Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Serendipity: Hunting, art and happiness

When you kill an animal, it seems to me you owe it to someone - God, Mother Nature or the animal himself - to make the best possible use of his body.

Boyfriend and I do the best we can: We pluck birds instead of breasting them out. We save their gizzards, livers and hearts if they're in good condition. We use their feet and bones to enrich broths.

But one thing we've always tossed aside without too much thought has been the feathers. Until now. Read more...
A couple weeks ago, one of my students - Leidhra, the editor in chief of the campus newspaper - came to school wearing these beautiful feather earrings. I recognized some of the feathers as something I might pluck off of any number of ducks we kill.

"Where'd you get those?" I asked.

"My mom made them."

I smiled. "I could give her a lot of feathers like that."

And so was born a new partnership. Instead of throwing away all those feathers that litter our garage floor in the winter, I would start setting aside some of the most beautiful for Leidhra's mom, Jennifer.

The first hunt day in this partnership, however, would be challenging: I'd brought home four hens (mallard, canvasback, spoonies) and one drake wigeon whose plumage hadn't fully developed yet.

Brown, brown, brown. Oh no.

So I started plucking, but with a new eye, one that looked for beauty in every single feather.

And it turned out beauty was everywhere.

A hen canvasback isn't just brown - there is a bronze-ish sheen to many of her feathers. I'd pay damn good money for a jacket in those colors and textures.

The ordinary shoulder feathers of a mallard and spoonie may appear drab from our normal perspective, but looked at individually, they bear a multitude of beautiful patterns of cream and brown.

The feathers of the speculum on a hen mallard are just as brilliant as a drake's. And her tail feathers sport a lovely mottled pattern of gray and white.

I dropped each little beauty into a box and took it to school, wondering whether Jennifer would like them.

I needn't have worried: She was thrilled, and not just because these would cost her a small fortune at a fly shop, where she normally gets them. Each new feather I showed her was like a magnificent Christmas present under the tree, its beauty something to be fully appreciated before moving on to the next one.

Another student who's Native American, Brittany, saw what we were doing in my office and came in for a closer look. She makes dream catchers, and asked if I might have some feathers for her too.

"Absolutely!" I said.

She told me her grandmother had hunted (and was pretty badass, too), and she had burned it into the kids' brains that you don't waste any part of an animal you kill.

This week, I came home with some beautiful drakes - pintails and a gadwall - and Jennifer was even more dazzled.

And I decided to surrender something I'd been saving: a bag of all varieties of feathers from the turkey I killed this spring.

I'd saved those feathers with an art project in mind. I envisioned a wall-hanging of deconstructed turkey, the feathers arranged in swirly, very un-turkey-like patterns on a flat surface (man, I just can't go for normal taxidermy). But I realized my life is too busy for an art project of that complexity, and I'd found two women who would make use of those feathers right now, and probably do a better job of it.

I feel giddy about this, and I'm trying pin down why.

I think part of it is that more of these birds will not only be used, but will be glorified in art. Part of it is having a non-hunter see and appreciate some of the beauty I see every time I pluck a duck (I've invited Jennifer to come over for plucking sometime so she can pluck to her artist-heart's content). Part of it is the simple joy of sharing.

But I think it's inescapable that part of it is also about revering the birds I kill. I know my saying that that makes many non-hunters cringe, if not guffaw, just as I know every hunter who reads this will know exactly what I mean.

The animals we hunt are a gift to be treasured: to be treated with respect when they're alive, and appreciated fully when we kill them. I feel like I've just taken one step in a direction toward much deeper appreciation. And it feels good.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Alison said...

What weird timing, I just bought some jewelry supplies on Sunday to finally make some sweet earrings out of my green-wing teal feathers! Naturally beautiful and unique, and a great way to commemorate a successful hunt. Ducks give us so much :)

Please do a follow-up post with some of their creations, I want to see!

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

I just LOVE this post, Holly. Thanks!

Shewee woman said...

Holly, I totally agree. I've been tying flies for years and when I can catch a trout on a fly made with a feather that I plucked from a kill, I am so elated.

I also agree, keep us posted as to some of your creations and your students. Nature is everywhere, and why should we throw it's beauty away, and when we recycle it is such a great feeling. I feel that the spirit of the bird lives on when we use it's feathers.

Way to go, and I am happy to hear you are connecting with the birds!

Anonymous said...

Outstanding use of the animal, and great article. The beauty is all around us. All we have to do is open our eyes.

Carolina Rig said...

Like you Holly, I find I don't have enough time to do justice to the variety of feathers I've accumulated over the years. I give a lot them away to kids and artists.

One cool thing I do while 'accumulating' the feathers is place them in my trucks sun visor. Did I say truck? I mean wagon. Helps me remember the past years hunts over the course of the off season.

Anonymous said...

Hi Holly-

I've been using the feathers from our last pheasant hunt in gift wrapping for friend's birthdays and for Christmas this year. Chocolate brown stain ribbon, silver paper, and a few pheasant feathers tucked in the bow--it looks awesome. I also saved all of the long pheasant tail feathers from out last hunt, and they are in a clear glass vase--it looks cool and sculptural, and it reminds us of our day out!

Jacqueline and Keith --SF

Josh said...


Anonymous said...

maybe link her website, so we could purchase some of your/her creations...

Jules said...

Along similar lines, I've been donating things to an elementary school science class. A friend from high school saw a Facebook post of mine and asked if she could have some parts. And since I save and tan all the hides I can (some good capes go to a taxidermist friend in case his customers have ruined theirs), I gladly agreed. I boxed up and shipped my little collected skull collection that I don't display any more, sent her two whole deer hides, a salvaged old mounted deer head, and a rack each of in-velvet and non-velvet antlers. She'd like feathers too, but my turkeys have become pets rather than livestock, so she might have to wait for that one. I loved passing these things along to an appreciative crowd. The kids are amazed by them, and it furthers education.

Holly Heyser said...

Oh Josh, I knew you'd say that! But I also know you can hunt ducks, while Jennifer and Brittany don't.

Anonymous, I'll find out if she has a website. If she doesn't, I'll take some photos and do a follow-up post.

Jules, I try to pass on good skulls to my mom (look at the upper right hand corner of the blog, under the subscription widget, and you'll see what she does with them). I don't tan hides yet, but I'd like to. And I was just wondering aloud to Jennifer yesterday: Can you tan a bird's skin? Normally, of course, we eat the skin, but I was wondering...

Shewee Woman, so cool! I've been flyfishing for trout just once, and I really loved it. If I had more time and money, I'd probably get into it, but my life overfloweth already...

Tovar, thanks!

Alison, funny coincidence, eh? I'd love to see what you do with your feathers. I've saved two sets of feathers before - a pintails tail feather with flight feathers, and a greenhead's curly tail feather with some of the flat tail feathers. I bound them together with heavy black thread and glue, and they hang on my bulletin board.

Carolina Rig, I thought about hanging those feathers in my car, but I hated the idea of them bleaching out in the sun.

Outfitter Life, one of the greatest lessons of this was opening my eyes to the beauty of the hens.

Huntress Livy said...

For so many years I've discarded the feathers, but each time I'm in an outdoorsman's house I see floral-type arrangements with lovely pheasant feathers sticking out. I even know of a lady who saved the down and made pillows from the softest most supple feathers -of course these pillows were on her couch and not on her beds, but it was lovely to see someone using a part of a bird that we often discard

Holly Heyser said...

We keep some feathers in vases too, though my little kitty Giblet thinks it's really fun to jump up and abscond with them. Cats love feathers so much, though, that it's impossible to be mad at her.

I was at a restaurant up in Weaverville once and the flower arrangements included fake pheasant tailfeathers. I thought it was the height of absurdity.

As for down pillows: We usually sacrifice the down because after plucking the outer feathers, we dip the ducks in hot wax to help remove the down. And you need a lot of space to store down for a long time to get the bugs out, so even if we didn't wax, I'm not sure we'd save it.

But whenever I pluck a speck or pintail to the down, I can't resist stroking the down - so soft!

Josh said...

Okay, I'll let it slide...
: )

BTW, if you read Chad Love's comments section, you'll see me shamelessly pitching for feathers... and Mr. Love shamelessly pitching for flies.

Holly Heyser said...

Yes, Josh, I did notice that when I was doing blog rounds last night. That's why I knew you'd grumble! But seriously, you know we'll have way more feathers than Jennifer or Brittany can use, so I'll save some for you, too. It's just a lot easier for me to spot art/jewelry potential than to spot fly potential, since I don't know jack about fly fishing.

SimplyOutdoors said...

I love, love this post.

I love how, through one observation and conversation, that you were inspired to look at an animal - one you've looked at closely many times - in a completely new light - appreciating every feather for what it is.

Amazing, Holly. And very cool!

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks, Simply! I always love looking at my ducks' feathers, but this definitely took it to a new level.

It's also kind of exciting to know that someone else out there is excited about what I bring home from the hunt.

Peebs said...

For the fly guys Mallard drake tail feathers make a great pair of legs on a popper Bass turn inside out on them they flex then return to the curl (they don't last long though)

Holly Heyser said...

That's an awfully purty feather to waste on a fish (said Holly, alienating all the anglers out there).

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Let's hear it for using every last bit. I only recently found out that turkey feathers weren't just usable but expensive, and one of my readers offered to trade a few jars of her home-cured olives for the feathers from our four turkeys. Best trade ever.

Holly Heyser said...

Nice! Who knew?

Albert A Rasch said...

Always nice when you serendipity and need collide! Great post!

Best Regards,
Albert A Rasch
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles: High Fence Hunting; Is the Public the Problem?

Hooter said...

Holly, For many years I spent most of the summer at the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation. You would be surprised at the beautiful jewelry they make out of beads and porqupine quills ! Lovely earrings and necklaces.

Greg Damitz said...

Aren't you throwing your name in for the EXTREME HUNTRESS contest?

Holly Heyser said...

Albert: Thanks!

Hooter: I've never seen a porcupine quill, but I imagine it was make great jewelry.

Greg: I'm on the Prois field staff, and Prois co-sponsors that contest, so nope, can't enter. And while I am an extreme duck huntress, I'm not sure anyone considers duck hunting that extreme (though they should) :-).

Ingrid said...

You're so right about feathers, Holly.

I always say the beauty of plumage transcends, by far, our own aesthetic appreciation. It's nothing short of miraculous how feathers are constructed to enhance a bird's efficiency and protect them from severe elements. The down and super-structure of feathers you mention is laid so perfectly as to create a wetsuit effect. It's why even one spot of oil or other patch of damage to a bird's feathers can kill it through hypothermia. The common adage is that a damaged spot is just like a hole in a wetsuit: The overall insulating effect of feathers is lost when even one portion of the bird's "suit" is compromised.

I sit for hours, watching birds through my telephoto and closeup in my rehab work. And even the common act of a bird preening is awesome -- as they labor to return each tiny strand of each feather to that optimal placement for flight and insulation.

We humans should be so perfectly suited to a niche and function.


suzee said...

You struck a chord here with me! I've always been fascinated with feathers... Gary laughs at me with my chickens. I love collecting their feathers... the last picture reminds me of my barred rock chickens... by the way, Your photography is awesome. I enjoyed your pictures that really showed off the simple pure beauty of feathers!
You were wondering if you could tan a birds skin. Our son ties flies and when I told him I'd save feathers for him when we butcherd, he told me you can skin the bird and stretch the skin on a board, scrape as much fat off of the skin and sprinkle it with Borax.After it is completely dried out you have the feathers still in tact on the skin instead of flying around loose.He really prefers getting his feathers this way and then just pulls out a feather or two as he needs it.I'll warn you... it's a little bit of work... mostly time consuming and you need a good place to let the skins dry out!Especially if you have cats! You make me want to take up waterfowl hunting... but as you've mentioned there's just not enough time to do it all!!... so I'll continue to enjoy living it through you and all your waterfowl friends!

Holly Heyser said...

Ingrid, I too am awed by the perfection of feathers as a unit, and by the immaculate care they require.

I'm also fascinated by how what appears as a uniform color or sheen on a duck isn't made of feathers that are all that color - often only the part of the feather that routinely shows has the color.

Suzee, that is fascinating, but it does sound like a lot of trouble, and of course it sacrifices what for us is one of the most delicious parts of the bird to eat: the skin.

Thank you regarding the photos! My photography (and photo equipment) has developed quite a bit over the past couple years, but it is a weird fact of life in this household that I do my best photography for Hank's blog. I usually just scrape by with whatever I can get for my own blog, because rarely does anyone photograph what I do. And of course I rarely take photos while hunting, because I'm too busy hunting.

I've gotten such a nice reaction to these photos that I think I'm going to do a lot more of this as art. The cool part is that all the feathers can still go to the women making jewelry and dreamcatchers, because I only need them for a few moments to take photos.

Ken Harris said...

When we lived in North San Juan I would occasionally find dead flickers. There was a woman working at Chapa De in Auburn who worked with local Nissenan boys and girls to help them make their dance costumes. They had to be made of deer hides and the feather decorations had to be exactly right. She was always glad to get flicker feathers from me because of their multiple uses. She showed me her "collection" gathered in a sectioned cigar box. The red shafts provided beads to be used in a certain way, the down was separated, every part of the feather was cherished and used. I really felt good about giving her dead birds. (She wasn't interested in dead owls. Owls are harbingers of ill tidings and not used in making dance costumes.)

Holly Heyser said...

I've never seen a dead flicker, which means Harlequin must not be able to kill them very easily.

But I love watching them in our yard. They're very happy in the fall that we don't rake leaves - they can spend hours pushing leaves this way and that with their beaks, looking for yummy things underneath them. I'd love to see the feathers that create their black bib.

And very interesting to know about the owls. I hunted pheasants yesterday next to a treeline that had a venerable old owl swooping around in it - something I don't get to see often in the daylight.

Anonymous said...

Hi Holly! I'm a longtime admirer of your blog, but haven't commented yet. This post was just too good not to. I'm actually the reader that Tamar from Starving Off The Land is talking about. I'm so excited for these turkey feathers (one more week!) as well as a reason to cure more olives. Trades really are the best!

By the way, it sounds like you have no shortage of takers for the duck feathers, but I do live relatively close-ish to you (Oakland, CA) and if you ever find yourself with a surplus I'd love to do a trade as well! (You can contact me at noussavons at gmail dot com if you ever need to).

Keep up the great blog! It's just about convinced me to clear my schedule and go to a women's hunting weekend one of these days.

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks! And let me know if/when you'd like to join a hunt, whether as an observer or a hunter.

I get the feeling Jennifer may run out of room if I keep bringing her feathers every week, so it's not unreasonable to think you might get your chance.

Ingrid said...

They're very happy in the fall that we don't rake leaves - they can spend hours pushing leaves this way and that with their beaks

That's very cool that you don't rake, Holly. A lot of people don't realize how much food and habitat they're erasing when they rake leaves. Going into winter, birds rely on autumn's last foraging. And keeping leaves and dead branches on the ground helps a lot.

And very interesting to know about the owls. I hunted pheasants yesterday next to a treeline that had a venerable old owl swooping around in it - something I don't get to see often in the daylight.

Maybe a diurnal species. Was the owl hunting or flying around in response to gun shots? Often, they'll stay perched quietly for long periods, which is why they're not easily seen.

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks! The more I hunt, the more I disdain all the things we humans do to "improve" the landscape. I'm rapidly losing interest in investing a lot of time, money and effort to fight the natural order of things.

And the owl was getting up and about a lot, not just when there was shooting. The guy I hunted with said that owl has been there forever, and makes himself known to human visitors every time. I liked that.

Bpaul said...

I love this post. And you are a cool lady.

Ok, now that I've got my 'fanboi' statements aside, I'll say that my hunting partner and I feel the same and also keep tons of feathers from all our birds. We are even keeping down, even though we know it could be years before we have enough to do even the smallest project.

One of the best uses I've found for them is to give them as part of a mask-making art project for kids.

I work with (and for) a group called Peace Warriors. It's a pre-teen boys wisdom teaching circle, and we do (among many other things) art at every meeting. One of the favorite projects is mask making.

You should see what some of these kids did with pheasant and duck feathers on their masks. So cool. I'll see if I can dig up some photos and email them to you.

I'm also convinced that those excellent feathers from the white/iridescent green patches on mallard wings are perfect for hat bands. I'm still looking for the right hat, however.

Your fan,


Holly Heyser said...

Thank you very much, and please do send photos!

And I could see how it would be hard to find a hat that sufficiently honors the bird. I hope it finds you soon!