Of all the regal birds that are on this planet, the members of Cygnus must be one of the most iconic representatives. From their peculiar form to their unique social habits, the Swan is a striking symbol for us humans. Power, Beauty, Fidelity, Protection, Elegance, Transformation, and Divinity are but a few of the qualities we have imparted to this bird in our metaphoric library of human experience made flesh. The swan in many ways presents to us as an avataric or zoomorphic manifestation of the knowledge of Nature in a spiritual context. Is it any surprise that all wild swans in England are property of the crown?
Though he has sung his only song, in silence I have found a place for him to inspire us all to the nature of zoology’s anthropological influence seated deep within our collective experience. The emotive connection we establish with such an animal is quite beyond words.
It is not every day that you come across an unpinioned ranch raised swan, (pinioned means that the wing tips have been clipped to prevent flight which is very common amongst breeders and owners.) with both wings intact and in beautiful shape, I decided that an outstretched pose was best, though I was not eager to do a flying pose. To me this bird looked extremely soldier like. And for whatever reason, I have always felt that the subject in Jean-Leon Gerome’s painting Pollice Verso was very birdlike, perhaps because of the outstretched sword. I used this painting as a reference for the leg positioning and attitude for this piece. With tubby water birds such as this, it is very easy to accidentally make them look like slabs on sticks when standing, or awkward and clumsy when in flight. Google search “swan taxidermy” and you will see what I mean. This made if very important for me to present this piece in a way that evokes some of the majesty and mystery discussed in the above statement, since very few seem to have done so.
The process for a bird this size actually takes quite a bit more time than most people think, I imagine. The whole thing is pretty “ongoing” so I guess I would best explain it in sections.
The skinning takes a few hours, which includes all the bone clean up and measurement taking for the form. After this I start getting to work on all the crap that goes inside it. That took an afternoon or so.
I use extremely strong support rods for this. The legs have 1/4 inch threaded steel going through them that are epoxy anchored into the form. The wings have 3 different large gauge wire to provide enough support and positioning stability. I use a foam coated copper tubing for the neck just because it bends so evenly. That then gets epoxied into the skull and body. The prepping of all this can be time intensive since there is a lot of grinding and sharpening involved with the metal bits, and of course the form finishing itself, though swans are not at all a difficult thing to sculpt out, they are pretty forgiving in regards to anatomical detail, so actually the time taken for that is reletively short compared to other birds. (of course with mammals form building can take me days and days.
During all of this, I am also tanning the swan. I prefer a wet tan method. There is also the defatting to be considered. This guy required a lot of time under the wire wheel, probably about an hour and a half or so. Once the skin is tanned, defatted, and chemically degreased, I dry the feathers using diatomaceous earth, This bird was far too large to tumble, so all of that is done by hand, that and tumbling would have caused damage wing feathers. Then I start the mounting process. This goes frightfully fast since I want to make sure that the skin doesn’t start drying, with birds like this I will usually have them up and standing after a few hours. Once the bird is roughly positioned and sewn up, I will move him over to the drying stand. This is usually some random trash looking scaffolding that I construct to fit each project individually. The swan required a big one with a lot of bells and whistles.
The legs get bolted down, and everything else put into its rough draft form. The wings are bent into position after obsessing over reference photos and pacing around a lot. In order to keep them extended I use a series of clamps at the base of several of the primary feathers, those are attached to wires which are screwed into my ceiling. At this point I will tape and paper the flight feathers into their proper positions, this allows them to dry in position without going askew.
Now for the next few days I will go back to it and continue moving feathers around and checking progress of drying, as well as periodic injections of special preservative plumping sauce into the “hand” of the wing as well as the feet. (I oil the foot leather lovingly at this point too.)
Once all that stuff is done, and the swan is completely dry, I remove all the support hardware, this took a few weeks. (it was also pretty cold.) Then comes the finish work, cleaning any feathers that need it, and painting the bill.
I guess all in all it takes several weeks of work, but its not all intense, having said that though, it still costs many many hours to pull something like this off; which is especially disheartening when you really screw something up! But when it works, the feeling is amazing.