Taxidermy is never out of season

CERES — If you only learn one thing about taxidermy, learn this: Animals aren't stuffed, they're mounted.

"Stuffed" comes from the 1800s, when game animals were stuffed with rags. "Mounted" comes from the 1900s, when naturalists and artists fused dissection, tanning, carpentry, casting, molding, woodwork, leatherwork, sculptor and painting into a modern craft.

Steve Burke has mounted trophies for area hunters at the Sportsmen's Den in Ceres for almost 20 years.

The mounts on display in his studio change as customers pick them up, but earlier this month, a 300-pound black bear stood guard near the door. On the wall was a smallmouth bass arching toward some reeds, a black bass hiding under a lily pad, two fat flushing mallards and the biggest pintail Burke has seen — he needed to use a large mallard body to fill out the skin (more on that later).

Across the studio, a wild boar head and full coyote looked at the bench where Burke works, next to a pheasant under a "Posted: No hunting" sign. A 5-by-5 bull elk, shot in Colorado by Lt. Brent Smith of the Ceres Police Department, stood in the middle of the room.

"I grew up in a hunting family. It was a time when I spent a lot of time with my family and now my friends," Smith said. "It's a lot of good memories."

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Whatever the mount, it starts in Burke's freezer. Burke's mother-in-law used to say he had the only freezer in town where the meat stared back. Now, the studio is lined with commercial freezers, though he still washes dead birds in the kitchen sink and runs them through the family washing machine.

Hunters are funny about their prey. Whether bird or boar, elk or eland, it always looked bigger in the field. Some chase trophies: the biggest bass, widest rack or most points. Others want to commemorate time with friends and family. Still others, like me, want a reason to tell visitors about that perfect shot.

My canvasback showed up midway through my fourth duck hunt in January. I was sitting in the Vierra family blind at Featherstone Duck Club outside Gustine. We were close to limiting on green-wing teal when a big drake canvasback cruised by my far left, 45 yards out. Learning to use a shotgun can be frustrating, but when this can caught my eye, for the first time in my first season of hunting, it all came together. One shot, crack, and the bird wadded up. It splashed in 4 feet of cold water.

"You better start leading them a little bit better," Burke said four months later, my canvasback splayed on his workbench. "You did a number on this foot."

The right foot was a little mangled, but the pattern was good. One pellet shattered the right wing, and a few others cut through the breast — stoning the bird dead in flight.

Burke spread the webbing in his hand. He pulled the bill and shook the carcass.

"People do it different ways," he said. "Basically, we're going to turn this thing inside out. We're going to get all the meat out of him, all the fat, clean him up, tan the skin, then we're going to put him back together."

No blood, no guts

"Taxidermy," from the ancient Greek words for movement and skin, roughly translates to "the movement of skin," but the real work doesn't start until the skin is off.

A scalpel is run from the nape of the neck, down the belly, to the vent, just deep enough to break the skin. There's no blood and guts. Bones are sawed; neck meat is cut high near the skull, and the organs and meat come out in one package. Borax is liberally sprinkled over the first incision and into the bird. Some taxidermists use corn cob; some don't use anything.

Taxidermists can order plastic skulls and bills for every variety of waterfowl shot in North America. Burke prefers to use the real bill and skull. Meat and brain is scraped out. Wing bones are cut just above the joints. Pipe cleaners are sent up the bones, pushing out the marrow. The bird is turned inside out, and fats binded to the skin are cut, scraped and brushed off with an electric wire wheel.

"It's important to get the meat off the scapulas because we want (those feathers) to stand up after it's mounted," Burke said, fanning out the wing. "You got to get all that meat and gristle out of there."

Burke prides himself on having clean birds — mounts that shine — but the duck at this point has been reduced to a rag. He walked it into his kitchen and covered it in "high-dollar secret solution" — Dawn dish soap.

Rinsed of the soap, the bird is thrown into a washing machine on spin cycle for five minutes to get the water out. Asked if he cleans his clothes in there, he looked surprised: "Yeah, the dirty ones."

The bird is worked over with a hair dryer and goes into a tumbler — a barrel filled with corn cob that spins.

"It actually polishes the feathers, like when you tumble gun shells, brass; same type of idea," Burke said.

Back together again

I saw a picture of a canvasback standing on a rock awhile back. Not quite resting, not quite alert, the bird looked to be settling in, at peace. The wings were fluffed, just starting to tuck onto the back. That's the mount I wanted. For mallards and pintails, the flushing mount — when a bird explodes into flight — is popular. For the canvasback, which runs along the water to take off, that wouldn't work. Flying mounts are perhaps the most popular, but I wanted something for my writing desk, something to remind me of my first hunting season.

Whatever the mount, the body is foam. Taxidermy catalogues sell the foam cores for everything from widgeons to water buffalo with large mallards being the largest for ducks. Eyes are purchased, too — glass. The skull is filled with clay.

Wire is run from the foam core, through the neck material and skull, and out the forehead. The neck is bent to the desired shape. More wire is run from the bottom of the foot through the leg bones, replacing the marrow and into the core. The same is done with the wings. The right wing, which was shattered by my No. 2 steel, had to be rebuilt from wire. Heavy-gauge wire was run through the humerus, making an artificial radius and ulna, which was wrapped for shape with thinner wire and folded into the proper position.

Borax and cotton fill the space between the skin and foam. The main incision is sewn with heavy black thread.

Something to remember

Ryan Mattingly, who manages Fiscalini Farm in Modesto, has brought Burke lots of African game. A picture of Mattingly with a giant warthog is prominent on the photo board at the Sportsmen's Den.

"I spend a lot of money going halfway across the globe, so when I bring something back, I want it to look good," Mattingly said. "As far as the hunting aspect, you put a lot of time in searching and finding, so there's a real sense of accomplishment. When you get (a mount) back, you want to see that. You want something that looks lifelike."

If there's any criticism of Burke's work, it's that he takes a long time. But last year, he didn't take in new customers and encouraged big-game hunters to use another taxidermist. By August, he expects a three- to nine-month turnaround. Burke charges $200 a bird, $500 a deer head, $850 an elk head. A bear can cost thousands.

With a bird mount, every feather is adjusted. The larger ones are pinned in place. Once the bird is sewn, injection molding fills out the legs and toes. Then, Burke usually spends 10 or 15 minutes a day for a week or two tweaking the feathers, adjusting things, making it look perfect. The skin is hardening during this process, and after two weeks, the mount is tight and stiff — the feathers stay in place. Paint is mixed, and the legs and beak are airbrushed. Satin clear goes over the paint to protect from chipping.

Glasses balancing on the tip of his nose, Burke holds up his work. He checks the beak color, the feet, smooths some wing feathers and pulls on the tail.

"That isn't too bad," he said. "I think that's what you wanted."

It is. And now, when my girlfriend's friends come over, when they pass through my office, they'll stop. Not hunters, they'll probably make a face. They'll point and ask, "Is that a real duck?"

"Why, yes," I'll say. "Last January, I was out in the grasslands near Gustine ... "