Sunday afternoon is typically dedicated to relaxing pursuits—celebrating foreskins, lifting a three ton religious icon, watching Snow White get gang-banged by dwarves, and, apparently, methodically tearing back the flesh of a dead sparrow and plucking out its internal organs. Which, along with eight other women, was precisely how I spent my Sunday a few weekends ago.
Part grim anatomy lesson, part painstaking art form, taxidermy involves completely dismantling the creature you begin with and rebuilding it as something else—some new animal, one that won't struggle when you try to dress it in a tiny skirt.
The class was taught by Divya Anantharaman, a stylish young Brooklyn-based taxidermy pro who was not at all the mustachioed elderly woman I assumed she would be. Divya is a former shoe designer, and has been taxidermying (for the purposes of this story, that is now a word) for around 5 years, having only recently quit her day job to pursue it full-time. When she was younger, she said, she wanted to be a sculptor—but also a biologist, chemist and plastic surgeon. Taxidermy, she found, was a way of combining those passions.
The class was held in a windowless room, ironically called The Observatory, at Proteus Gowanus, an arts space and reading room just east of the Gowanus Canal. On a plastic table sat piles of glimmering knickknacks, the stuff of children/gay hobbyist’s dreams: Tiny clothes, paper drink umbrellas, miniature flower baskets and piles upon piles of costume jewelry tumbled every which way, forming a sort of kitschy treasure trove.
The class filtered in, some taking their seats by their preferred sparrows, which were arranged on tables, sitting on plates on a pile of Borax and "dry preservative," along with several menacing-looking tools: a scalpel, pliers, tweezers, and a sinister prodding device that looked like a thickened needle.
Others began selecting the tiny clothes and objects with which they'd like to adorn their birds. One woman, with a blue streak in her hair, had brought a sparrow-sized tea pot from home, and even wire, "in case I want to make it glasses," she said.
It's worth noting that women comprise 80 percent of Divya's classes, though she's not sure why. Men tend to ask about large game, she said, while some sign up for her mouse and squirrel sessions. Her students are usually in their 20s and 30s, and are typically creative types—though she does get the occasional investment banker or lawyer. She added also that the classes have been the setting of everything from mother/daughter outings to OKCupid dates. Of the eight people in my class, all were women.
I picked a sparrow that looked serene and well-kempt, thinking somehow that this would have anything to do with how it would look once I was done with it. This, in retrospect, was laughably naïve.
What You Can And Cannot Taxidermy: A Primer
The first order of business was to take a look at the birds that are off limits under federal law. Aside from your standard bald eagle and condor, several more common birds were banned, as well: Geese, scrub jays, and even pigeons are all protected, forever safe from the prospect of spending their afterlives trapped in doll clothes, even if they die of natural causes. Luckily for us, it's open season on sparrows and starlings—thanks to their status as invasive species, both birds are considered pests. "They're actually really mean birds," Divya told us, "They're assholes, for sure."
Though it is perfectly legal to scoop these birds off the sidewalk and stick them in your purse next to your chapstick, Divya doesn't do that, because THAT would be weird. She orders her sparrows from a farmer in Ohio, who finds them dead around his property.
The Making Of The Form
Next we made a form, an enjoyable and non-disgusting process that involves smushing together a small packet of wood wool, a material that closely resembles what you might use to fill an Easter basket, which you might then fill with candy! This was just the beginning of several food associations I would unwisely go on to make.
We wrapped our forms first with string, then with thin wire, then the whole ensemble was then skewered with a thicker wire, like a shishkabob. Ugh. We then set aside our forms. It was time to open up the bird.
The Part You’ve Probably Been Waiting For
Let’s get down to brass tacks. First, we slit the sparrow open down its belly and wiggled its skin back, revealing a compact arrangement of organs. Though sparrows have exceptionally thin skin, it nevertheless does not slide particularly gracefully from the organs it encases. Looking around, I saw the other women had fearlessly dived into their sparrows.
I was not especially disgusted by this process as I was terrified of breaking the fragile creature. More often than not, I waited for Divya’s help, rather than digging in myself—a tactic I’ve employed since grade school. I reasoned that I’d only get one bird, and I'd rather not risk ripping its legs off.
Once the skin was removed, it was necessary to pull the bird's legs up and through its own skin, "like taking off pants," Divya said, whimsically. The same gruesome process was applied to the wings (Like taking off a jacket!) I never really learned the utility of this, but I did manage to puncture a sizable hole in the sparrow's wing in the process.
To my classmates' credit, everyone powered through the removal of the "body" from within the skin, which, when removed, resembled a little tissuey nugget that lay next to a pile of rumpled sparrow skin. These noxious nuggets were whisked away to be properly disposed of, though not fast enough to keep my stomach from lurching inside my own body nugget.
There was only one woman in the class who proved unable to handle the gore. She disappeared for long stretches at a time, leaving Divya's intern to go about the business of disemboweling her bird for her, making me deeply jealous until I remembered that I had volunteered for this.
When she eventually returned, she looked peaked. "If she throws up," I thought, "it is over for me." I tried not to think about shots of tequila I had taken the night before (why?!), or the yogurt I had eaten on my way over, or the collection of body-nuggets piled in a trash bag nearby, availed of their skin.
The Brain/Eyes and Ugh…Tongue
The process of taxidermy is slow, painstaking, and requires an amount of patience I suspect I will never have. My hope was that the head would simply take care of itself, maybe just go ahead and mummify or something as a way of thanking me for doing such a great job removing the body-nugget. This was not to be.
The process of extracting bird brains involves flipping the skin inside out, revealing a nice, round hole—the foramen magnum (I looked it up.) Using our sharp needle tool, we scooped out the cerebral matter. It came out in gobs roughly the color and consistency of raspberry sherbet.
"Yours has so much brain!" the woman next to me exclaimed. "It must have been pretty smart!" I replied, amusing no one. Having removed the brain, we packed the skull with Borax and clay.
The eyes and tongue came next. Everyone marveled at the size of the eyes, which looked like either small blackberries or black beans, depending on your perspective. The tongue—I still can't talk about the tongue. It's longer than you'd expect, anyway.
I executed these steps with limited success, continuing to lean heavily on Divya's guidance. By this time, we'd been at it for five hours. My vision began to blur. I missed the sun. My hangover had blossomed fully, though the idea of eating or drinking anything seemed somehow out of the question.
Reanimating The Sparrow
Relieved of its internal organs, the clump of feathers that was once a sparrow was ready to be restuffed. If there was anything spiritual or transcendental about this experience, I believe it occurred here, when the bird was no longer a bird, but a feathery bag awaiting rebirth as something else—something pretty. Something wearing a skirt.
But there was still a lot of work to be done. The once fresh-looking feathers were now matted and thinned from the rough treatment necessary to yank out the body nugget. At one point, I failed to locate the bird's head, finding it lost somewhere in a sea of its own flesh. This was no longer a bird. It was a bird costume, wearable only by a creature smaller than itself. A hummingbird, perhaps? If I lived through this, I vowed to make a hummingbird wearing sparrow skin, creating a sort of Russian nesting doll of taxidermied animals.
The girl who had been "sick" listlessly used her bird skin as a finger puppet, awaiting further instruction. Around me, my classmates discussed the difficulty of the bird versus their other projects, namely, a mouse, a class that Divya also teaches. It struck me that I was one of the only people who had never taxidermied anything. Where do these people come from? [Editor's note: Brooklyn.]
Finally, it was time to stuff the bird with our long forgotten forms. The top of the shishkabob wire jutted up and into the bird's skull. The only task now was to wrap the skin around the form and stitch it up using a regular old needle and thread, just as you might stitch up a shirt.
I looked at my bird. It did not look good. It looked, in fact, precisely like I would look if I had just been through all that, being dissected by the bumbling, fearful hands of a well-intentioned but highly inept giant.
By the time class was done, it was nearly 7 p.m. I pushed pins through the bird’s feet, hoping he would stand on the stick I'd selected as his base. I looked at my props, which now seemed gauche. I selected a tiny blue baseball cap bearing a pink heart, and an empty bottle. I deliberated on whether to glue a plastic baby to his feet, hoping it would appear as though he'd gotten drunk and stolen it from a park or something. I decided against the baby.
“He looks like Kevin Federline,” one woman quipped. Kevin Featherline. As I carried my creation home, onlookers did double takes. “It’s a bird!” one couple exclaimed.
One woman, pushing a double-wide stroller down 2nd Street, looked at me with revulsion that I found deeply satisfying. After seven hours, I was tired, anxious, and vaguely ill, but walking around Park Slope, Kevin Featherline leaning precariously off his branch, made all of this worth it. I smiled. I approached my house, and kept walking, enjoying a prolonged victory lap with my new friend.
(Stephen Rex Brown)
Want to taxidermy your own sparrow? Divya is offering another class this very Sunday. Sign up here.