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 re-forming 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.