What can I do with a dead bird?
January 23, 2007 3:43 PM   Subscribe

What can I do with a dead bird (beyond outright disposal)?

I found a dead sparrow in the alley. Because it’s winter, the carcass is in pristine condition. It's quite brilliant to look at, and I lost track of time crouched over it in wonder. (I can’t remember when I last lost track of time like this.) I began moving it to the dumpster, but a dumpster felt like the wrong place. I considered burial, which doesn't quite feel right for a bird either.

1) I *think* I like the idea of preserving the sparrow in something like a mason jar, then setting it on one of my bookshelves. I know it’s dead and doesn’t know better, but I still wonder how this might be disrespectful to the bird. Can such an act be considered generally disrespectful to nature? While a significant part of my motivation is to explore the genuine sense of wonder this dead creature first stirred, another part is maybe driven by the idea that a bird in a jar would make some pretty rad décor (and an interesting project). Is there a better alternative?

2) How would I go about safely preserving and displaying for the best effect (within the above parameters of somehow being respectful)? I don't want to take this to a taxidermist.
posted by bookley to Science & Nature (23 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You know it's going to decay, right? Even if you have it in a jar, unless that jar is filled with formaldehyde. In which case it will still kind of fall apart. This is what taxidermy is for. I think the state of the art for this sort of thing is freeze drying. You need specialized equipment for that, though.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:53 PM on January 23, 2007

With birds, taxidermy is really your only option. Putting it in some sort of liquid preservative will only make it look very...weird, and probably not work. A bird corpse that hasn't been properly prepared will only rot, inside a jar or no.

If you've kept it, put it in your freezer (wrap it in waxed paper and put it in a plastic baggie) until you decide what to do with it. This will help kill any parasites (like feather lice) that might've been hanging around.

It isn't disrespectful, I don't think - the bird's dead, after all. If you're set against taxidermy, you may just have to bury it.

(found a dead hummingbird on my stoop last week - I think it crashed into the glass door, as it had a broken neck. The feathers were beautiful, but I can't even imagine the effort it would take to properly preserve something as small as a hummingbird, so I buried it and wished it a good, final migration.)
posted by rtha at 3:53 PM on January 23, 2007

A dead bird in a jar, unless properly dessicated is going to be a really disgusting piece of decor. I'm into dead things, don't get me wrong, but the thing has a lot of soft tissue that will rot and/or that may have bugs in it both of which will be messy and mess up the nice looking bird. However, DIY taxidermy is not particuarly difficult, it just requires some dedication and tools. You can check out this "How to Stuff a Mouse" article which seems to be the most popular article on the topic lately. Most big public libraries will have books on how to do this as well or you can just read up on taxidermy online.

Honestly though, and since you sort of asked, I think keeping a dead thing in a jar might be considered disrespectful to nature. I mean, I don't think the bird would care one way or the other since they're not that bright to begin with, but keeping something that it lovely partly because it is part of the natural world and putting it into the unnatural world just seems to be missing the point somehow. Like, it's interesting because of the weird juxtaposition, not because it's just a lovely bird, generally. However, I do not think it's disrespectful to the bird, that doesn't really make sense to me.
posted by jessamyn at 3:54 PM on January 23, 2007

Photograph it if you must, and bury it. Or build it a tiny raft and set it aflame while it drifts away, Viking style. But please don't watch it decompose.
posted by acorncup at 4:01 PM on January 23, 2007 [2 favorites]

While the phrase "home taxidermy" tends to rank high on my list of Things That Sound Like A Rather Bad Idea as well as my list of Things That Tend To Make Me Shudder And Edge Inconspiciously Toward The Door Lest The Home Taxidermist Start Muttering About Lotions And Skins, I did find this visual guide and hey, if it doesn't work out you can always have material for a future humorous essay.
posted by jamaro at 4:03 PM on January 23, 2007

You seem to be in Canada. Public Health Agency of Canada: Fact Sheet: Guidance on Precautions for the Handling of Wild Birds, which pretty much echoes what the US DHHS says: don't touch, call wildlife authority.
posted by stereo at 4:07 PM on January 23, 2007

Best answer: If you keep the bird I think you will find that the feeling you experienced -- which may or may not have been a fleeting sensation of the sublime -- is in no way directly connected to the physical carcass.

Explore the feeling itself. Attempt to capture it artistically - put the bird back and photograph it, sketch it, write a poem about it. Attempt to recreate it - take some nature walks (or back alley walks, if that's more your thing) and make a conscious effort to notice the details around you with all of your senses.

I think part of the appeal of the original scene might have been its unnaturalness - you knew the bird was not meant to be frozen this way, but for one surreal moment it was, and you were there to witness it. But this state of things cannot persist.

Ashes to ashes. Bird to dumpster. Wash hands. Cleanse soul.
posted by Urban Hermit at 4:21 PM on January 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think you should photograph it and display the photo, land et the bird go back to it's earthen roots. Think Found Birds only hopefully more beautiful and less gruesome.
posted by Brittanie at 4:21 PM on January 23, 2007

*and let* the bird. I don't know that much Latin.
posted by Brittanie at 4:23 PM on January 23, 2007

Best answer: I really wish I could post responses anonymously - because the urge to post will win in this case.

Okay, I find - dead things and anatomic structures beautiful. If I found a dead bird I would do the following (I did do this with a snake/with a bird I would be more hesitant with the risk of diseases outlined in other posts above):

-(Refrigerate bird until you can obtain supplies; wear gloves for below process)
-Obtain dermatid beetles (are you located near a university?) - put them in a fish tank, make sure there is a screen on the top so they can't get out
-Remove the feathers/skin (don't crush the bones). It doesn't have to be beautiful, just remove the surface material as beetles can't eat through this
-If you can, get out the main organs (mid area)
-Pin bird on cardboard in the shape you would like
-Put bird etc, cover with cotton, and let the beetles eat

Results - a few weeks later you should have a bird skeleton. It really is beautiful.
posted by Wolfster at 4:56 PM on January 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've never done this sort of thing at all, and setting aside concerns about respect for nature (which I don't see as a particularly meaningful question) or the interestingness of the thing being due mainly to it's ephemerality (as others have said, and which I agree on), but how would this jar preparation work?

- Evacuate the jar as completely as possible using a vacuum pump. Let it sit for a while so any remaining degassable oxygen in the body is released.

- Pump the jar full of argon or some other inert gas that decomposition bacteria won't grow in. Seal well and fill to a pressure somewhat greater than 1 atmosphere, so air won't leak in.

This seems like it has some chance of preserving the bird close to how you saw it, but surely there's oxygen enough in the body to keep some bacteria alive for a while, and some microbial decomposition will occur. There's no way you'll keep it looking like it did when you found it, even if you took it to an expert taxidermist. If it was possible, finding that sort of thing wouldn't be nearly as fascinating as it is.

You got to see the very brief moment of slack between the ceasing of an entropy-fighting system and the inevitable onset of entropy. Count yourself lucky, take a photo (maybe put it on a flatbed scanner? They're really good for catching hi-res details of small natural objects), let the bird decay unhindered.
posted by contraption at 5:05 PM on January 23, 2007

rtha touches on something that bears repeating. Birds carry bird lice and other parasites which can be very, very unpleasant. A number of years ago I got a bird louse infestation in my apartment for Christmas and had to bathe with delaousing soap and shampoo and bomb the apartment. If you decide to take the bird home, avoid as much direct contact as possible. Keep it in a sealed plastic bag until you decide what you're going to do with it.
posted by lekvar at 5:06 PM on January 23, 2007

+1 DIY taxidermy is not that difficult. The idea of a jar strikes me as weird, though...you won't be able to see the bird well enough.

A friend of mine preserved a couple of small, beautiful birds and suspended them on fishingline from his ceiling. Perhaps a bit macabre and certainly confusing at first to the cat, but they're beautiful, and somehow come across as noble.
posted by desuetude at 5:32 PM on January 23, 2007

Best answer: Nothing will preserve it quite the same as the way you see it now, frozen. Once it thaws, you're screwed. Even if you keep it frozen, it'll eventually dessicate and shrivel, which will hose up its exterior form.

You are at a disadvantage, too, not knowing HOW/WHY it died. Disease is a possibility, and possibly communicable.

I have frozen/thawed/refrozen several birds over the years for the same reason... pure beauty. In all cases, they had broken their necks on my woodland home's windows or been killed by a cat. I photographed what I could, sketched what I could, usually over several session.

You can dessicate specific parts (such as wings) with kitty litter... 2-3 weeks buried in kitty litter will dry them out. Then, plastic bag with silica gel packs to keep them PERFECTLY dry. This is good for a few months of presevation, but at some point, they become possum food and should be set outside or otherwise disposed of.

Why did I do this? I carved wildlife carvings for a while. Species I preseved this way included mallard ducks (wings), worm eating warbler, ruffed grouse (finally had it professionally mounted), several hummingbirds (rubythroats), and two mourning doves... an absolutely stunning, understated and underobserved species that is gorgeous.

As a result, I have an appreciation of the mourning dove and hummingbird that is an order of magnitude beyond those who have never regarded one with the intimacy that I have.... I know it sounds silly, but having a tangible tactile memory of a bird that weighs less than a penny is truly remarkable. Reading it is one thing. Knowing it, entirely another.

Anyway, I'd toss the one you found because of the uncertain nature of its demise. I love birds, but I'm not crazy!
posted by FauxScot at 5:35 PM on January 23, 2007

Best answer: More ideas:

Keep a feather or two and make a dream catcher or other totem with them. Clip them tenderly while talking to the bird. Send the bird down a stream on a large leaf. It is perfectly respectful to adorn your life with nature. You do no harm by this. Fast from meat for a week.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 5:46 PM on January 23, 2007

For a lite alternative to taxidermy, the wings do not have muscles (the big wing muscles are in the body), so if you cut off the wings, and leave them in a dry place safe from scavengers and far from your nose for a while, all the decay that is going to happen, will happen, and afterwards, you'll still be left with a pair of wings that looks to the untrained eye almost as good as new.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:16 PM on January 23, 2007

Bury it. If you try to grasp a moment of beauty, it will only flow through your hands like quicksilver. You don't need to worry about any kind of ceremony or rites, just a return to the earth will do. There's a lot of nature to see, focus on just one part, and it loses luster.
posted by Saydur at 6:31 PM on January 23, 2007

bill watterson's take on all this.
posted by twistofrhyme at 9:13 PM on January 23, 2007

"Drawing is a way for me to muse about the nature of things, and I sketched a dead bird I found with reflections similar to Calvin's. Not many Sunday strips begin with a first panel like this, and I wondered if readers would find it offensive. In fact, I received several moving letters from people who had found the strip meaningful. Sharing with people, I'm always impressed by how they share back."
-Bill Watterson
Calvin & Hobbes 10th Anniversary Book.
posted by twistofrhyme at 9:18 PM on January 23, 2007

Instructables has you covered!

Or maybe you could removie the skeleton and display that? I don't see anything disrespectuful about it honestly. I'm from the camp that says "It's just a dead bird".
posted by thylacine at 9:58 PM on January 23, 2007

I don't believe it's disrespectful to nature to wonder in it, and while earlier in my life I felt strange about keeping natural things, now I want MORE in my life. It keeps me connected to the outdoors when I'm inside. One of my prized possessions is a raccoon skull and jaw.


I don't think this is the proper opportunity to keep that wonder near you, unless you take this bird to a taxidermist. I would explore other avenues. Perhaps purchase some feathers, find some interesting rocks or shells, seeds or sticks along a walk...buy a skull or a bird skeleton instead of a full taxidermied bird.

What's really disrespectful to nature is how modern humans generally live - any cultivation of appreciation for it, even in the death of living creatures is a valid pursuit.
posted by agregoli at 7:17 AM on January 24, 2007

Give it a nice little burial a la The Office.
posted by PetiePal at 8:50 AM on January 25, 2007

« Older Buy when its low...   |   Enjoyable books about bad things. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.