Five Minutes and a Hair Dryer

In the five years I’ve been skinning I’ve acquired a good many life lessons from it, which is on the one hand a surprising thing to say about the process of removing all of the soft tissue and some of the bone from a bird’s body and replacing it with cotton wool, thread, and a wooden dowel, and on the other hand entirely unsurprising, since we all learn from the things we spend our time working hard to get better at.

I thought about one of these lessons the other day, when I took these pictures:

Wet Bewick's wren

dry Bewick's wren

The photograph on the top shows a study skin of a female Bewick’s wren (Thyromanes bewickii). Underneath it is the same specimen, five minutes later. The only difference between them is the time I spent drying.

I know this doesn’t sound like much of a life lesson yet, but here it is: Embrace drying.

When a bird is wet—in life as in death—it looks like crap. The barbs and barbules that give feathers a smooth, tight weave when they’re properly preened crumple and stick together. Down turns into a kind of sludge. So for a long time I tried to avoid getting my bird’s feathers wet as I was working, even though I had to use water to keep its skin moist. I have no idea why, but I had somehow collected the ridiculous and unquestioned notion that if a study skin was going to turn out well, it had to look good all the way along.

But washing a bird really helps to remove blood, fat, and dirt from its feathers. And if you commit to the process—a wren might take five minutes to properly dry, a snowy owl upwards of an hour and a half, depending on the temperature and strength of the air stream you use—a good drying can make up for a lot of the things that might have gone wrong in skinning. Maybe you lost a bunch of feathers, or ripped the skin around the skull. A well-dried bird will look like the best version of itself it can possibly be.

If this still doesn’t sound like much of a life lesson, here is a translation: To make something beautiful, be unafraid of making something ugly first.

A corollary: Something you think is ugly might just not be finished yet. It is easy to overlook what it takes to finish.

Either way—you can’t dry what you don’t get wet.

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