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A Do-It-Yourself Spoonbill Trophy

A Do-It-Yourself Spoonbill Trophy

Bird’s-eye view of a paddlefish bill and dermestid beetles, earlier (left) and later (right) in the cleaning process. Bill lays on white posterboard that rests on a bed of cotton. Source: Bruce Reid, Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee 

A full mount of a paddlefish is tricky for taxidermists because of the naked oily skin of the fish, but anglers can easily make their own immaculate trophy by skeletonizing the bill. The process is simple, the result is eye-catching. And to those unfamiliar with the spoonbill, it is a puzzle.

“People look at one and have no idea what it is. It’s so intricate, so perfect. It stumps people when they first see it,” says Austin George, a long-time naturalist whose hobby is osteology and whose collection includes more than 500 skulls of fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Here is Austin’s recommended protocol for skeletonization.

1. Remove the bill at its base, using a small saw or large knife, cutting at right angles to the sides. Making the cut an inch or so behind the eyes will include familiar and interesting features such as the orbital bones of the eye sockets, foramen of the third eye, and the buttresses connecting the bill to the head.

2. Prep the bill by air drying it under a fan, 12 hours or longer on the upper and on the lower surface. Air must be moving to prevent flies from laying eggs and maggots from developing. Bill should be completely dry and insect-free. Fat mass in center cavity of bill may be removed with forceps for faster cleaning.

cleaned-spoonbill-web
Here is a look at several spoonbills that were preserved by various methods. The final skeletonized paddlefish bill (bottom), looks the best by far, and is the end result of the preservation process illustrated in this feature.

3. Clean the bill by placing it flat on a thick bed of cotton, in a screen-covered plastic tub, 12 inches or deeper. Add 500-1000 live dermestid beetles. Beetles are readily available from commercial suppliers on Amazon and eBay. Depending on number of beetles and air temperature, the bill will be clean in two days to two weeks. Ideal temperature is 75-85°F. Immediately after bill is clean, remove it from cleaning tub and freeze for several days to kill any beetles remaining on it. Prolonged contact with insects can damage the skeleton. Bill can frequently be displayed as is in a deep picture frame or shadow box.

4. (Optional) Whiten the cleaned bill by soaking it in a solution of Dawn dishwashing detergent and/or a 50:50 solution of alcohol:peroxide. This will also reduce residual odors and harden the skeleton. Soaks should be less than 24 hours, so bones do not come apart.

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