammers suck!

    1. Thanks Bill! It's definitely something I NEVER thought I be doing, and kind of enjoy doing! This fall I have plans for a Trumpeter Swan! Thanks for your comment!

  2. Fascinating process! I've never seen a taxidermy in action before. Seems life feathers would be more complicated than fur!


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