Moreau got his start in taxidermy when he was about 10, which means he’s been doing it for three-quarters of his life. A friend and neighbor expressed some interest in taxidermy, and that friend’s father offered to pay for a correspondence course for both of them. A different book came each month. The friend lost interest quickly, but Moreau was hooked. W.B. Yeats, the great Irish bard, exhorts, table thumps, in a poem: “Irish poets, learn your trade!” That’s what Moreau did. At 16 he got a job working for Lyons and O’Haver, the top taxidermists in the area. He stayed there a few years, left for a few years, worked for them again for a few years. A job came up as a park ranger at Santee Lakes, and he did that for six years while continuing to work at his taxidermy part-time.
This is an example of what I mean when I say he “protects” these creatures. When he started working at Santee Lakes, he noticed there were only about six wood ducks showing up every year, he figured all from the same family. Allow me to wax rhapsodic about wood ducks for a few sentences. Whether you believe in the genius of Nature or the genius of God, you will have to agree that on the day the wood duck was invented, Nature or God was on a roll, inspired, color-drunk, visionary, feeling giddily generous: “Life is going to be a mess for these humans so let’s give them something to look at to take their minds off their petty, greedy selves for whole moments at a time.” I can imagine God or Nature thinking like that. Oh green-and-white-and-red and red-and-white-and-orange and dots of white on brown-going-to-scarlet! When Moreau noticed the paucity of wood ducks, he got together with some like-minded people, and they began putting up nest boxes for wood ducks. They’re cavity nesters, and there weren’t many places for them to nest around the relatively new (1959) man-made Santee Lakes. Now there are maybe 300 wood ducks who check in there every year — for the whole winter or for a rest on their way to and from Mexico.
We take a ride to the lakes. He is like a kid in a candy store, pointing out ducks — there are several different species here, as well as some grebes. A healthy duck can live 10 to 15 years. I’ve often wondered if an old duck just dies on the wing — flying back from the 14th trip to Mexico, the graybeard duck’s heart stops and down he goes. An appropriate way for a duck to die. A female lays a clutch of 8 to 12 eggs a year, but predators — skunk, fox, coyote, raccoon, opossum, largemouth bass — take a lot of eggs and hatchlings. Only 10 to 20 percent of duck eggs make it to duck adulthood. Moreau notices one female looking a little distressed — she is followed by only two ducklings, still very young. He wants to think she’s stashed a few more in the reeds, but he knows that unlikely. We have binoculars, and he keeps handing them to me and pointing out different species — and several wood ducks.
Want to know another way he honors these birds? He stuffs and mounts them, and this is how it works. A customer brings him a dead duck, frozen, guts and all, as soon as possible after shooting it.
It is okay for the sensitive reader to stop now, so as not to linger too long on the thought of shooting to death an innocent animal. Human beings hunt. For 99 percent of human existence we have been hunters and gatherers, always have been, always will be. Almost all hunters are conservationists. And almost all hunters eat every scrap of meat on everything they kill. Very few hunters own handguns. One doesn’t hunt with a handgun.
The night before Moreau mounts a duck, he thaws it, and it sits in a Tupperware container until morning, soaking in water and a secret chemical: Joy dishwashing soap. He takes a thawed and drenched pintail duck out of the water and holds it up for me. It has already been cleaned. All that is left is the skin, the feathers, the bill, the feet, and five bones: wings, legs (to the first joint), and skull. To do this, he made a shallow incision down its belly and peeled the skin and feathers off the bird in one piece. Didn’t need to open the gut cavity. He uses all the meat, either barbecuing it in a simple recipe I’ll reveal at the end of this, or he makes it into sausage or salami. Duck salami: sounds good to me!
When he holds the dripping duck up by the neck, it is one of the most sorry-looking creatures I’ve seen. I’ve seen better-looking roadkill. Its neck is grossly elongated (when it’s wet, it stretches; when it dries, it shortens up), it is soaked, colorless, like a rung-out dishrag. That will change very quickly. First, Moreau wrings out the duck. (I wonder if the previous six words have appeared in that order before in an English sentence.) Then he dips it in a tub of acetone, which degreases the duck. He removes the duck from the acetone and literally turns the duck inside out while he pats and shakes it dry. Already the duck is starting to look fuller, fluffier. Then he whips out a hair dryer and finishes off most of the drying process, and the duck, though still limp and hollow, has almost all of the life of its feathers back.
He’s precut five pieces of wire: one for each leg, each wing, and another for the neck. He now does something that reminds me again of the work of a doctor or nurse: as if inserting an IV, he threads a wire into the duck’s middle toe’s tendon, which looks a lot like the vein in the back of a human hand, and works the wire up through the foot and leg, with a few inches left over in the chest cavity. Each foot, each wing. The threading of the wire through the wings is less dramatic, like getting a hypodermic through your shirt. He runs another wire through the middle of a piece of “foam-bird necking,” inserts it in the duck’s neck, into the skull. The wires, of course, are there so the taxidermist can position the bird in any way he wants. Doing this realistically is learned the old-fashioned way: by watching thousands of living birds and by studying pictures. Most birds are mounted to show them in flight.