NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art

Preserving Bird Wings, Tails, or Talons
By Tara Prindle with some tips from Elke Hepach and Les Tate

From a post to the NativeTech Message Board on Sept. 15, 1998

The methods of drying wings/claws will vary depending on the condition of 'meat' of the animal part. If your wings/tails are not fresh, I need to warn you that once maggots get into flesh, they *never leave. I was told this first, then learned by experience with some 20 wings/tails that had been exposed to the elements that I *wanted to save as whole parts. But to no avail, even after three years of 'treatment' the 'meat' was ruined and some wings/tails still had active critters in them.

Bird wings and tails need to be fresh to preserve them as whole parts. There are two methods I know of to preserve whole wings and tails:

Salt Water Method:

If fresh enough to preserve the entire wing for a fan, the best way is to soak the part for two weeks in a saturated salt solution (pickling salt or the driveway salt works well and is inexpensive).

In a bucket of lukewarm water keep pouring in salt and stirring until no more of it will dissolve. You may have to weight the wing down with a well-placed rock so it does not float. After two weeks, take the wing out and nail it to a board in the position you want it to dry in.

Leave it for another two weeks to dry on the board. Then take it off the board and rinse it in (It was recommended to me to use spring water). Preen the feathers with Woolite soap (which helps to condition the feathers) and rinse off the soap... Then you have to blow-dry the feathers while preening them with your fingers to get the fletching all zipped back together.

Borax Method:

You can use Borax (washing soda) and lay down a 1/8 to 1/4 inch base of the powder.. Then lay/nail your wing over it, and cover the wing with another 1/8 to 1/4 inch layer of the borax powder - you should let the wing dry for at least a month. You don't need to wash the borax off, it should just shake off. This won't however get rid of bird mites. To rid the feathers of bird mites, pet stores sell a spray for domestic birds such as parrots and parakeets.

Cornmeal Method (contributed by Les Tate):

Walter Hill, the 84 year old Mohawk medicine man I know, told me that the old way of drying the wings and feet of birds is to sprinkle a small pile of cornmeal on the exposed flesh. I had brought him a bird that had been killed on the highway. Its head was smashed and one foot was broken. I helped him remove the full wings, the larger feathers on the remainder of the body, and the feet at what would be the knee on a human. He straightened the broken leg bone in the one foot, then stood both feet upright so that they stood on the claws. He lay the wings with the outer side down. Then he sprinkled corn meal on the exposed flesh. When I saw the items a month later, they were completely dry and ready for use. As an addendum, he took the bird's body into the woods alone and did a ceremony over it so that it would have a good trip home.

For feathers that you know you'll have to eventually pluck from the wings:

The best way is what my Uncle told me… to pluck the feathers when they are fresh, our family raised poultry when he was young, and he would dip the birds in boiled water … the feathers then pluck out easily.

If you used the salt water or borax methods to dry the wings/tails, and you still want to pluck the feathers, after a month of drying time the feathers are really cemented into the meat, so you have to take an xacto blade and cut down either side of the quill, or carefully scrape the Flesh away from the top of the quill, in order to pull the feathers out.

Mite control on feathers:

It is a good idea to store feathers from different birds in different plastic bags… that way if one has mites, it will not spread to all the other feathers… mites are not easily seen without a microscope. Feather mites are itty bitty teensy weenie things, but they do leave tell tale signs in feathers. Over time, feathers with mites start to show holes and ragged edges in the fletching, from where mites have been eating the feathers. It is a good idea to spray the feathers with pet store ‘mite spray’ every so often…

Elke Hepach from Germany offered his tips on controlling mites:

You can also put the feathers in small numbers in plastic bags with pieces of soap inside. Another way is to wash single feathers and when they are dried, put them into a large plastic bag. Then spray insecticide into a smaller plastic bag and put the smaller bag into the larger bag… this way the feathers are not sprayed or damaged by the insecticide directly…. The large plastic bag with the feathers (and smaller bag with the insecticide) is closed for 24 hours… then the large bag is opened and left for another 24 hours. In Germany the mites are called ‘Milben’. Elke also told me that a freezer will also kill Milben, but that he would get in trouble with his parents if he put the feathers in their freezer!

Gladstar, a fiber artist specializing in natural basketry, suggests:

This is another way to save feathers and wing portions, as well as eradicating maggots and/or mites. I place wing portions and/or feathers inside paper bags with moth balls. Store in dry area. The feathers dry slowly and without insects or mildew problems and the moth balls kill everything.

~ good luck ~

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