Hummingbird Taxidermy: Recreating John Gould's 1851 cases

posted 2023 Jul by Allis Markham

As a passionate bird taxidermist and lover of all things Victorian, I was delighted to be commissioned for a Hummingbird taxidermy piece as part of the Huntington Library's Visual Voyages Exhibit.  

This exhibit was a celebration of Latin American nature, art, science and culture as seen through the eyes of the Europeans who ventured there from the 1400s to the 1800s. Though indigenous people were long familiar with Hummingbirds, these spectacular birds, were unheard of in Europe. Thus began the cataloging, classification, and collecting.

1.Embracing John Gould's Avian Legacy

John Gould's spellbinding illustrations of hummingbirds in "The Birds of Great Britain" enchanted both scientists and art collectors in Europe for decades. But his 1851 exhibit at the Zoological Gardens of Regents Park in London was a rare chance to display his Hummingbird taxidermy cases to an audience who had never seen these jewel-like birds.  

Sadly, the 24 original Gould cases fell into disrepair. Only 6 are known to remain, though each has been somehow stripped of its original contents or altered in some way. As a fan of Gould’s work, I saw recreating his hummingbird taxidermy cases for the Visual Voyages Exhibit as an opportunity to honor his avian legacy and showcase the beauty of Hummingbirds & artistry of Hummingbird taxidermy.

2. Uncovering Gould's Original Hummingbird Taxidermy Cases

Working with the London Natural History Museum, I carefully studied the remaining hummingbird cases; everything from precise measurements to the exact woodcarving designs along the bases. Only one distant photo of the cases can be found and one watercolor painting that was equally unhelpful - except to say that the case bases were most certainly gilded. 

3. Charles Dickens' Uncovered Gems

In my pursuit of understanding Gould's work, I found a little-known article by Charles Dickens, who had witnessed Gould's exhibit in 1851. Dickens' vivid descriptions fueled my determination to recreate that sense of marvel through my museum taxidermy masterpieces. But where to find legal specimens? (Hummingbirds are a protected species and I work on them under a federal MBTA permit.) Where to find the rare ones described by Dickens. And, specimens not collected for the purpose of my taxidermy?














4. Enter the Scientists

I am very lucky to have a strong professional bond with the Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College. Working with the director/curator, Dr. John McCormack, we located many beautiful specimens that had died locally and some no-data specimens that could be refreshed / re-mounted for these Hummingbird taxidermy cases.

Did I say 'cases'? That's right. After learning of my discoveries and plan for the exhibit the curator at The Huntington Library approved the creation of two cases.

5. Crafting Captivating Display Cases

I and my staff carefully crafted cases according to our research. That meant welding, hiring a master woodcarver, gilding the cases with real gold leaf, and creating native botanicals - all according to Dickens' descriptions. We also added subtle interior lighting, especially for the exhibit. 

6. Most importantly: The Hummingbird Taxidermy

Hummingbirds are... small. They are delicate. And, because of their fast metabolism, they begin to break down as soon as they die. This means many of them are not viable candidates for taxidermy. They can literally fall to pieces on your fingertips. I probably thawed almost a hundred Hummingbirds just to find 30 or so viable local species. I worked carefully but quickly (as they cannot be out of the freezer long unprepared) in a room that I cooled to a temperature that made me pull out my puffy coat. 

For the refreshed or re-mounted no-data specimens from the Moore Lab's collection, I worked even more carefully as any wrong touch from a tweezer could leave in unusable. 

At the end of my work and at the strain of my neck, the end result was 30 complete specimens-- including everything from two newly-mounted baby Hummingbird taxidermy in a nest to a re-mounted Rainbow-Beared Thornbill from 1872. 

Today, I can happily say that Hummingbird taxidermy is now a specialty of mine and true joy. Trial by fire sometimes does that to you I suppose. 

7. The Grand Unveiling!

The day of the Visual Voyages Exhibit's grand unveiling finally arrived. Visitors marveled at Gould's illustrations side by side with my elaborate and meticulously crafted hummingbird taxidermy wonders. I hope they are a testament to the magic of Gould's legacy and the artistry of museum taxidermy.


8. Finding a Home in the Moore Lab

Today, my hummingbird taxidermy creations have found a permanent nest at the Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College. These lifelike specimens stand as a tribute to avian biodiversity and serve as a poignant reminder of the importance of wildlife conservation for both students and researchers. 

9. The Future

As a passionate bird taxidermist, the opportunity to recreate John Gould's hummingbird cases was a dream come true. Through my craft, I sought to honor Gould's legacy and share the wonders of avian beauty with the world. From studying his original cases to unearthing Dickens' literary gems, this journey has enriched my understanding of museum taxidermy and its power to capture the magic of nature. I hope that people in years to come will continue to celebrate the beauty of our jewel-like feathered friends through the artistry of my Hummingbird taxidermy cases.

Notes on the process of Hummingbird Taxidermy

All taxidermy is its own journey into the life of that specimen. And, each creature is unique. As a museum-trained taxidermist, I have learned to throw away my assumptions about what the specimen might look like. Instead, I lean on the knowledge of my museum clients, scientists, anatomical illustrators, wildlife photographers, detailed measurements, and even death casts of the actual specimen. In this way, I try to remove my artistic eye and replace it with actual data. 

Hummingbird taxidermy differs in both technique and anatomy from any other bird. (They vary from species to species as well.) You cannot use the techniques you might use to create Peacock taxidermy. And, the anatomy required for Woodpecker taxidermy would make the head spin of anyone working regularly on waterfowl. Dove taxidermy is one of the hardest due to the delicate nature of their skin. And, none of that is getting into mammal taxidermy. 

Taxidermy is chasing mother nature - knowing I will never come close to capturing anything as perfect as life. But, it’s in the challenge where I find fulfillment. And, to many, nothing is so challenging as these tiny, iridescent, shooting stars that we simply call ‘Hummingbirds’.


*Notes on Bird Legalities

In the United States, Hummingbirds, songbirds, shorebirds, birds of prey, owls, waterfowl, and almost all native birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1973. This federal act deems all native birds, their feathers, their bones, their nests, and their eggs protected. Why? Because before this act native bird populations were very quickly declining due to collecting for fashion, taxidermy, and fly fishing. Creating a market for these birds puts a price tag on them; like dollar bills flying through the sky. It’s the job of every taxidermist to ethically follow these conservation laws. 

 It is a felony to taxidermy or possess any part of these birds with a Migratory Bird Permit. It can be punished by both a $5000 fine and/or jail time. Each specimen I work on carries a collection permit from whence it came, Prey Taxidermy carries a federal Migratory Bird Permit and the institutions we serve must also carry a permit to possess that particular specimen. You may learn about and even apply for a MBTA permit here.