You take your oldest son (or daughter) hunting for the first time. It’s a slower day, but you are thankful because a kids first hunt doesn’t always go the smoothest, as you have learned. You need the extra time to make sure they are comfortable and ready. As you are encouraging your child to talk in a soft voice and explaining why this is important, a single mallard drake flawlessly lights in the decoys. You glance over to make sure they are ready and you make a quick shot. The drake crumbles over the decoys. Your young and witty offspring swears you completely whiffed, but you tell him to release your family dog by using her name to make the retrieve. “Bailey!” Their beloved house pet leaps into the frigid water after the greenhead. The look on their face is irreplaceable. You smile as they cheer on the “Good Girl” for the flawless retrieve. Bailey splashes her way back and you can’t help but notice a shiny piece of metal on the duck’s leg. Banded! A hunt that you and your child with never forget ends with a textbook retrieve and a trophy bird. You tell them you are going to have it mounted so you both can always remember this day. Now what do you do with the duck?
As a taxidermist I have seen it all. There is nothing I hate more than calling my client and saying, “Sorry, you bird isn’t mountable... but here are your options…” I know that trophy bird is important to you because it’s a memory. No matter how great a taxidermist is, the quality of a mount will always be determined by the quality of the bird, the way it was handled, and how it was stored before being taken to the taxidermist. So here are the steps you need to take to ensure to preserve all your favorite memories and your bird makes it from the field to the taxidermist in the best condition possible.
Overview: The Do’s
- Keep a 2-Gallon Ziploc Freezer Bag in your Truck, Boat, or Rig ‘Em Right Blind Bag. I never go hunting without one. You never know when you are going to need a bag for a spilled box of shells, snacks, or a trophy bird. This is the first place your bird should go after it loses its body heat. If you can, wrap the head/bill and feet in wet paper towels before putting into the bag. Tuck the head under one of the wings and slide it into the bottom of the bag. Zip it halfway and start to gently press and roll the air out of the bag. Completely close it when the bag is 99% free of air. Air is your trophies worst enemy in a freezer. If your duck has a long tail feather or sprig, try not to bend or break it. Label the Ziploc with the species, sex, date it was shot, and location of kill. This not only keeps you legal, but also takes the guess work out of the paperwork you will fill out with a taxidermist. After all that good stuff put the bird in the freezer within 24 hours after it was shot.
- Wrap Wet Paper Towels around the Bill/Head and the Feet before Freezing. This is very important if you know your bird is going to sit in the freezer for a long time before it arrives at a taxidermist. If you do this step before you put your bird into the Ziploc and into the freezer your taxidermist will love you for it. The first areas of a bird to freezer burn are the head/bill and the feet. The bird’s skin loses its elasticity if freezer burn occurs. I use fake heads so the bill doesn’t matter as much as the skin around the head. If the thin skin around the head becomes inflexible, it doesn’t stretch correctly over the fake head. This tip prevents that issue completely, and also saves your taxidermist a lot of time rehydrating the bird with the possibility of having to replace it.
- Carry Out of the Field by the Feet and Not the Head or Neck. If you do not have a bag, carry the bird out of the field by its feet and not the head or neck. Do not stick the bird in a game strap. Once you get back to the truck, stick the duck in a cooler or somewhere safe (away from dogs) until you can get it into a freezer.
- Try to Pick a Bird that is Fully Plumed with No Missing Feathers. Some bucket list hunts end with a group of hunters wanting to take birds home with them to mount. Try to pick birds that are completely plumed and don’t have any broken wings or missing primaries. Also, pick birds without broken legs and shot up feet. The guide or someone who is knowledgeable about that species can usually help you make the right decision when picking the most mature bird to mount.
- Take the Bird to a Taxidermist as Soon as You Can. This isn’t a tip a lot of people will tell you, but the sooner you can get the bird to a professional the sooner they can thaw it and pack it the way they prefer. I can make birds last 5+ years in a freezer if I package them myself. Most hunters bring me birds that couldn’t last 1 year in a freezer without me having to get a replacement specimen. A high-quality mount depends 70% on the bird and 30% on how it was taken care of after it was shot.
The Do Not’s
- Do Not Let the Dog Chew the Bird. I know this seems self-explanatory, but you would be surprised. If you can retrieve the bird yourself that is even better. Try to keep your trophy away from the dog and away from the kill pile. The less stress on the body and feathers the better!
- Do Not Breast Out Your Bird to Eat it and then Bring it to Your Taxidermist to Mount. Again, you would think this was self-explanatory, but I have seen it all.
- Do Not Wring the Neck or Bite the Head. Those tiny feathers around the head and neck are always visible on mounts and it is hard to hide damage in an area with small feathers. If your bird is crippled and still alive, here are your options: compress its chest and suffocate it, stick a small pocket knife into the roof of its mouth and penetrate the brain without poking through the top of the head. You can also buy a Finisher tool. If you buy a Finisher though, you need to learn how to properly dispatch the bird. A Finisher can also be a taxidermist’s worst nightmare if not used properly. Please do not randomly stab the head. Watch YouTube videos and see how it is accurately done. Try to only make one hole. This will save your feathers and your bird.
- Do Not Use Panty Hose, Newspaper, or a Vacuum Sealer. I always have issues with blood clotting on panty hose and sticking to the feathers. When you remove the bird from the panty hose this can pull the feathers out. Panty hose also do not protect against freezer burn. Some of the worst birds I have ever received from clients have been stored in panty hose. A newspaper can actually transfer the ink onto the bird. So, unless you want to read the sports section on your snow goose, please don’t do this. A vacuum sealer has different issues. It will pull the fluids from the bird and they will get on the feathers. Secondly, most vacuum seal bags have some sort of design that can actually be imprinted onto the plumage. Lastly, I don’t think I have ever seen a vacuum sealed bird that actually keeps its seal. Eventually air is going to get into the seal and expand the bag. Again, air is your birds worst enemy in a freezer.
I hope this helps with any questions you’ve ever had about getting a trophy bird from the field to the taxidermist and then onto the wall. I am always available to answer any questions you might have as well. From packaging a bird for the freezer or how to ship birds to a taxidermist legally. Please message me if you have any comments or questions!
Waterfowl Taxidermist & Photographer