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Death Becomes a Scarborough Artist’s Lifelike Birds

Bethany Hickey, a.k.a. the Taxidermy Chick, specializes in preserving peafowl of all varieties.

Taxidermist Bethany Hickey working on a silver pied peacock
By Sara Anne Donnelly
Photos by Nicole Davis
From our March 2024 issue

During the last months of his life, in 2007, as cancer sapped his strength, taxidermist Eino Kivisalu taught his daughter his trade. “He had this customer base that was asking for stuff, so I started helping him,” Bethany Hickey says. An Estonian immigrant and wildlife biologist, Kivisalu was known as the Chicken Man among his taxidermy collectors, but he also preserved countless other species of birds, fish, reptiles, and mammals, from common painted turtles to Scottish Highland steers, over a career that spanned more than 50 years.

Through video tutorials and phone calls from his organic farm in New York, Kivisalu schooled Hickey, who’s now based in Scarborough, in ethical, natural taxidermy practices. Animals must be sourced through breeders who do not raise them for taxidermy, he told her, and only those that have died naturally or been humanely euthanized due to illness or old age should be accepted. He showed her how to skin the animals and coat the flesh with borax (a natural drying agent), as opposed to the toxic preservatives historically used in taxidermy. The skins are then mounted on moldable handmade forms composed of wood shavings wrapped in cotton batting and baked in a 140-degree oven for a week to complete the drying process. Finally, Kivisalu instructed his daughter to honor the animals with glass eyes and touches of paint in realistic colors and by giving them artful poses. “Papa taught me that taxidermy is a way to learn about animals, admire them, and educate people about them,” Hickey says. “It’s about memorializing these gorgeous creatures that might not be remembered otherwise.”

Rushing against time, Kivisalu walked Hickey through the particulars of preserving each of his most popular species until only the peacock was left. A Christian symbol of immortality, the bird held special meaning for Kivisalu, who was deeply religious. With its long, delicate neck and large head, it’s also uniquely challenging to skin. “You could never do a peacock,” Kivisalu told Hickey. “But if you do, here’s how it’s different from the other birds.” With that, he imparted his final lesson, sketching out the steps on a scrap of paper from his deathbed during their last visit. It took Hickey two years to work up the courage to follow them.

She started with an Indian blue, the cobalt-bellied variety most closely associated with the species. The bird sold quickly, and more orders poured in. “For a while, preserving peacocks was just part of my grief work,” Hickey says. Then a friend of Kivisalu took her to seek out ethical breeders at a bird auction, where she saw hundreds of peafowl in a rainbow of shades. “Seeing the birds alive opened my eyes to how beautiful they are,” she says. “I realized there is something so gratifying in taking one that has died and giving it a second life.”

Taxidermist Bethany Hickey and her silver pied, white, and Indian blue peacocks are pictured at Scarborough’s Beech Ridge Barn, a spot that reminds her of the New York farm where she grew up and her father practiced taxidermy.

Today, Hickey specializes in preserving peafowl of all varieties, working from a home studio as the Taxidermy Chick, a nod to her father’s moniker as well as her place in a male-dominated field. Her birds, known for their cheeky over-the-shoulder poses, perch in galleries, restaurants, museums, storefronts, and houses all over the country. A flock of her white peacocks was incorporated into décor in the British series The Crown, and her black-shouldered, white, silver pied, and Indian blue peacocks have featured prominently in large-scale, avant-garde works by famed sculptor Petah Coyne.

“I chuckle about my dad’s challenge,” Hickey said recently, surrounded by a half dozen Indian blue and white peacocks, frozen in graceful repose in her studio. “He knew if he suggested I might not be able to do peacocks then I would have to try. It was his parting gift.”

April 2024, Down East Magazine

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