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My Latest Column: Passenger Pigeon

842A7221 (3) George Dante restored this extinct taxidermied passenger pigeon. Photos byJim Wright

My latest column for The Record is all about a restored passenger pigeon that goes on display at NJ Audubon’s Lorrimer Sanctuary today after being stored in a closet for decades. You can read the column here:

By Jim Wright

Special to The Record | USA TODAY NETWORK - NEW JERSEY

   For local admirers of the passenger pigeon, a once-plentiful species that went extinct 110 years ago, there’s heartening news out of Franklin Lakes.     

     A year ago, Alexa Fantacone, the director of NJ Audubon’s Lorrimer Sanctuary there, discovered a taxidermied passenger pigeon in a storage closet. Alas, the old bird was dilapidated and smelled like mothballs.

842A7230   Through a bit of luck, master taxidermist George Dante of Woodland Park volunteered to restore the bird for free, provided he could work on it as time allowed. I am pleased to report that the miraculously restored pigeon officially goes on display today at the sanctuary.

   “Passenger pigeons were a beautiful, delicate bird, and this one was in extremely rough shape and extremely dry,” Dante says. “When we started to clean it, the feathers started to disintegrate.”

    Giving the faded clump of feathers some extra TLC took a total of five days over more than a year. Dante recently gave me a sneak preview, and I have to say that for an extinct century-old bird, it looked way more presentable than I ever expected. 

     Then again, Dante is the go-to guy for restoring these old taxidermied pigeons and other of nature’s wonders. He has also restored passenger pigeons for the State Museum in Trenton and America’s top natural history museums. 

    The Lorrimer bird is a female, and Dante does relatively few female passenger pigeons because most were discarded in favor of the more colorful males. He recently restored a male pigeon for a collector, who turned around and put it on eBay. It sold for $10,000 in a half hour. 

    Lorrimer director Alexa Fantacone says the pigeon will become part of the sanctuary’s larger taxidermy display: "The passenger pigeon will likely also be used for programs about extinction, environmental history, and human impacts on the environment.”

Inside Dante’s studio

    As Fantacone points out, Earth Day is just around the corner, and the bird is a prime example of those human impacts.

      In the early 1800s and before, passenger pigeons were more plentiful than robins in America. But by century’s end, the birds had all but disappeared -- the result of habitat destruction, over-hunting and harvesting for the restaurant trade. The last New Jersey record for the bird was one killed in Englewood in June 1896. 

     Dante says that the reason for the renewed interest in these defunct passenger pigeons is the resurgence in the popularity of taxidermy in general, particularly among young urban professionals who seek a reconnection with nature.

   Dante has wanted to be a taxidermist ever since he was a young boy. He loved art and he loved nature. Preserving birds and other animals proved to be the perfect combination of the two. 

    Although he can’t bring extinct birds back to life, he can help give them a new legacy.

The Bird Watcher column appears every other Thursday. Jim’s latest book, "The Screech Owl Companion," was published by Timber Press. Email Jim at [email protected].