Monday, December 27, 2010


It's that time again -- another taxidermy post. I'm finding that I really love to photograph taxidermy in its "natural" surroundings -- that is, mounted animals taken far away from their habitats, transplanted into a strange indoor setting.

To me, there are several distinct categories of taxidermy. There's exhibit museum taxidermy, which is often quite old but usually of good quality, and which usually displays the animals in their entirety. The mounts are accompanied by information of some sort, and are (generally) meant for the public to see. Another category is trophy taxidermy; these animals are "game" animals, hunted for meat and/or sport, and are mounted for personal enjoyment rather than scientific value. More often than not, herbivores (deer, pronghorns, antelopes, etc.) are displayed as shoulder mounts, carnivores (wolves, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, etc.) as well as bears are displayed as full-body mounts or rugs, and birds and fish are mounted in their entirety.

Then, there's nature center taxidermy, an odd assortment of mounts that I think deserves its own category. Usually, these mounts are old and faded. They are often donated, and the skill with which they were constructed leaves much to be desired. I've come to find that nature center taxidermy is a strange mixture of hunting trophies, mounted roadkill, and unwanted museum specimens.

Today, we visited Kensington Metropark. After feeding the chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches, we went to the nearby nature center to warm up. It's a decently-sized building, with several interactive displays, a few live animals (reptiles, fish, and a beehive), and lots of taxidermy.


This crow was one of the better mounts on display. I found that most of the bird mounts were far more lifelike than their mammalian counterparts; taxidermists seem to have a tendency to mount mammals (especially carnivores) in artificially ferocious poses.

(Albino) Opossum

An albino opossum with a strangely humorous and inquisitive expression. It's standing high atop a display cabinet that features a mounted passenger pigeon.

Great-Horned Owl (?)

A great-horned (?) owl stretches its wings for eternity; the pose seems ironic, somehow, when matched against hardwood boards and a ceiling fan.

American Martens

This pair of American martens (with their red squirrel prey) were incorrectly identified as pine martens -- their European counterpart. In addition, the glass eyes of the marten on the left are certainly not mustelid eyes. They're quite out of place at Kensington Metropark, seeing as how martens are extinct in Michigan's lower peninsula (they're found in select regions of the Upper Peninsula, and even then, they are rather uncommon).


A group of dramatic-looking woodchucks. The individual on the right is especially rough in appearance. One has to wonder if these woodchucks, depicted as a family, were actually related in nature (chances are, they probably weren't).


Lastly, an American badger, sporting a manufactured snarl, rests high atop a display cabinet. These animals, in nature, spend much of their time digging burrows underground.

A large portion of the taxidermy displayed in nature centers represents animals that the average visitor will never encounter in the wild in his or her lifetime. Though old and faded, these mounted animals provide a window into the natural world, for children and adults alike. Perhaps they will inspire a child to love and respect nature -- I know long ago, that was the case for me.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Crow

Crows are amazing animals: they're intelligent, vocal, and able to adapt to a wide variety of habitats. Indeed, they're found all across the country, living in forests, farmland, and urban areas. Crows are one of my favorite birds, and they are extremely prevalent in Ann Arbor. At dusk, they will congregate, flocking to roost for the night in certain areas of the city, the most infamous being Forest Hill Cemetery. A few months ago, Steph and I drove to the cemetery and arrived right at sunset, as crows were streaming in from all different directions. They landed on the bare branches of the oaks and hickories, looking like large, moving leaves. Most notable was the noise they made. The sound of a couple thousand crows is an interesting one: certain individuals are louder and croakier than others, and when disturbed, the noise is not unlike a dull roar.

On Thursday, my father found a dead crow resting at the base of a spruce tree; today, I photographed it. Photographing a jet-black bird against white snow proved to be a challenge, but luckily, the sky was overcast. It began to snow, and the result was a sprinkling of bright-white snowflakes against soft, black feathers. The effect was rather attractive.

December Crow IV

December Crow III

Crows, to me, seem fearless: they are brash, cocky, and inquisitive. They eat whatever they can, and will torment hawks and other birds of prey. That is why this next photograph is so interesting to me: instead of appearing indestructible and fearless, this crow looks vulnerable and delicate.

December Crow II

For further reading on crows, I highly, highly recommend Lyanda Lynn Haupt's Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Avian Botulism on Lake Michigan's North Shore

In October, my parents visited Wilderness State Park and were both surprised and distressed to find dozens of waterfowl corpses littered along the beach. They identified both grebes and loons, most of the bodies quite fresh, wet feathers and webbed feet glistening in the sun. Shortly thereafter, they learned that it was avian botulism that had killed all of these birds.

Earlier this month, Absolute Michigan ran a story about this outbreak of avian botulism, and how it is related to zebra and quagga mussels, as well as the round goby -- all invasive species to the Great Lakes.

Also published were 15 superb photographs of these dead birds, as well as a short movie of a dying long-tailed duck, by filmmaker George Desort. The photographs are beautiful and emotive, and also sad and angering, especially since invasive species -- introduced by humans -- are the root cause for the deaths of these animals.

The movie is sad and disturbing, but somehow beautiful:

Long tailed duck from george desort on Vimeo.

I have had nightmares about finding dying, suffering animals. If I had been the one to happen upon this struggling duck, would I have been brave enough to put it out of its misery? Or does one let nature take its course, even if that course has already been altered by humans and invasive species?

Today, the corpses of these birds are buried beneath not only sand, but snow, as well. In the spring, they will be long-gone.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

First Snow Skunk

Today, the Ann Arbor area received its first snow of the season -- not a lot of snow, mind you, but enough to stick to the blades of grass and rooftops. It seemed fitting for the beginning of December.

On her way to work, Stephanie spotted a dead skunk on the side of Ann Arbor-Saline Road, so she called to tell me about it. This scenario has happened a number of times, though this was the first of its kind in Ann Arbor. It was also the first time I've photographed roadkill alone in this city -- which is a rather nerve-wracking ordeal, certainly more so than in Marquette.

This particular stretch of Ann Arbor-Saline Road cuts through farmland, and it's an absolute death trap for animals. I've seen a deer body linger in the ditch (not far from where this skunk was found, actually) for over a month, and raccoon corpses pile up on the side of the road.

At first glance, the skunk seemed to be in good condition. Its winter fur was thick and soft, with the classic skunk markings, and there was no blood -- or stink, for that matter.

December Skunk

I moved the skunk a few feet further from the pavement, and it was then that I realized the body was frozen solid. What I had thought were drops of water on its face was actually ice. I didn't have much to work with, and the steady stream of traffic passing by made me nervous, so I focused on photographing the skunk's face. Its mouth was frozen in a grimace, eyes were shut, nostrils as pink as those on a live animal. Snowflakes fell and stuck to its dense, black fur.

I didn't take too many photographs; the wind was chilling me to the bone, and the cars (all slowing down as they went by) stressed me out. I returned home, and after studying my photographs, I noticed that the skunk's lower jaw was distorted and gruesome -- it was likely struck in the head.

In the past few months, I've gotten to know a live skunk, named Stinky Pete, while volunteering at the Creature Conservancy. He is lively and playful, and behaves very much like an overgrown ferret. He's a delightful animal to interact with, and is a reminder that each of these animals -- including the ones killed on the road -- have a distinct personality.