Wanderings in South America, by Charles Waterton

On Preserving Birds for Cabinets of Natural History

Were you to pay as much attention to birds as the sculptor does to the human frame, you would immediately see, on entering a museum, that the specimens are not well done.

This remark will not be thought severe when you reflect that that which once was a bird has probably been stretched, stuffed, stiffened and wired by the hand of a common clown. Consider, likewise, how the plumage must have been disordered by too much stretching or drying, and perhaps sullied, or at least deranged, by the pressure of a coarse and heavy hand — plumage which, ere life had fled from within it, was accustomed to be touched by nothing rougher than the dew of heaven and the pure and gentle breath of air.

In dissecting, three things are necessary to ensure success: viz. a penknife, a hand not coarse or clumsy, and practice. The first will furnish you with the means; the second will enable you to dissect; and the third cause you to dissect well. These may be called the mere mechanical requisites.

In stuffing, you require cotton, a needle and thread, a little stick the size of a common knitting-needle, glass eyes, a solution of corrosive sublimate, and any kind of a common temporary box to hold the specimen. These also may go under the same denomination as the former. But if you wish to excel in the art, if you wish to be in ornithology what Angelo was in sculpture, you must apply to profound study and your own genius to assist you. And these may be called the scientific requisites.

You must have a complete knowledge of ornithological anatomy. You must pay close attention to the form and attitude of the bird, and know exactly the proportion each curve, or extension, or contraction, or expansion of any particular part bears to the rest of the body. In a word, you must possess Promethean boldness and bring down fire and animation, as it were, into your preserved specimen.

Repair to the haunts of birds on plains and mountains, forests, swamps and lakes, and give up your time to examine the economy of the different orders of birds.

Then you will place your eagle in attitude commanding, the same as Nelson stood in in the day of battle on the Victory’s quarter-deck. Your pie will seem crafty and just ready to take flight, as though fearful of being surprised in some mischievous plunder. Your sparrow will retain its wonted pertness by means of placing his tail a little elevated and giving a moderate arch to the neck. Your vulture will show his sluggish habits by having his body nearly parallel to the earth, his wings somewhat drooping, and their extremities under the tail instead of above it — expressive of ignoble indolence.

Your dove will be in artless, fearless innocence; looking mildly at you with its neck not too much stretched, as if uneasy in its situation; or drawn too close into the shoulders, like one wishing to avoid a discovery; but in moderate, perpendicular length, supporting the head horizontally, which will set off the breast to the best advantage. And the breast ought to be conspicuous, and have this attention paid to it — for when a young lady is sweet and gentle in her manners, kind and affable to those around her, when her eyes stand in tears of pity for the woes of others, and she puts a small portion of what Providence has blessed her with into the hand of imploring poverty and hunger, then we say she has the breast of a turtle-dove.

You will observe how beautifully the feathers of a bird are arranged: one falling over the other in nicest order; and that where this charming harmony is interrupted, the defect, though not noticed by an ordinary spectator, will appear immediately to the eye of a naturalist. Thus a bird not wounded and in perfect feather must be procured if possible, for the loss of feathers can seldom be made good; and where the deficiency is great, all the skill of the artist will avail him little in his attempt to conceal the defect, because in order to hide it he must contract the skin, bring down the upper feathers, and shove in the lower ones, which would throw all the surrounding parts into contortion.

You will also observe that the whole of the skin does not produce feathers, and that it is very tender where the feathers do not grow. The bare parts are admirably formed for expansion about the throat and stomach, and they fit into the different cavities of the body at the wings, shoulders, rump and thighs with wonderful exactness; so that, in stuffing the bird, if you make an even, rotund surface of the skin where these cavities existed, in lieu of reforming them, all symmetry, order and proportion are lost for ever.

You must lay it down as an absolute rule that the bird is to be entirely skinned, otherwise you can never succeed in forming a true and pleasing specimen.

You will allow this to be just, after reflecting a moment on the nature of the fleshy parts and tendons, which are often left in: first, they require to be well seasoned with aromatic spices; secondly, they must be put into the oven to dry; thirdly, the heat of the fire, and the natural tendency all cured flesh has to shrink and become hard, render the specimen withered, distorted and too small; fourthly, the inside then becomes like a ham, or any other dried meat. Ere long the insects claim it as their own, the feathers begin to drop off, and you have the hideous spectacle of death in ragged plumage.

Wire is of no manner of use, but, on the contrary, a great nuisance; for where it is introduced a disagreeable stiffness and derangement of symmetry follow.

The head and neck can be placed in any attitude, the body supported, the wings closed, extended or elevated, the tail depressed, raised or expanded, the thighs set horizontal or oblique, without any aid from wire. Cotton will effect all this.

A very small proportion of the skull-bone, say from the forepart of the eyes to the bill, is to be left in; though even this is not absolutely necessary. Part of the wing-bones, the jaw-bones and half of the thigh-bones remain. Everything else — flesh, fat, eyes, bones, brains and tendons — is all to be taken away.

While dissecting it will be of use to keep in mind that, in taking off the skin from the body by means of your fingers and a little knife, you must try to shove it, in lieu of pulling it, lest you stretch it.

That you must press as lightly as possible on the bird, and every now and then take a view of it to see that the feathers, etc., are all right.

That when you come to the head you must take care that the body of the skin rests on your knee; for if you allow it to dangle from your hand its own weight will stretch it too much.

That, throughout the whole operation, as fast as you detach the skin from the body you must put cotton immediately betwixt the body and it; and this will effectually prevent any fat, blood or moisture from coming in contact with the plumage. Here it may be observed that on the belly you find an inner skin, which keeps the bowels in their place. By a nice operation with the knife you can cut through the outer skin and leave the inner skin whole. Attention to this will render your work very clean; so that with a little care in other parts you may skin a bird without even soiling your finger-ends.

As you can seldom get a bird without shooting it, a line or two on this head will be necessary. If the bird be still alive, press it hard with your finger and thumb just behind the wings, and it will soon expire. Carry it by the legs, and then the body being reversed the blood cannot escape down the plumage through the shot-holes. As blood will often have issued out before you have laid hold of the bird, find out the shot-holes by dividing the feathers with your fingers, and blowing on them, and then with your penknife, or the leaf of a tree, carefully remove the clotted blood and put a little cotton on the hole. If, after all, the plumage has not escaped the marks of blood, or if it has imbibed slime from the ground, wash the part in water, without soap, and keep gently agitating the feathers with your fingers till they are quite dry. Were you to wash them and leave them to dry by themselves, they would have a very mean and shrivelled appearance.

In the act of skinning a bird you must either have it upon a table or upon your knee. Probably you will prefer your knee; because when you cross one knee over the other and have the bird upon the uppermost, you can raise it to your eye, or lower it at pleasure, by means of the foot on the ground, and then your knee will always move in unison with your body, by which much stooping will be avoided and lassitude prevented.

With these precautionary hints in mind, we will now proceed to dissect a bird. Suppose we take a hawk. The little birds will thank us with a song for his death, for he has oppressed them sorely; and in size he is just the thing. His skin is also pretty tough, and the feathers adhere to it.

We will put close by us a little bottle of the solution of corrosive sublimate in alcohol; also a stick like a common knitting-needle and a handful or two of cotton. Now fill the mouth and nostrils of the bird with cotton, and place it upon your knee on its back, with its head pointing to your left shoulder. Take hold of the knife with your two first fingers and thumb, the edge upwards. You must not keep the point of the knife perpendicular to the body of the bird, because, were you to hold it so, you would cut the inner skin of the belly, and thus let the bowels out. To avoid this let your knife be parallel to the body, and then, you will divide the outer skin with great ease.

Begin on the belly below the breastbone, and cut down the middle, quite to the vent. This done, put the bird in any convenient position, and separate the skin from the body till you get at the middle joint of the thigh. Cut it through, and do nothing more there at present, except introducing cotton all the way on that side, from the vent to the breastbone. Do exactly the same on the opposite side.

Now place the bird perpendicular, its breast resting on your knee, with its back towards you. Separate the skin from the body on each side at the vent, and never mind at present the part from the vent to the root of the tail. Bend the tail gently down to the back, and while your finger and thumb are keeping down the detached parts of the skin on each side of the vent, cut quite across and deep, till you see the backbone, near the oil-gland at the root of the tail. Sever the backbone at the joint, and then you have all the root of the tail, together with the oil-gland, dissected from the body. Apply plenty of cotton.

After this seize the end of the backbone with your finger and thumb: and now you can hold up the bird clear of your knee and turn it round and round as occasion requires. While you are holding it thus, contrive, with the help of your other hand and knife, by cutting and shoving, to get the skin pushed up till you come to where the wing joins on to the body. Forget not to apply cotton; cut this joint through; do the same at the other wing, add cotton, and gently push the skin over the head; cut out the roots of the ears, which lie very deep in the head, and continue skinning till you reach the middle of the eye; cut the nictitating membrane quite through, otherwise you would tear the orbit of the eye; and after this nothing difficult intervenes to prevent your arriving at the root of the bill.

When this is effected cut away the body, leaving a little bit of skull, just as much as will reach to the fore-part of the eye; clean well the jaw-bones, fasten a little cotton at the end of your stick, dip it into the solution, and touch the skull and corresponding part of the skin, as you cannot well get to these places afterwards. From the time of pushing the skin over the head you are supposed to have had the bird resting upon your knee; keep it there still, and with great caution and tenderness return the head through the inverted skin, and when you see the beak appearing pull it very gently till the head comes out unruffled and unstained.

You may now take the cotton out of the mouth; cut away all the remaining flesh at the palate, and whatever may have remained at the under-jaw.

Here is now before you the skin without loss of any feathers, and all the flesh, fat and uncleaned bones out of it, except the middle joint of the wings, one bone of the thighs, and the fleshy root of the tail. The extreme point of the wing is very small, and has no flesh on it, comparatively speaking, so that it requires no attention except touching it with the solution from the outside. Take all in the flesh from the remaining joint of the wing, and tie a thread about four inches long to the end of it; touch all with the solution, and put the wing-bone back into its place. In baring this bone you must by no means pull the skin; you would tear it to pieces beyond all doubt, for the ends of the long feathers are attached to the bone itself; you must push off the skin with your thumb-nail and forefinger. Now skin the thigh quite to the knee; cut away all flesh and tendons, and leave the bone; form an artificial thigh round it with cotton; apply the solution and draw back the skin over the artificial thigh: the same to the other thigh.

Lastly, proceed to the tail: take out the inside of the oil-gland, remove all the remaining flesh from the root till you see the ends of the tail-feathers; give it the solution and replace it. Now take out all the cotton which you have been putting into the body from time to time to preserve the feathers from grease and stains. Place the bird upon your knee on its back; tie together the two threads which you had fastened to the end of the wing-joints, leaving exactly the same space betwixt them as your knowledge in anatomy informs you existed there when the bird was entire; hold the skin open with your finger and thumb, and apply the solution to every part of the inside. Neglect the head and neck at present; they are to receive it afterwards.

Fill the body moderately with cotton, lest the feathers on the belly should be injured whilst you are about the following operation. You must recollect that half of the thigh, or in other words, one joint of the thigh-bone, has been cut away. Now, as this bone never moved perpendicular to the body, but, on the contrary, in an oblique direction, of course, as soon as it is cut off, the remaining part of the thigh and leg having nothing now to support them obliquely, must naturally fall to their perpendicular. Hence the reason why the legs appear considerably too long. To correct this, take your needle and thread, fasten the end round the bone inside, and then push the needle through the skin just opposite to it. Look on the outside, and after finding the needle amongst the feathers, tack up the thigh under the wing with several strong stitches. This will shorten the thigh and render it quite capable of supporting the weight of the body without the help of wire. This done, take out every bit of cotton except the artificial thighs, and adjust the wing-bones (which are connected by the thread) in the most even manner possible, so that one joint does not appear to lie lower than the other; for unless they are quite equal, the wings themselves will be unequal when you come to put them in their proper attitude. Here, then, rests the shell of the poor hawk, ready to receive from your skill and judgment the size, the shape, the features and expression it had, ere death and your dissecting hand brought it to its present still and formless state. The cold hand of death stamps deep its mark upon the prostrate victim. When the heart ceases to beat, and the blood no longer courses through the veins, the features collapse, and the whole frame seems to shrink within itself. If then you have formed your idea of the real appearance of the bird from a dead specimen, you will be in error. With this in mind, and at the same time forming your specimen a trifle larger than life, to make up for what it will lose in drying, you will reproduce a bird that will please you.

It is now time to introduce the cotton for an artificial body by means of the little stick like a knitting-needle; and without any other aid or substance than that of this little stick and cotton, your own genius must produce those swellings and cavities, that just proportion, that elegance and harmony of the whole, so much admired in animated nature, so little attended to in preserved specimens. After you have introduced the cotton, sew up the orifice you originally made in the belly, beginning at the vent. And from time to time, till you arrive at the last stitch, keep adding a little cotton in order that there may be no deficiency there. Lastly, dip your stick into the solution, and put it down the throat three or four times, in order that every part may receive it.

When the head and neck are filled with cotton quite to your liking, close the bill as in nature. A little bit of bees’ wax at the point of it will keep the mandibles in their proper place. A needle must be stuck into the lower mandible perpendicularly. You will shortly see the use of it. Bring also the feet together by a pin, and then run a thread through the knees, by which you may draw them to each other as near as you judge proper. Nothing now remains to be added but the eyes. With your little stick make a hollow in the cotton within the orbit, and introduce the glass eyes through the orbit. Adjust the orbit to them as in nature, and that requires no other fastener.

Your close inspection of the eyes of animals will already have informed you that the orbit is capable of receiving a much larger body than that part of the eye which appears within it when in life. So that, were you to proportion your eye to the size the orbit is capable of receiving, it would be far too large. Inattention to this has caused the eyes of every specimen in the best cabinets of natural history to be out of all proportion. To prevent this, contract the orbit by means of a very small delicate needle and thread at that part of it farthest from the beak. This may be done with such nicety that the stitch cannot be observed; and thus you have the artificial eye in true proportion.

After this touch the bill, orbits, feet and former oil-gland at the root of the tail with the solution, and then you have given to the hawk everything necessary, except attitude and a proper degree of elasticity, two qualities very essential.

Procure any common ordinary box, fill one end of it about three-fourths up to the top with cotton, forming a sloping plane. Make a moderate hollow in it to receive the bird. Now take the hawk in your hands and, after putting the wings in order, place it in the cotton with its legs in a sitting posture. The head will fall down. Never mind. Get a cork and run three pins into the end, just like a three-legged stool. Place it under the bird’s bill, and run the needle which you formerly fixed there into the head of the cork. This will support the bird’s head admirably. If you wish to lengthen the neck, raise the cork by putting more cotton under it. If the head is to be brought forward, bring the cork nearer to the end of the box. If it requires to be set backwards on the shoulders, move back the cork.

As in drying the back part of the neck will shrink more than the fore part, and thus throw the beak higher than you wish it to be, putting you in mind of a stargazing horse, prevent this fault by tying a thread to the beak and fastening it to the end of the box with a pin or needle. If you choose to elevate the wings, do so, and support them with cotton; and should you wish to have them particularly high, apply a little stick under each wing, and fasten the end of them to the side of the box with a little bees’ wax.

If you would have the tail expanded, reverse the order of the feathers, beginning from the two middle ones. When dry, replace them in their true order, and the tail will preserve for ever the expansion you have given it. Is the crest to be erect? Move the feathers in a contrary direction to that in which they lie for a day or two, and it will never fall down after.

Place the box anywhere in your room out of the influence of the sun, wind and fire; for the specimen must dry very slowly if you wish to reproduce every feature. On this account the solution of corrosive sublimate is uncommonly serviceable; for at the same time that it totally prevents putrefaction, it renders the skin moist and flexible for many days. While the bird is drying, take it out, and replace it in its position once every day. Then, if you see that any part begins to shrink into disproportion, you can easily remedy it.

The small covert-feathers of the wings are apt to rise a little, because the skin will come in contact with the bone which remains in the wing. Pull gently the part that rises with your finger and thumb for a day or two. Press the feathers down. The skin will adhere no more to the bone, and they will cease to rise.

Every now and then touch and retouch all the different parts of the features in order to render them distinct and visible, correcting at the same time any harshness or unnatural risings or sinkings, flatness or rotundity. This is putting the last finishing hand to it.

In three or four days the feet lose their natural elasticity, and the knees begin to stiffen. When you observe this, it is time to give the legs any angle you wish, and arrange the toes for a standing position, or curve them to your finger. If you wish to set the bird on a branch, bore a little hole under each foot a little way up the leg; and having fixed two proportional spikes on the branch, you can, in a moment, transfer the bird from your finger to it, and from it to your finger at pleasure.

When the bird is quite dry, pull the thread out of the knees, take away the needle, etc., from under the bill, and all is done. In lieu of being stiff with wires, the cotton will have given a considerable elasticity to every part of your bird; so that, when perching on your finger, if you press it down with the other hand, it will rise again. You need not fear that your hawk will alter, or its colours fade. The alcohol has introduced the sublimate into every part and pore of the skin, quite to the roots of the feathers. Its use is twofold: firstly, it has totally prevented all tendency to putrefaction; and thus a sound skin has attached itself to the roots of the feathers. You may take hold of a single one, and from it suspend five times the weight of the bird. You may jerk it; it will still adhere to the skin, and after repeated trials often break short. Secondly, as no part of the skin has escaped receiving particles of sublimate contained in the alcohol, there is not a spot exposed to the depredation of insects: for they will never venture to attack any substance which has received corrosive sublimate.

You are aware that corrosive sublimate is the most fatal poison to insects that is known. It is anti-putrescent; so is alcohol; and they are both colourless, of course; they cannot leave a stain behind them. The spirit penetrates the pores of the skin with wonderful velocity, deposits invisible particles of the sublimate and flies off. The sublimate will not injure the skin, and nothing can detach it from the parts where the alcohol has left it. [Footnote: All the feathers require to be touched with the solution, in order that they may be preserved from the depredation of the moth. The surest way of proceeding is to immerse the bird in the solution of corrosive sublimate, and then dry it before you begin to dissect it.]

Furs of animals immersed in this solution will retain their pristine brightness and durability in any climate.

Take the finest curled feather from a lady’s head, dip it in the solution, and shake it gently till it be dry; you will find that the spirit will fly off in a few minutes, not a curl in the feather will be injured, and the sublimate will preserve it from the depredation of the insect.

Perhaps it may be satisfactory to add here that some years ago I did a bird upon this plan in Demerara. It remained there two years. It was then conveyed to England, where it stayed five months, and returned to Demerara. After being four years more there it was conveyed back again through the West Indies to England, where it has now been near five years, unfaded and unchanged.

On reflecting that this bird has been twice in the Temperate and Torrid Zone, and remained some years in the hot and humid climate of Demerara, only six degrees from the line, and where almost everything becomes a prey to the insect, and that it is still as sound and bright as when it was first done, it will not be thought extravagant to surmise that this specimen will retain its pristine form and colours for years after the hand that stuffed it has mouldered into dust.

I have shown this art to the naturalists in Brazil, Cayenne, Demerara, Oroonoque and Rome, and to the royal cabinets of Turin and Florence. A severe accident prevented me from communicating it to the cabinet of Paris, according to my promise. A word or two more, and then we will conclude.

A little time and experience will enable you to produce a finished specimen: “Mox similis volucri, mox vera volucris.” If your early performance should not correspond with your expectations, do not let that cast you down. You cannot become an adept all at once. The poor hawk itself, which you have just been dissecting, waited to be fledged before it durst rise on expanded pinion, and had parental aid and frequent practice ere it could soar with safety and ease beyond the sight of man.

Little more remains to be added, except that what has been penned down with regard to birds may be applied in some measure to serpents, insects and four-footed animals.

Should you find these instructions too tedious, let the wish to give you every information plead in their defence. They might have been shorter; but Horace says, by labouring to be brief you become obscure.

If by their means you should be enabled to procure specimens from foreign parts in better preservation than usual, so that the naturalist may have it in his power to give a more perfect description of them than has hitherto been the case; should they cause any unknown species to be brought into public view, and thus add a little more to the page of natural history, it will please me much. But should they unfortunately tend to cause a wanton expense of life; should they tempt you to shoot the pretty songster warbling near your door, or destroy the mother as she is sitting on the nest to warm her little ones, or kill the father as he is bringing a mouthful of food for their support — Oh, then! deep indeed will be the regret that I ever wrote them.

Adieu,

CHARLES WATERTON.

Glossary

Acaiari, the resinous gum of the hiawa-tree.

Acouri, one of the agutis; a rodent about the size of a rabbit.

Acuero, a species of palm.

Æta, a palm of great size; it may reach a hundred feet before the leaves begin.

Ai, the three-toed sloth.

Albicore, a fish closely related to the tunny.

Anhinga, the darter or snake-bird; a cormorant-like bird.

Ant-bear, now called the ant-eater.

Ara, a macaw.

Ara, Scarlet, the scarlet macaw.

Bisa, one of the Saki monkeys.

Cabbage Mountain, one of the most beautiful of the palm-trees.

Camoudi, the anaconda.

Campanero, the bell-bird.

Caprimulgus, one of the goat-suckers.

Cassique, a bird of the hang-nest family.

Cayman, an alligator, as here used.

Cotingas, chatterers.

Couguar, the puma.

Coulacanara, the boa-constrictor.

Courada, the white mangrove tree.

Crabier, the boat-bill — a small heron.

Crickets, cicadas.

Cuia, one of the Trojans.

Curlew, Scarlet, the scarlet ibis.

Dolphin, a coryphene — a true fish — not a cetacean.

Guana, the iguana lizard.

Hannaquoi, one of the curassows.

Houtou, one of the motmots.

Humming-bird Ara or Karabimiti, the crimson topaz.

Jacamar, Jacana, as anglicized —the spur-winged waterhen.

Labba, a rodent allied to the cavies.

Naudapoa, an ibis.

Patasa, unidentified.

Phaeton, the tropic bird.

Pi-pi-yo, unidentified.

Porcupine, the tree-porcupine.

Quake, a basket of open-work, very elastic and expansive.

Redstart, quite distinct from the English redstart.

Sacawinki, one of the squirrel monkeys.

Sangre-do-buey, the scarlet tanager.

Tangara, now called tanager. See Sangre-do-buey.

Waracaba, the trumpeter.

Whip-poor-will, one of the goat-suckers.

Who-are-you? one of the goat-suckers.

Willy-come-go, one of the goat-suckers.

Work-away, one of the goat-suckers.

Yawaraciri, one of the blue creepers.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30