If you’re gonna work in biological material, you’ve got to know where to shop. Now, if you’ve got money, you can look on line. There are gazillions of fine taxidermists and museum supply houses out there with all the bones and claws and such you could ever want. Problem is, they have to pay their bills too. Even small skulls of fairly common animals can be on the pricey side.
Now, I absolutely buy on line if I have needs not met through the usual channels. You’d be amazed what you can find on Ebay and Etsy. No really…https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChimeraCurio. And when I have the bucks, or need something specific, I’ll go that route if possible. But in general, you can find tons of great biologicals for free or very cheap by just knowing where and how to look.
Junk shops, estate sales, and church rummage sales for example. Everyone had a grampaw who had a rack of antlers or a stuffed fish in his house. Maybe even some nice mounted pieces. Those things generally end up donated or thrown out when grampaw passes because most people find stuff like that creepy. Hah, foolish mortals. I should have a bumper sticker that says “I break for taxidermy!”. I’ve never been to a rummage sale or a junk shop that didn’t have at least one pelt somewhere, and usually an antler or two. Never pay asking price either. Rummage sales are fine because not much is over a couple of dollars. But elsewhere you might want to haggle a bit. They’ll usually take it down some because they didn’t pay much for it unless it’s unusual.
If you want to go 100% free, you’ll have to do some walk about, keep your eyes peeled, be extremely patient, and be willing to work with what you find.
You want deer antlers? Wander around woods populated by deer anywhere from mid December to late April. That’s when most deer shed their antlers. You’ve got to be vigilant though, because they’re true bone (not keratin like horns are) they’re rich in calcium and little critters will chew on them. Getting a matched set will be a trick though. Most deer don’t drop them at the same time, so unless you’re going to track that sucker, you’ll have to be content with just one. Unless it’s a small patch of woods with a small deer population and you go wandering frequently. Important note though. Antlers and horns are different things. Antlers are bone outgrowths that are shed every season. Horns are made of a substance similar to our fingernails and while they grow every season the animal wearing them is alive, they’re never shed. So if you live in goat or sheep country, don’t bother. Those suckers aren’t going to fall off.
You want feathers? Eyes on the ground around mid summer. Particularly under good roosting trees. Molting, that is, the shedding of old feathers and growing of new, takes a lot of energy from a bird. So they tend to do it after nesting and before migration. When they’re not expending a lot of energy feeding chicks or flying thousands of miles. Times vary by species and region, but in general, June through August is a good time to scout for dropped feathers. Be forewarned, many birds are protected and you will get into serious shit if you’re caught with their plumage. Even if all you did was pick it up off the ground. I stay away from raptors for this reason. I can’t tell you how much it pains me to pass by a road killed hawk or owl feathers under a tree where one’s been nesting. But I do. All raptors are big time protected. You know you’re not doing them any harm, just recycling things they don’t need anymore, but Johnny Law doesn’t, and will slap you with a fine and possibly jail time.
And my favorite, bones. Ah…this is where things get messy. Stuff dies all the time. Often in small, protected places if it has a choice. If you don’t mind crawling under houses, you may find quite a bit of dead stuff. When I was living in New Orleans it was great. There is almost sure to be a skeletonized cat under any given house. Houses on piers plus huge feral cat population equals dead cats under houses. But also live ones, sometimes with kittens, what will get very cranky with you if you disturb their chi, so watch it. That is, if you’ve got the wherewithal to go crawling under houses in the Big Sleazy to begin with. An activity not for the faint of heart, I assure you. And of course, there’s the old standby, roadkill.
In a perfect world, it will be a skeleton when you find it and your work is done. That doesn’t always happen though. More often than not what you find will be in some stage of decomposition. When you find something that’s dead and you want its skeleton, there are a couple of ways to go about acquiring it, but all require patience, a strong stomach, and the ability to suffer through strangers giving you the stink eye. Remind me to tell you about the guy who caught me by the side of a highway in Oklahoma poking a dead antelope with a stick (I was trying to see how juicy it was) sometime.
Firstly, you can go the lazy route. Shallow grave. Bury your corpse deep enough to discourage scavengers, but shallow enough to allow blowflies to lay their eggs. A foot or so for small animals is usually fine unless you’ve got a coyote population to contend with. I haven’t found anything short of a cairn that will keep coyotes away from stinky meat though, so go forth and build your pile of rocks if you’re that motivated. The advantage to burial is twofold; the bones stay tidily in one place, and no need for degreasing after they’ve been defleshed. You wait long enough, the critters and microbes in the soil will peel every last molecule of fat and juice from that corpse and all you have to do is give it a thorough scrub with some Dawn and you’re ready to rock. The down side is figuring out what “long enough” is. In high summer, I give it three weeks before I check on it. You heard me. I said check on it. The colder it is, the longer it takes. You may have to dig ‘er up a few times to see what’s cookin’. If you’re squeamish, I don’t recommend this method. Though come to think of it, if you’re squeamish you probably shouldn’t be playing around with decomp in the first place. Just sayin’.
Then there’s the above ground method. Much faster than a burial, because it gives all carrion feeding insects full access and you can see how things are going. The down side is that the bones can get scattered by scavenger activity, and it tends to have a noticeable…aroma. You can put a milk crate weighed down with a big rock or cinder block over it, but there might still be some loss of smaller bones. Sometimes, as in the case with a large animal, above ground is really your only option. Unless you own a backhoe and want to go digging a shallow grave for a horse or deer or what have you. If you’re in to that, be my guest. The rest of us will just have to try and locate this decomp as far from our living situations as possible, and try to get a milk crate over any part you want to protect from being carried off. Heads and extremities disappear fastest, because they’re the easiest to detach. Icky as this sounds, if you really, really want that large mammal (or gator, I don’t know where you’re at after all) skull, I suggest you take a machete and lop that sucker off so you can either bury it or protect it by milk crating it or hanging it from a tree branch.
If you have the room and inclination, there’s the defleshing option that taxidermists and museum preparers like. Beetles. Dermestidae, commonly known as carpet or hide beetles, in their larval stage, feed on, well, hide. They prefer it dried, but will eat it fresh too. They’ll eat everything, leaving you with a fairly clean skeleton. Clean of gooey bits, that is. You’ve got to do some work after the beetles are done. This involves a solution of hydrogen peroxide and a lot of soapy water. It’s quite a process, but leaves you with beautiful specimens that are suitable for display or as teaching tools. The down side is the post beetle fest degreasing, which can be somewhat gross and time consuming. And the beetle colony stinks. I know some folks with colonies, and they locate them in barns and sheds. Outdoors, away from the living quarters. It’s not just their food that stinks, which it does. The cleaning doesn’t happen overnight after all, and meat left lying around gets wiffy. But the beetles themselves are smelly creatures. Many insect colonies are, in fact. Get near the cricket tank at your local pet store and you’ll see what I mean.
Bone scavenging sounds like a lotta gross, and it is I guess. But you’d be surprised how quickly it ceases to be. Pretty soon you’ll be blithely troweling dirt away from a shallow grave to check on your roadkill like a pro. The reward is in all the critter skulls you’ll have for your art projects that you didn’t have to pay for, and the knowledge that you saved some under appreciated streets and sanitation worker the onerous task of clearing that raccoon off the street. Craft supplies and altruism. Win.