In 1938, Robert Spear noticed two parakeets flying out of his Vermont barn. Fascinated by their appearance, he carved their likeness in white pine with a jackknife then painted it the appropriate colors. His attraction to birds grew, as did his skill in reproducing their images.
Soon his creations numbered in the hundreds.
By 1987, needing a place to display his work, Spear founded a nonprofit corporation and opened a museum in rural Huntington, Vt. My wife, Marty, and I stopped by Birds of Vermont two weeks ago, where we briefly met Mr. Spear, now 90 years old, in his workshop, putting the finishing touches on yet another specimen.
Staff member Allison set up an introductory video for us. We learned about Spear's dedication and also about his technique. Penknives and chisels have been supplemented over the years with electric tools. He's unique for painting his carvings before burning and etching fine details. Spear believes that makes them more realistic.
That first parakeet sits in a display case, along with other early work. One wooden rack holds an assortment of warblers. For variety, there's also a guitar he made.
We began looking at the more than 450 carvings that fill the building. Spear's newest installation begins right outside the video room. Scenic backdrops complement a collection of aquatic birds frequenting the Lake Champlain basin. One side of the aisle depicts birds in spring plumage inhabiting the area where the Winooski River enters the lake. Opposite are species in fall plumage, backed by a diorama of Dead Creek in Addison County. A few birds are represented by silhouettes; future carvings will take their places. One will be a cormorant diving underwater for fish.
A monumental carved turkey rules the roost nearby, the product of more than 1,200 hours of work. The live version of this quintessentially American bird has thrived since being reintroduced to the region in 1969. I'd known Benjamin Franklin had championed the species over the eagle as our national symbol. But I hadn't realized the turkey can run 18 mph, fly 55 mph and glide a mile without flapping its wings.
On the second floor landing, we were greeted by a selection of raptors. We carried bar-code readers, allowing us to scan labels near many of the birds and hear their sounds. The call of the eagle surprised me by being fairly muted, but there was no mistaking the insistent warning cry of the peregrine falcon. One unique fact: The male merlin will pass food to the female while still midair, in essence a KC-35 of the avian family.