The bird is looking better and better. Moreau works very fast, eyeballs everything (no measuring tools), and makes it look easy, which is why master craftsmen are called master craftsmen. I can see the muscles and tendons in his forearms and hands working hard. In fact, he’s been having problems with tendinitis lately, and he wears a band at the top of his forearms that seems to lessen the pain. He shows me the inside of the bird. The skin is a creamy white dotted with goose bumps: the feathers pressing from the outside. It is the softest skin, I swear, I’ve ever touched. I can see two or three pellet marks from the shotgun that took him down. Boo-hoo.
Next, Moreau stuffs the bird. A great deal of taxidermy is done now with “blanks” — you buy, from a taxidermy supply house, the inner form of a creature. If you look at catalogs, these forms seem very odd. They’re made for virtually every creature on earth. They’re kind of a sickly yellow color and have no (or virtually no) protuberances — antlers, gills, ears, tails, etc. They look naked, impotent, bald, ghosts of the creatures they are. Moreau still mounts his bird the old-fashioned way: he wraps the proper amount of excelsior (wood wool) in twine, presses it here and there to form the right shape, and in it goes. Then he sews the bird’s belly up, seamlessly.
The eyes. The eyes of a creature are crucial. Realistic eyes and facial expression are very important, and how a taxidermist does eyes is one area where the men are separated from the boys. Moreau likes to give his birds “attitude,” and a lot of that is in the eyes. This particular pintail takes a 10-mm dark brown artificial eye. Many companies make just about any eyeball you might want, every creature, and they’ll even make eyes to order on specifications by the taxidermist. Moreau also calls the eyes “the personality” of the duck. He says he makes his pintail eyes (he shapes the eye socket) “more football shape,” avoids the “long-eyed look.” The pintail’s eyes are fairly easy to mount. The eyes of my now-favorite, the wood duck, are another matter. The eye, first of all, is rimmed by a deep but slightly diluted (maybe with a drop of gold) scarlet. Little, evenly spaced ridges or bumps all along the rim, when struck by sunlight, create an effect like a string of red-white-red-white Christmas lights circling the duck’s eye. The eye is teardrop-shaped, tilted on its side, pointy end forward. Next, the iris is a slightly more diluted scarlet but still a rich creamy color. Then a round asteroid belt of light green, the color of the earliest moss to appear in a springtime New England forest, dotted with black specks. It’s a circular falling star, or the head of a comet eating the tail of a comet. Then, then: the black, liquid, perfect ebony pearls, the pupils.
I read a very detailed description of how to mount these eyes. I won’t go into the process at length, but it works best with the old method of taxidermy, using the real skull rather than a blank. The copy promotes this for accuracy: “It is important to note that when skinning and cleaning the head skin that the natural eyelids are kept intact on the skin. There is no need to trim them off, and doing so would cause undue stretching of the opening — leave the lids on!”
There is no minutiae in this business, meaning no detail too small to pay attention to. To do the creature justice, every hair, every feather, every fleck, each subtlety has to be considered. I like looking at specialized catalogs like this — one is reminded over and over again of the power of the human imagination and the drive toward perfection, even as we know that there is no such thing as perfect when it’s made by man.
There is an advertisement in one of the trade catalogs I love: Skulls Unlimited. They’re the largest supplier of skulls and skeletons, and they’re a leading company “in commercial preparation of bone for colleges, taxidermists, and zoos.” They also provide another service. Say you’ve taken an animal, and you want its skeleton, for whatever reason. It’s gotta be clean, very clean. That could take dozens of hours by hand, scraping, boiling, fleshing with special tools. What if you have a whole moose skeleton you want cleaned of all flesh, cartilage, fat, ligaments, everything? You send it to Skulls Unlimited, and they put the subject in a box with several hundred dermestid beetles, which “assure that over-boiled or macerated specimens are a thing of the past.” It’s the same job the beetles do in the wild. The dermestids are the last species of beetle to arrive at a corpse in the woods (rat, squirrel, deer, human, etc.), and they polish off the gristle, etc. They’re gristle-eaters. On days when I believe in reincarnation, I like to think the people in this life who didn’t bat an eye while eating sumptuously in front of starving people come back, in their next life, as dermestid beetles.
Moreau has row upon row of little drawers filled with bird and fish eyes. He’s really zeroing in on the head now. Through this whole process, the only time the duck is out of his hand is when he puts it on his workbench for a few minutes to sew it up. He takes a pair of big tweezers and pokes little bits of excelsior into the bird’s head through the eye socket, and then with a larger pair of homemade wooden tweezers he inserts more right up the duck’s bill, into the skull and cheeks. It looks like a crane putting his beak into a duck’s mouth! He’s doing this very fast, putting minute bits in each side, each spot, constantly turning, gauging. He particularly favors a fuller-cheek look: “I don’t like my birds looking like they flew over from Ethiopia.”