from GENEALOGY // how to skin a bird
Your first and only incision will be right over the sternum. All birds have a bald patch there. Blow lightly on the breast until the feathers begin to part and you can see the pale skin beneath.
Rest your finger there for a moment. Feel the bone your blade will follow. Make a wish, if you must, and then slice from collar to belly carefully.
I used to keep the letters my father had written to me in a box with all of my other letters. There were three of them, all written before I was eight, on lined paper with a ripped, spiral fringe. He put them into the envelopes he sent my mother. Otherwise, they were empty, except for a check, always made out for $75. Sometimes the envelopes came from Alaska or Tahiti.
When I was a little older, if I saw the mail before my mother, I would feel the envelopes, to see if they were thicker than just-a-check.
You will need to cut the spinal column and trachea before you go any further. To do this, carefully work a small surgical probe between the skin and neck muscles at the very top of your cut. The curved tip is blunt, and if you advance it slowly, it shouldn’t tear the skin. Work it behind the neck until you can see it on the other side. Then slide the lower blade of a scissor along the steel. When you can see the scissor’s point, cut.
On larger birds, you may need to cut two or three times, blindly. This is why the probe is important: it keeps you from cutting through the back of the neck and beheading your specimen.
I stayed at my father’s parent’s house a few times as a child, usually when he was visiting, too. Even though he had a local apartment twice, I never stayed at either one. In the second apartment—which he took me to once for just a moment—I had my own room. I looked in through the darkened doorway and saw a bed and bedside table, no lamp, and then we had to leave.
I never stayed alone with him until I was in college. This doesn’t feel ominous, just disconnected.
His parents lived in a double wide trailer, in the yard of a landlord I never met. I slept in his little brother’s old room.
After the neck is cut, you will slip the wings from their bones like a jacket.
To do this, repeat the following steps for each side: using your fingers, pinch the humerus below the shoulder joint and slide the skin away from the muscles like you are taking off tight jeans or panty hose.
Keep rolling the skin from the structure until you feel a boniness branch off from the ulna, just past what would be the elbow joint. This is the first primary feather. Use your fingernail to scrape it out—as you would a wasp’s stinger in your own arm. There will be a few primaries. Pop them from the bone one by one, and then cut the humerus close to the shoulder. Be careful not to cut through the skin. Both wings should be intact in the final specimen.
Chelsea Biondolillo‘s work has appeared in Orion, Sonora Review, Passages North, Brevity, River Teeth, Hayden’s Ferry Review and others. Her chapbook, Ologies, features “Phrenology,” a notable selection in Best American Essays 2014 and “How to Skin a Bird,” which won Shenandoah‘s Carter Prize for the Essay. She has an MFA in creative writing and environmental studies from the University of Wyoming and is currently at work on a book about vultures.
A recipient of a 2015 NEA Fellowship for poetry, grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and the Kentucky Foundation for Women, Staci R. Schoenfeld’s poems appear in or are forthcoming from Washington Square, Mid-American Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Muzzle, and Southern Humanities Review, among others. She is a PhD student at the University of South Dakota.
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