Despite being the World Taxidermy Championship, the World Taxidermy Championship is a decidedly American affair. It is invariably held in some U.S. city [ed. this is no longer true, in that the 2008 WTC was held way out in Austria], it is owned and operated by a magazine run out of Louisiana, and 90 percent of its competitors and judges are born-and-bred Americans. Europeans form the majority of the few non-Americans in attendance, and their influence at the WTC is compounded by the fact that 57 percent of the bird judges are European—a bit of a controversy given that bird taxidermy in the Europe is way different from bird taxidermy in the States. Much of the reason behind this is legal. Here, it’s illegal to mount any bird that it’s not legal to hunt. So: turkey, grouse, pheasants, ducks, etc. These birds are, pardon the pun, fair game for taxidermists. Your pet parakeet? Not fair game. The dead owl you find in the barn one morning? No, sir. No matter what the cause of death, if you come upon the carcass of a migratory or non-game bird, all you can do is call your local Game and Parks and they’ll come over and take the bird off your hands and find some way to dispose of it.
Europe, by comparison, is a bird taxidermist’s paradise. As long as the taxidermist is licensed, anything that dies of natural causes can be mounted—a falcon, a grackle, your budgie. European taxidermists deal with a vaster array of bird species than do Americans, and as such they’ve spent far more time studying the subtle physiological differences among those species.
Which brings us to the first-ever World Avian Challenge, a small side competition at the WTC in which competitors all mount the same bird in the exact same pose. Whoever most successfully captures the pose is declared winner. This year’s challenge is the Hungarian partridge—a brown-grey bird about the size of a volleyball, with an orange face and a bold black bead of an eye. Breakthrough [Magazine, corporate sponsor/host of the WTC] published back in January a photographic reference all contestants would use, showing a partridge stepping to the left with its head turned just to the right. This is all the contestants have. This and whatever experience they might claim with birds in general and the Hungarian partridge in specific.
The World Avian Challenge, then, is a sort of weird offshoot from all the competition going on (and I’m not getting into the details of how much competition is going on in Reno: there’s live sculpting of body forms in the Events Center lobby, competitive divisions for pre-sculpted forms, rugs, skulls, and re-creations [in which no natural animal parts are used to re-create the animal; in 2005 Ken Walker won this award by using black- and polar-bear hides to re-create a panda, and this year there’s a sabertooth cat in competition], mounts done by two or more artists; even across the street hundreds of middle-aged white men are competing against one another in the National Bowling Stadium at the United States Bowling Congress’s Open Championships [and for the record, the surefire way in the lobby of a hotel to distinguish a bowler from a taxidermist when neither man has his championship pass dangling from his neck is to check for camo]), in that what’s being judged at the World Avian Challenge is not overall artistry or presentation, nor is it the nitty-gritty of finishing techniques. What’s being judged is your simulation of the photograph reference. In other words, these judges are looking at how well you follow directions.
And they’re all European, each of them: Jack Fishwick of England, Peter Sunesen of Denmark, and Lennart Pettersson of Sweden. At 2 p.m. on Thursday they file into a room on the second floor of the Events Center big enough to park two RVs inside. The audience doesn’t fill even half of the room, most of it comprising the 13 people who entered the Avian Challenge and maybe a dozen or so onlookers, interested in watching the proceedings—this Challenge being the only competition in which the judging is done publicly and aloud. “This is a tremendous opportunity for taxidermists to see what goes on in a judge’s mind,” Larry Blomquist [head of the WTC] says as he inaugurates the Avian Challenge with a brief speech. “At the World Show, we’re always trying to bring something in that’ll be new and fresh to the competition, and here we’ve brought in some of the best bird taxidermists in the world to judge.”
After everyone’s introduced, Sunesen interrupts Blomquist. “We were wondering,” he says. “Could the rules be altered so one of these [partridges] could be Best in World?”
Blomquist takes a moment to nod and consider this. “One thing I want to be careful—and I’m not saying no, but world titles are hard to give. If you give a lot out you dilute the value of the award. I think when you have a World Avian Challenge, and you win the World Avian Challenge, that means a lot.”
In short: no the rules cannot be altered. But that the judges this year even asked them to be does not bode well for anyone having entered a game bird in regular competition. Clearly they’ve found a Best in World right here. Whether the audience this afternoon registers this is unclear, for most of them are sitting quite literally at the edges of their seats in order to see the low table of 13 partridges, all looking very similar but even from a distance and with an amateur’s eye such as mine it’s clear that a couple are all kinds of wrong. Much too tall or much too skinny. We’ve all got the photographic reference in our WTC programs, so it’s easy, before any of the actual judging begins, to make some predictions about which bird will take it all. My money’s on the one with the oval, grey-slate base.
Fishwick starts things off. “We’re three judges up here, and we each have our own opinions. We won’t necessarily agree; one may say the bird should be a bit wider than this mount, and one may say it should be a bit taller. What we have to do is slowly dissect the picture. To break it down and start from the bottom up.”
The audience will serve as the jury, it seems, with the three men up front presenting the case for each bird. “Don’t think we’re up here because we’re better than you,” Fishwick says. “We’re here to learn as well. Judging which is the best is an impossible task, but I think we can get real close.”
Sunesen agrees. “If anyone submits an exact replica of this, you’d be a genius. Because what you’d have accomplished is what it takes a lifetime to master. It’s replicating nature, and if you can do that, if you can take a photo and have your mount look like the live photo, that’s perfect. That’s a hundred.” [WTC entries are all judged on a scale of 1-100, and to my knowledge no one’s ever been given 100 points.]
And for the next hour, the men at the front of the room try to talk the audience into choosing what they already know to be the winning mount. The proceedings are herky-jerky and border on tense, for when one of the judges chooses one aspect of the partridge to consider closely—the spacing of the feet, say—it’s inevitable that some contestant in the audience will argue that the judge isn’t seeing the partridge in the photo the way he’s seeing the partridge in the photo.
Aaron Brown, a tan young gentleman from Sparks, Nev., a nearby suburb of Reno, is easily the most vocal audience member in attendance. His argument is that asking to regard the spacing of the feet is all a matter of opinion, especially as how the photographic reference isn’t a profile. It’s shot from about four o’clock on the dial. Sunesen counterargues, saying something about animals being machines made by Mother Nature, machines with strict consistencies in form. Meaning, then, that some previous knowledge of the species is necessary at the Avian Challenge. You can interpret the photo all you want but if you don’t know how the Hungarian partridge’s feet operate you’ve got little hope to win.
Those in the audience who feel confident enough to argue their opinions are Americans, many embodying American stereotypes. Loud. Arrogant. Self-involved. At one point Fishwick asks the people in the audience to start making some eliminations based on foot position, and Brown—possibly the youngest professional taxidermist I see at the WTC—comes right up to the table and chooses just two that he feels capture the feet perfectly. One of these is his own. I know this because a man named Tony, a much older taxidermist sitting right in front of me, asked Aaron before the judges arrived which was his. “That’s about the funniest thing I’ve ever seen,” Tony says now, watching Aaron hold up his own mount, on which the feet are spread apart several inches, with too much of the legs exposed. More arguments about opinion from people with American accents. More deference and diplomacy from the judges. It’s like some sort of mock UN going on here, with issues of international aid being transferred into the intricacies of bird anatomy.
It’s a bit of a mess, really. What the Avian Challenge is revealing is an inherent paltriness to competitive taxidermy. Judging laid bare like this turns the act of awarding craftsmanship into mere petty squabbling. Gone is the myth of the professional using his objective knowledge of craft to accurately assess the work of the amateur—a myth being steadfastly upheld on the competition floor below us. And while everyone seems to know there’s nothing objective about judging it seems, an hour into the proceedings, a far better alternative than what’s going on here. This is judging by committee, and as a result everyone wants his two-cents considered equally and fairly.
In chats before and after seminars, or on taxidermy message boards, there’s a lot of complaining that judging at these competitions—done as it is by other competitive taxidermists—is about eighty-percent ego, and whether this means that judges are sterner with others’ mounts than they’d be with their own, or that they like to wield the power handed to them by not rewarding any World Titles, the judging for the Avian Challenge is little more than a dozen or so egos at war, each claiming he has the best eye in the room and the best ideas of how to really see the partridge.
Throughout it all, several men sit in absolute silence at the edges of the room, wearing shirts of a complex cut and bluejeans that fit strangely, as if drawn on by a child with crayons. It’s awfully shortsighted to assume they’re European, but they are. And finally, after two hours of discussion, the judges come to a winner that the jury of contestants begrudgingly agrees with. Sunesen holds it up and asks the winner to reveal himself, and all heads swivel around the room until Markku Natri, from Finland, stands with a sheepish grin of egg-white teeth and makes his way to the front to shake the hands of his fellow Europeans. Soon, the judges choose a second and a third place winner, who turn out to be, respectively, Ari Puolakoski, also from Finland, and Jan Fredriksson, from Sweden.
Europe sweeps the Avian Challenge. The judging is done. All that’s left to do is leave the room and wait for Friday night’s banquet, and the awarding of the Best in World titles.