While having lunch in my somewhat ramshackle, cobbler’s-children-go-without-shoes garden, I heard the familiar squawking of the Mission’s parrots. The small flock of birds glided by overhead, making a racket that sounded as though they were arguing, despite what appeared to be a consensus on their destination.

Hunting for Science

Taxidermy’s History within the Discipline


While having lunch in my somewhat ramshackle, cobbler’s-children-go-without-shoes garden, I heard the familiar squawking of the Mission’s parrots. The small flock of birds glided by overhead, making a racket that sounded as though they were arguing, despite what appeared to be a consensus on their destination. Perhaps they were quarreling about who should be leading the flock. Or, maybe they’re just cantankerous by nature. 

I was reminded of the article I’d written with a friend, Neil Spence, in the first issue of the Paxtonian about the Carolina Parakeet. The bird–extinct since the early 20th Century–was the only member of the parrot family that was once indigenous to North America. It may have been my somewhat desperate mind groping for topics for the next Paxtonian, but I prefer to think of it as a Eureka moment: That “ah-ha” one gets when, unbeknownst to them, they learn that their brain has been working on a problem. My problem: What should I write about next?!

As many San Franciscans know, the birds are quite ubiquitous. Over the past few decades, I’ve seen them in nearly every corner of the Mission, as well as other parts of the city (I do leave the Mission every now and then). Like the crows I see at the same time each morning seemingly “on their way to work,” and each evening flying in the opposite direction heading to their preferred roost, the parrots apparently have regular flight patterns, if not routines. 

Almost every day for the period of a couple weeks, the small flock flew over my garden. Spotting them can be easy, and their perpetual racket makes them almost impossible to miss.

As a lifetime fan of birds—in particular: Birds of prey, crows & ravens, and parrots—I’ve always marveled at how these once tropical parrots survive here, in what must be a rather inhospitable environment for a bird native to such a different locale. Unlike the crows and ravens—whose numbers are increasing (clearly a sign of the pending apocalypse)—the parrots seem to maintain a rather consistent flock size. I can’t imagine parrots being as opportunistic as a crow or raven.

The latter will root through garbage, take food from an al fresco diner’s plate, eat fruit from a tree, steal eggs from nests of other birds (a serious concern given their growing population), and even hunt for food. An amateur naturalist friend of mine once described a horrific scene where he was watching a pigeon scuttling around a window planter, likely considering a location for a nest. Sitting inside behind the window, he witnessed a raven swoop down, slam its foot against the unsuspecting bird, pin it to the ground, and plunge its beak into the ambushed bird, disemboweling it.

Similarly, a couple years ago at my daughter’s school, a hawk was seen regularly hunting rats. More than once, it swooped down into the playground, scooped up a rodent, and then floated up to the school’s rooftop where it would casually rip it apart for children to watch. Clearly, my daughter goes to public school. My point being, how do the parrots survive? Certainly not by hunting pigeons or rats. Their diet must not be as broad as a crow or raven. I’d imagine they’re mostly surviving on fruits and nuts and maybe even handouts from residents. 

In fact, many years ago I watched The Parrots of Telegraph Hill, a documentary depicting a flock of parrots and a homeless musician who grew close to them and cared for them. It’s a touching and illuminating story, and even though the birds are technically “actors in supporting roles”, the story is really about them, their quirks, relationships, and how they survive in the city. It’s certainly worth a watch. It was so long ago that I probably picked up a DVD at Lost Weekend Video and watched it at home, but I imagine it’s streamable these days.

Back in the early Paxton Gate days, inspired by our article, “North America’s Lost Parakeet”, we established our very own holiday: Carolina Parakeet Day. To commemorate the life and mourn the loss of North America’s only parrot, we hosted an annual party at the original Paxton Gate on Stevenson Street. Customers and friends came by for a drink or snack, many brought pet birds, and some even gave us mementos of the day. At one party, a local artist brought an amazing portrait she had painted of the birds, which I still have to this day. (I dug through every record I could, even old computer files dating back to those early days, but I couldn’t find that artist’s name!).

 I think with most of us being in our twenties at the time, these parties were just as much a marketing event as a social gathering. Any excuse to hang out and have a few drinks with friends—or people we wanted as friends—was taken advantage of.

Readers might find it odd to profess such a respect for birds but also sell them as taxidermied specimens. Most of the parrots, cockatoos, and parakeets we sell come from a California taxidermist who has also been a practicing falconer and bird enthusiast for over 30 years. He has built a relationship with a large bird farm here in California from which he receives birds that have died of natural causes.

There’s also a strong legacy of taxidermy’s connection to the natural sciences. I’m not going to even touch the idea that men in the late 19th and early 20th centuries followed ethics worth mimicking in today’s modern world.

But many of our great discoveries and museums were supported by the collection of animal specimens from all over the world. Early Taxidermists like William T. Hornaday and Carl Akeley were not just men who hunted and preserved specimens for viewing, but scientists, bestowed with titles alongside “taxidermist” such as conservationist, biologist, artist, and zoologist. Though the movement has evolved greatly over the years, these men and women were our earliest conservationists. Taxidermy for them was a means of study as well as an artform. Their work predates modern taxidermy when one can buy a realistic form upon which to mount a cured hide. 

So, in addition to everything above, they were sculptors and crafted highly detailed, handmade forms, showing every wrinkle and flexed muscle you might expect in a wild creature, bringing unbelievably lifelike features to animals from all over the world. Like zoological parks of the time, and well-managed zoos today, taxidermy made it possible for a common person to stand alongside an elephant, giraffe, or a tiger. It gave—and gives, if done right—a person the ability to respect and admire an animal without having to see it in real life, in the wild. And, I think, in doing that people are brought closer to animals and more apt to help them, preserve their habitat, and otherwise make the world a better place.

There’s a similar history regarding birds. Celebrated naturalist, artist, and ornithologist, John James Audubon killed birds for the sake of study.

In fact, in many depictions of the artist he’s holding a rifle. Although acceptable ethics of the time vary greatly from today, it is without a doubt that Audubon was passionate about birds and added greatly to the field of Ornithology by artfully documenting the birds of America, as well as identifying 25 new species during his expeditions. His consummate collection, The Birds of America, has graced bookshelves in one form or another since it was first printed between 1827 and 1838. In addition to his contributions to Ornithology and the natural sciences, Audubon’s legacy lives on today in hundreds of chapters of the Audubon Society around the world. The Society’s mission is to protect birds and their habitats. The organization is a great resource not only for our feathered friends, or for those of you interested in birding, but it’s good for the planet, as their efforts to maintain bird populations also make the world a better place for us.

To honor the work that the Audubon Society has done for us, just by clicking the link below and checking out our collection of birds and bird themed gifts (including The Birds of America), we’ll donate to the local chapter: Golden Gate Audubon Society.

Click and share! Forward this email and tell your friends to click it! For each unique click, we’ll donate $10 to the Audubon Society with a total of up to $1000!

Support our Birds & our Planet

Once again, I’ve sat down to “save time” by relaunching an old Paxtonian article and my “introduction” has become an article in itself! So, without further ado, I’d like to share the original article, “North America’s Lost Parakeet”, written by me and Neil Spence in 1993. Happy reading!

Read The Original Paxtonian: Issue #1

Comments, ideas for articles, or inquiries? Email us at Paxtonian@Paxtongate.com.

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See past editions here

Donations to the Golden Gate Audubon Society will be calculated based on the total number of unique visits to our site between 10/19/22 and 11/4/22. We will donate $10 per unique visitor for a total of up to $1000. If you love the Audubon Society and want to help them, don't just keep clicking on the link. That won't work. Instead, forward this email to your friends who also love birds and have them click on it! We'd love it if they read the article too. Results will be announced in early November after everything is tallied up. Questions can be sent to paxtonian@paxtongate.com. Thanks.

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