Growing Up Monarch – 1

In 2014, monarch butterfly populations reached an all-time low—having declined approximately 90% in the last twenty two years. This sparked a Nation-wide effort to help preserve and protect the once common insect and its incredible 2000 mile migration. Now, studies have shown a potential rise in numbers, ending with the 2015-2016 annual overwintering count which reported the highest population since 2009. This increase in population was predicted by experts due to ideal weather conditions during the breeding months, as populations are widely effected by changing weather. For example, in 2002, a single storm killed an estimated 500 million monarchs. Statistics like this solidify the fact that monarchs need a very large population size in order to be resilient to threats. In other words, there must be a surplus of individuals in order for the species to endure.


In addition to weather, monarch butterflies face numerous threats to their overall survival, many of which involve humans. The true difficulty in protecting this species also lies with the fact that it spans across three countries and two distinct “sites”. Monarch butterflies require a breeding and feeding site as well as an overwintering site. In search of these sites, a monarch butterfly may travel from Canada through the United States to Mexico. This large expanse of land covered makes it difficult to protect the entire range. These two specific sites also present their own unique threats; for example, loss of milkweed due to new agricultural practices. Monarch butterflies go through a 3-5 generation cycle during the breeding season, and the caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed. It has been shown that nearly half of the migrating monarchs are produced in the U.S. “corn belt”, and yet with new agricultural practices, the milkweed found in this region is being eradicated, particularly due to modified crops that are herbicide-tolerant, allowing for wide-spread use of chemicals that eliminate all other vegetation.

Even after surviving through the summer months, monarchs face a whole new set of challenges, including the actual act of migrating up to 2,000 miles (a daunting task, even when you’re not an insect that weights half a gram). Once at the wintering grounds, the butterflies rely entirely on the microclimate provided by the forests of central Mexico. Due to this unique need, monarch butterflies are at special risk throughout the winter. One of the largest threats is deforestation (both legal and illegal logging practices) which removes roosts, as well as threatens the delicate microclimate. However, the nature of how the monarchs overwinter is a risk in and of itself. The butterflies are concentrated into one small region which makes the entire population vulnerable to a single storm or any other disaster such as fire and disease. Ecotourism also poses a threat to the integrity of the winter refuge, along with many other pressures. In short, people compete with monarch butterflies, not only for space, but also for food and water, and the needs of the people who live in this region must be balanced with the needs of the butterflies. And while many of these difficulties may seem far away and difficult to manage, especially for those living in the Midwest, there are many ways that anyone can make a difference in protecting monarch butterflies. The first and potentially most impactful way you can make a difference is through education. Many people are still unaware of the plight of the monarch butterfly, and even more don’t fully understand the effects of their actions, such as removing milkweed or spraying herbicides/insecticides. For this reason, it is important to not only remain up to date on developing research, but also to educate others as well. This can be as simple as planting a native plant garden in your yard, participating in citizen science, or attending one of many monarch butterfly events throughout the nation. River Bend Nature Center will be hosting one such event on June 10th—a program offering community members a chance to become certified citizen scientists for the Monarch Larva Monitoring Program. During the course of the program, participants will learn details on monarch life history, including their migration, before heading outside to get hands-on experience in searching for monarchs and collecting data.

River Bend will also be playing host to several monarchs in the Interpretive Building as we watch them go through their incredible life cycle. Stop in to see them transform from egg, to larva, to pupa, to adult, and finally, if you’re lucky, help us release them back into the wild!

Our current monarchs were laid on Tuesday, May 23rd. Adult female monarchs in Minnesota in late spring are most often “2nd generation” butterflies, meaning that they are the children of those individuals who overwintered in Mexico. They were hatched in the southern states and flew the remainder of the migration to the northern states and Canada where they breed, lay eggs, and die. This would make the eggs we have “3rd generation”, or the grandchildren of the butterflies in Mexico.

1 egg layingWhen laying their eggs, a female will cling to a leaf and bend her abdomen underneath so that the egg will be on the bottom side. This placement would potentially help moderate heat and moisture, and also reduce predation rates. The female will generally only lay one egg per plant in order to decrease competition between larva, but multiple eggs per plant are not unheard of if multiple females visit the same plant.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

2 egg
Monarch egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf. When the eggs are first laid, they’re often a creamy white, and will become more yellow in appearance as they age.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

The eggs are minuscule in size, and it takes a trained eye in order to spot them. However, they can be easily identified as monarchs by their pointed top and the distinct ridges that run vertically all around the egg.

It will take about four days for the eggs to be ready to hatch, though the process may be sped up or slowed down by temperatures. Colder temperatures will slow down the hatch rate, while warmer temperatures will speed it up.

3 egg
This photo, taken several days after the egg was laid, clearly shows the ridges that run up and down the outside of the shell, distinguishing it from other insect eggs as well as milkweed sap.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Three of our four eggs hatched on Friday, May 26th and the fourth is scheduled to hatch some time today.

4 eggs
These two eggs side by side allow a clear distinction in age to be seen. The egg on the right is several days old, but is not yet ready to hatch, while the egg on the left has become translucent and allows the viewer to see the black head capsule of the caterpillar inside. This change in appearance indicates that the caterpillar could be emerging anywhere between hours and minutes.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

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Another view of the egg preparing to hatch.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack
River Bend’s last monarch egg shows signs of being ready to hatch today, and we are eagerly waiting for it to emerge. Meanwhile, the other three caterpillars have already completed their first meal (their own eggshells) and have moved on to feeding on the provided milkweed leaves. As a species, monarch larva feed EXCLUSIVELY on plants in the milkweed family. Pictured here is the plant “common milkweed” which can often be found growing along roadsides and in prairies.

6 larva
When monarchs first hatch, they are roughly the size of the egg they were in, and their coloration is vastly different than their older counterparts. While older larva will have the distinct black, yellow, and white banding, these younger caterpillars are light gray with minimal banding, and have a large, black head.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

After feeding on its eggshell, monarch caterpillars will immediately begin to feed on the milkweed plant they were laid on. These youngest larva are known as “1st instars”, indicating that they have not yet molted their skin. After feeding almost nonstop, they’ll be ready to molt in several days. River Bend’s caterpillars are all currently 1st instars.

7 circleFirst instar caterpillars will feed in a circle around themselves until they’re large enough to not be at risk of drowning in milkweed sap.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

As our caterpillars start eating for the first time, they feed in a very distinctive circular pattern. Many scientists believe that this is to decrease sap flow in the leaf. While the sap is toxic to almost every other animal species except the monarch, these tiny caterpillars could easily drown if sap were to start flowing out of the cuts they make as they feed. To prevent this, the caterpillars feed shallowly, and create a safe “island” for themselves.

Want to learn more?

Stop by our interpretive center any day during the week to talk to a naturalist and see the monarchs for yourself! The building hours are as follows:
Mon-Fri 8:00-4:30
Sat 9:00-4:30
Sun 9:00-2:00

Interested in getting more involved?

River Bend will be offering MLMP trainings to teach interested members of the community to become certified MLMP volunteers! Monitor at home or at River Bend, and help save this amazing insect from extinction.
Register online to attend the training scheduled for June 10th from 1:00-4:00pm.

For more information, see our website at:


All About Archery

With summer knocking on the door we at River Bend are getting excited to start our summer camp program season! One of my favorite camps last summer to teach and one of our most popular was our four whole-day camps Adventure is Out There! The kids in the camp get to do a wide variety of things like canoeing, rock climbing, mountain biking, fishing, zip-lining, low ropes courses, archery, and more! Archery is one of my favorite hobbies in this line up of activities and I loved teaching it to kids and adults over the last year of working at River Bend Nature Center. So below is a blog post to help all of you get pumped up for doing archery in our summer camps and to encourage you to sign up for these or pre-register for our basics of archery public program Saturday, June 17th from 10:30 am to 12:00 pm. Here is the link to the River Bend Public Programs page ( ) and the link to the summer camps page ( ). I even have included some tips at the bottom to help improve your archery skills or impress the instructors when you come to the programs. So read on to learn some of the cool history and things all about archery!


Adventure is Out There Summer Camp!

What is Archery?

Very briefly archery is using a bow to propel arrows toward something you aim at. Archery was traditionally used as a way to hunt animals for food. Later it was used as a weapon of combat, to fight and wage wars between opposing forces. Today it is still used for hunting but also as a recreational and competitive sport.


Parts of an Arrow 1) Arrowhead/Tip: point that pierces target 2) Shaft: body of the arrow 3) Feathers/Fletching: creates drag helping arrow spin and fly straight 4) Nock: opposite end where string rests and is pulled back


Parts of a Bow A) Limbs: upper and lower that the string is attached to B) Nocking Point: a knot where the arrow is attached under on the string C) String: attached to limbs is what is pulled back to send the arrow D) Grip: where your hand holds the bow E) Arrow Rest: where the arrow rests on the bow

Early History of Archery

The first records of archery date back to 10,000 to 9,000 B.C. and bows and arrows were made out of wood usually and the arrow had a stone tip. Bows and arrow artifacts eventually replaced the use of spears on every continent except Australia. Archery was used as a weapon for war throughout the world for thousands of years. Archers played a major role in armies and war strategy from classical civilizations like the Greeks all the way to the mid-late 1800’s; when their use as a weapon of war slowly came to an end as guns and other weapons became quicker to reload. The Romans owed much of their military superiority to their archers and even though the bow is no longer a weapon of choice for warfare it still makes appearances into the 19th and 20th centuries in smaller conflicts throughout the world.



Men getting ready to fire arrows using an English longbow.

Archery as a Sport

Archery was revived in the 1800’s as a competitive sport for men and women. Although the earliest Archery Societies began in the 1600’s and 1700’s in England with the oldest archery tournament still going today is the Ancient Scorton Arrow which was started in Yorkshire in 1673. The first Olympics to have archery was the summer Olympics in Paris in 1900 and this was the second Olympics held. In the 1920’s engineers started developing the modern recurve and compound bows making archery a more accessible sport. Additionally there is now a competition called the World Nomad Games that has different traditional archery skills for competitions. The World Nomad Games started in 2014 in Kyrgyzstan with mostly countries from central Asia competing and was again held in 2016 at same place and it looks like it will take place every 2 years with the 2018 location still to be determined. Look below for pictures from the competitions that involve some amazing archery skills!


A girl in traditional dress perform and impressive display at the World Nomad Games. Image by Viktor Drachev/TASS/Getty Images)


Hungarian Natalia Suarez Friedrichs participates in women’s archery at the World Nomad Games (RFE/RL)

Bow Hunting

Today archery is still used as a technique for hunting animals similar to its use in the centuries before although a more modified tool made of metals and plastics. In Minnesota you can hunt a variety of animals using a bow and arrows everything from deer and turkeys to carp and rabbits, the ones you may be more familiar with are the spring and fall turkey hunt and the fall deer hunt using bows. However, before you go out hunting it’s best to check the DNR hunting regulations book to make sure you are following the rules and to check out the DNR’s bow hunter education webpage if you are new to bow hunting or maybe looking to get you kids involved!

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Archery in Modern Culture

In the last 10 years archery has become popular in movies and tv shows in American culture. Mostly with super heroes like the Green Arrow on the TV show Arrow, Artemis on the TV show Young Justice, and Hawkeye in the Marvel Avengers movies. We also can’t forget about Merida from Brave and her awesome archery skills from horseback and Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games books and movies. All are great examples of gifted archers in addition to hundreds of other who show that even in the movies and TV shows you don’t need super strength or speed to save the day. In fact you don’t even need arms to do archery check out Matt Stutzman aka the “Armless Archer” a real life person who shows that archery is an accessible activity for even the most unlikely people. I would even go as far to say he is a bit of a super hero since he originally took up archery in 2009 not to become a famous athlete but to help feed his family. In a typical American story he went from depressed, unemployed, and a stay at home dad and by putting in the effort to learn how to shoot with his feet to help provide for his family; he then took that same desire and determination to become a professional athlete and make a living doing archery! So I highly recommend to watch him compete at the next Paralympics, or maybe even the regular Olympics!


Matt Stutzman, 29, of Fairfield and formerly of Kalona (Iowa), is competing for the U.S. Paralympic team in next month’s Paralympics in London. Stutzman, who was born without arms, came within one point of breaking the world record in archery during the Paralympic trials in April. (Josie Hannes)

How to improve your archery skills!

  1. Practice. Practice. Practice. It cannot be expressed enough that the more you practice the better you become at something. In fact, there was a study done that found evidence that people who became experts at something only became experts after at least 10,000 hours of practice!
  2. Make sure you are shooting with your dominate eye. It will be much easier and your accuracy will improve much quicker when using the eye that is stronger.
  3. Proper form will increase your accuracy and power. So before you shoot make sure your feet are a little less than shoulder length apart and perpendicular to the target your hip should be pointing at the target. Also you should be using your back muscles to pull with equal force on the bow string to the pressure you put on the bow to help the arrow fly straight and smooth.
  4. To improve your aiming there is a lot of advice out there. So here is one for erring on the side of caution before even lifting your bow look at your target and then don’t focus on what you are aiming for until fully drawn and then only give yourself 3 to 5 seconds to aim before releasing the arrow to help prevent over aiming.
  5. Follow through is where a good archer can become a great archer. By follow through we mean keeping your eye on the target and holding your stance until the arrow has hit the target to help create muscle memory and prevent you from dropping the bow too soon.
  6. Lastly take breaks and know when to quit. Practicing archery is only beneficial as long as you have good form and the strength to help create muscle memory. So know when you are done for the day to rest up for the next practice.

Adventure is Out There Summer Camp

Wild Kids? Kids in the Wild!



The exciting entrance to Kids in the Wild

Every group of students we have at River Bend walks by Kids in the Wild, looks down at the valley full of obstacles and awesome shelters and says: “Teacher, can we go down there and explore?”


A bench overlooking Kids in the Wild

This natural play-scape at River Bend Nature Center is the perfect place for kids of all ages (even the ones who are commonly referred to as adults) to safely explore, play, and have fun in nature. It is located between Owl and Oak trails, easily accessible from the interpretive center.  The entrance is marked by a wooden arch with decorative vines. The arch leads to stairs that help you get down the steep hill. If you have a stroller or wagon, the south Owl hill leads right to the backside of the play area, bypassing the stone steps.  There is a bench and a picnic table in the play area as well for those who would rather sit back, relax, and supervise the fun.

What is the best options for clothing?

Tucked away from the sun, it’s a nice place to hang out and stay cool on a hot summer day while still enjoying nature.  Be sure to wear the right clothing though, so that way you can ward off the mosquitoes; long sleeves and long pants are ideal. Bring some bug spray as well to help. The Off! mosquito fan works great to add some additional defense.  Make sure you also wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty, because it can get muddy in there, but that is half of the fun! Closed-toe shoes are the best option for shoes as they are the safest in the wild. If you get too muddy or dirty, feel free to come up to the interpretive center and use the hose on the side of the building to rinse that mud off!


So how do we use Kids in the Wild? What are the best activities to do?

1. Shelter Building

Pretend you are lost in the middle of the woods and you have 10 minutes until the storm hits. What is the first thing you should do? Build a shelter to keep you dry. At River Bend, our phrase to remember what materials to collect is “Dead and Down.” Remember that its a public space, so be respectful of other shelters in hopes that others will be respectful of yours. Also, don’t forget to leave no trace and clean up after yourself.

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Shelter building!

2. Games

Flash flood: When someone yells flash flood, participants have 10 seconds to find a place where they can get their feet off of the ground (to stay safe from the flood). Students love this game because they get to climb trees, rocks, logs, etc.

Hide and Seek: A basic game, one person tries to find everyone else who is hiding. Hide behind trees, in shelters, or somewhere else that will be tricky to spot you

Camouflage: Similar to hide and seek, one person (the predator) closes their eyes and lets everyone else (the prey) hide. After 10 seconds the predator opens their eyes but stays in place. Anyone they can see is eaten, so they are out. After they call out who they can see, the predator yells out “Camouflage” and the first person to tag the predator wins.  The predator should always stay in the same place.  The winner becomes the new predator.

3. Stream Play

Build a dam or try to divert the stream. There is a natural spring at the top of the hill that flows down the valley; it is what has been creating the valley for the last couple million years. There are plenty of “dead and down” sticks or other treasures that are great for creating a dam. Explore what happens down stream when you try to create a dam. This is a great example and scale model of what happens on larger rivers when humans build a dam; playing and hands-on-learning combined. Make sure that when you are done, you take apart your dam and leave no trace.


Lots of visitors have tried to divert the stream and build dams.

4. Enjoying nature

Maybe you would rather sit by the side and just enjoy the sounds of nature. Many animals visit kids in the wild. The quieter you sit, the better chances you have of seeing some wild life. Birds and squirrels are the most frequent visitors to the area, and the most fun to watch. Take some time to meditate, relax, and take in the natural beauty surrounding you.

Baby Animals

Written by Stephanie Rathsack, Environmental Educator


A sure sign of spring: a Robin’s egg! Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

All around River Bend, signs of spring have been popping up—trees are leafing out, spring flowers are in full bloom, frogs are calling, and the next generation of many species are being born. With these new little additions to the woods, fields, and ponds however come another sign of spring: daily phone calls of concerned citizens wondering what to do about the baby -insert species here- they found injured or abandoned. This blog post will focus on the most common animal babies around Faribault, and what you should do if you happen to find one of them while out enjoying the beautiful weather.

  1. Turtles
    Common scenarios:
    Finding a mother turtle laying eggs in a less-than-ideal location
    Solution: Do not disturb the mother turtle while she is laying eggs, let her complete the entire process, including burying the eggs herself. This is a natural process that should not be interrupted. If the eggs are laid in a location that could be dangerous for the hatchlings, the best solution is to fence off the nest site with orange flagging and signs so that it can be avoided and the eggs will not be disturbed. If the nest is in a location that is scheduled to be dug out (such as a construction site) the nest may be carefully dug out by hand and relocated as close as possible. Keep note of how deep the nest is, how much sun it receives, and what type of soil it is, as all of these factors may affect the ability of the eggs to properly incubate and hatch.
    B. A baby turtle (hatchling) is crossing the road!
    Solution: Stop your vehicle if safe to do so, and alert others of the crossing turtle. No matter the species, all baby turtles will be walking instinctively towards water, so if you do attempt to help the turtle along, be sure to carry it to the side of the road it is trying to get to. If you place the turtle on the other side, it will merely attempt to cross the road again. Do not lift turtles by their legs or tails, but carefully by the back of the shell. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling.
  2. Deer
    Common scenarios:
    Finding a baby deer (fawn) lying on the ground without its mother
    Solution: Leave it alone. Do not approach the fawn or attempt to move it. Mother deer leave their young alone in order to protect them from predators. A fawn’s coloring allows it to blend in, and they will remain perfectly still no matter how close you get in order to keep blending in. They also lack any scent, which keeps predators from smelling out their location. If you approach, you will create a trail that predators can follow. Any fawn that you see lying down on the ground alone is doing exactly what it needs to do to survive.
  3. Rabbits

Common scenarios:
A. Nest of rabbit babies (kits) found in yards and gardens with no mother in sight
Solution: Leave them alone. Almost every baby rabbit found alone, is not abandoned at all, but is simply waiting for its mother to return. Female rabbits only nurse their young for a few minutes every day, usually under cover of darkness. For the majority of the day, they will stay far away from the nest in order to reduce the chance of predators finding it.

  1. Rescued from a pet dog or cat
    Solution: There are times when pets can cause havoc for wildlife. The best solution for this scenario is prevention, namely by keeping all cats indoors and by always having your dog on leash when outside. If you do find an injured rabbit, the best thing to do is bring it to a wildlife rehab center.
    C. A baby bunny is hopping around alone
    Solution: Leave it alone, do not attempt to catch it. Any young rabbit that is hopping around is old enough to fend for itself and is already weaned from its mother.
  2. Squirrels
    Common scenarios:
    A tree has fallen over, and there was a nest of squirrels inside
    Solution: Only move the nest if absolutely necessary to do so. Watch for signs of the mother returning to nurse her young. If the mother returns, she will move the babies to a new location. If the mother does not return, be sure the site is left alone, and that there’s nothing preventing her from returning. If the female still doesn’t return, collect the young and transport in a small dark container to a wildlife rehab center.
    B. Finding a baby squirrel on the ground, alone
    Solution: Check for signs of a nest nearby. If possible, return the squirrel to its nest and leave the area to avoid scaring the adults away. If the baby squirrel is in a dangerous location, carefully move it out of danger, but not so far that the mother won’t be able to find it.
  3. Songbirds/waterfowl
    Common scenarios:
    Fallen nest
    Solution: Try to replace the nest back where it came from. If unable to reconstruct the nest, use strawberry containers, or another small basket to create a new one and secure it firmly before placing eggs/nestlings back inside. Immediately leave the location, but watch for returning parents.
    B. “Abandoned” baby bird
    Solution: If you find a baby bird on the ground, it may have fallen from its nest. Take a look around so see if you can locate the nest, and place the baby back inside. If you cannot locate the nest, watch from a distance, as the mother may still return, but move the chick if it is in a dangerous location. Keep in mind that birds have a poor sense of smell, and that the chick will not be instantly abandoned if you touch it. If there’s no sign of an adult returning for the chick, bring it in to a wildlife rehab center.


General information:

Most baby animals that are found by humans have not been abandoned by their parents. The best thing to do in almost every situation is to leave the animal where you find it. Do not attempt to move or help them unless necessary to do so.  Do not attempt to raise the animal yourself either, as this can be dangerous for you, and the animal as well. Animals that are raised outside their natural habitat require immense work and most often suffer from improper care.

River Bend Nature Center is not equipped to take in animals of any kind, and will be unable to accept any that are brought in. Please refer to the above guidelines if you find a baby animal in the wild. If the animal is injured or must be moved, they can be taken to the wildlife rehab center:

9am-8pm M-F
9am-6pm Sat/Sun


Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota
2530 Dale St. N. Roseville



Taxidermy: Tools & Techniques

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Last Saturday, about a dozen people filed into River Bend Nature Center to learn an ancient art—taxidermy.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

For centuries, people have developed ways in which to preserve animals: however, whether you’re doing taxidermy  to learn a new skill, to show off a trophy, or record scientific data, specific steps must be taken in order for the specimen to remain in life-like condition. This blog post is dedicated to outlining several common techniques used both in the past and the present to preserve animals.

Taxidermy may be performed on all vertebrate species, including all mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. And though the steps taken to preserve these different species varies slightly, the tools required are all fairly similar, and depending on your skill level and the purpose of the mount, can be quite easy to procure. Any project will require at the very least, the following items:

  • Protective Equipment (Gloves, safety glasses, etc), if done correctly taxidermy is fairly clean, but steps should still be taken to keep yourself safe
  • Sharp scissors or scalpel
  • Medical probe
  • Pins
  • Cardboard or foam
  • Buckets/plastic containers
  • A drying agent such as borax or cornmeal OR a tanning agent
  • Needle & thread

These are the basic supplies that will be required for almost any type of mount you are attempting, but as different animals and different techniques will vary, so will the materials required. As you gain experience, you may also find that you prefer specific brands, or specific tools over others.

Taxidermy is a mix of science and art that has been developed since the mid-1700s, and possibly even earlier. And though the number of methods and purposes are limited only by imagination, this blog post will cover those that are considered “tried and true” by taxidermy specialists, and are by far the most common.

  1. Mounted skin on manikin

This is the most common method of preserving a trophy animal and is what you’d expect for such projects as mounting deer heads, or creating life-size mounts of bears, cougars, and other large animals. In short, the animal must be skinned (the skin preserved by either drying or tanning) and then placed over a sculpted manikin of the specific species. These manikins are painstakingly created by wildlife experts in order to be as anatomically accurate as possible, but once created, they can then be mass produced. In the early years of taxidermy this would not have been possible, and even today there are some taxidermists who choose to sculpt their own models (in order to use the specific animal as a comparison) or create a model using the Victorian-era method of winding the body shape out of string as depicted in this image of William Hornaday.


William Hornaday. the father of modern taxidermy, creating a lion mannequin by winding string around a wood base.

Once the skin is placed over the manikin, finishing touches must be made, such as repairing shrunken sections, restoring natural colors, placing eyes and teeth, etc.

But like any taxidermy method, the process will vary by specimen, the taxidermist’s skill, and materials available and a taxidermist may even use multiple methods on the same specimen to achieve the best results.

2. Preserving Skulls and Bones

Depending on the purpose for preserving the animal, the most interesting piece might actually be inside—ie, bones, skulls, and teeth. The methods for preserving these parts are in some ways much easier than attempting to preserve other softer parts (bone is far more forgiving than delicate skin, hair, or feathers), but care must still be taken to avoid damaging them. The first step in this method, is to skin the animal (the technique will vary depending on whether you would also like to preserve the skin in addition to the bones), and then to de-flesh it. There are many ways in which to clean the bones of flesh, including: burying in the soil, macerating in water, treatment with chemicals, exposing to flesh-eating insects/bacteria, boiling, or by hand. No one of these techniques will work one hundred percent of the time for every specimen, and often, best results come from using a combination of several. But regardless of the methods used, once the skull/bones have been cleaned of all flesh, they will need to be dried thoroughly before being whitened by letting it soak in hydrogen peroxide (never bleach!) and sprayed with a clear acrylic to protect the surface from dirt and oils.

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The steps of cleaning a skull as performed on a red fox skull. In this case, de-fleshing was performed with a combination of by-hand removal, and simmering in hot water.
Photo and taxidermy credit: Stephanie Rathsack

3. Tanning Pelts

One of the earliest methods of preserving an animal: In 19th century England, there was an increased demand for leather, which meant tanning (turning an animal’s skin into preserved leather) became commonplace. The methods for doing so have changed throughout the years (you won’t find many taxidermists relying on pig or horse brains to turn skins into leather anymore), but the practice is still variable, and depending on your experience and abilities, there are several different methods:

  • Tree Bark
  • Brain (both brain and bark are more natural, but very difficult),
  • Alcohol/turpentine
  • Salt/alum
  • Purchasing a ready-made tanning solution

By far, the easiest and most reliable method is purchasing a tanning solution, but taxidermists have had great success with all of the above methods and more. Basically, the tanning solution is meant to preserve the hide and prevent it from decomposing.

To prepare a hide for tanning, the animal must be skinned, either as a flat cape (think bear skin rug) or a tube (think hand-puppet), and all flesh/fat must be removed. The use of a sharp knife or de-flesher is a must, and great care must be taken to avoid puncturing the skin itself. It is also essential that the hide is de-fleshed quickly before bacteria have a chance to grow, especially if you intend to keep the fur on, rather than making leather.

Once all the flesh is removed, the hide has to be completely dried out. The easiest way to do this is to salt it by placing a generous layer of non-iodized salt over the flesh side of the hide, replacing frequently until all moisture has been drawn out. At this point, you would apply a lime solution to remove the hair if your goal is to make leather, but this step may be skipped otherwise. Afterwards, the hide must be ‘’thinned’, which means more scraping with the knife or de-flesher to make an even and easier to manage skin, removing all pieces that were missed the first time it was fleshed. Once the hide is thinned, it must be soaked in an acidic solution (pH of 2 or lower), then neutralized completely before the tan is applied. Depending on the method of tanning to be used, the process will vary, but generally the hide must be either soaked in the solution, or it must be brushed on in an even coating for several days. Once the hide is tanned, it is considered a stable hide and can be left indefinitely. But to finish the process, the hide must be ‘’broken’’, in which the fibers in the leather are pulled apart, leaving it soft and flexible. There are machines available for this process, but firmly stretching the hide or scraping it works well for small hides, and takes relatively little time. Once finished, the leather will have a lighter white appearance, and will remain pliable.

4. Study Skins


This final method is almost entirely used by museums and collectors interested in preserving as much scientific data on the specimen as possible, while also saving space. Generally used for birds and small mammals, the specimens are worked into a round tube shape in order to more easily fit side by side in drawers, although they can be worked into other shapes as well.

In order to perform this technique, the animal must first be skinned, by creating a small vertical ventral incision and then carefully teasing the hide away. If done correctly, the casing containing the internal organs will remain in one piece and thus keep the entire process relatively clean. If the visceral mass is punctured, or bleeding occurs, you may use a drying agent such as borax to keep your work station clean as well as protect the skin from staining. Once the hide has been removed, it can either be pinned flat as a ‘’rug’’, or stuffed with medical cotton and sewed back together before being pinned into the desired shape. After the animal has been pinned, it must be left to dry for several weeks, up to several months depending on the size, though once dried it will remain fixed in this position.

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A participant in Saturday’s class works patiently to pose her mouse in just the right shape.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Over centuries of improvement and experimentation, taxidermy is an art and a science that has truly come into its own. Where once even the most skilled taxidermist struggled to preserve small animals, today both experts and amateurs alike can create beautiful and long-lasting specimens. It is a rewarding process, whether you’re looking to save a trophy, or simply to acquire a new skill. If you do plan to try taxidermy on your own, it is important to keep in mind that many species are protected under law, and possession of any parts of those species is illegal, regardless of how they were collected.

Patience pays off in taxidermy, as participants in Saturday’s class found out after their mice were completed in about three hours. 
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Interested in learning more or trying it out for yourself? River Bend Nature Center will potentially be offering more courses on taxidermy! Stay-tuned for announcements on our facebook page, website, and newsletter.