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Burlington man resurrects extinct bird species in wood

April 8, 2017

BURLINGTON, Iowa (AP) — When the last of its kind died in captivity in 1914, the passenger pigeon passed into extinction. The once-plentiful bird was hunted into oblivion in the 19th century.

The Carolina parakeet, the only native North American species of parrot, became extinct in 1918, the victim of hunting and habitat loss.

Meanwhile, despite occasional reports of sightings in the decades since, the last-recorded and verified observation of an ivory-billed woodpecker occurred in the 1940s on land not far from the Tensas River National Wildlife Preserve in Louisiana. Because of those unconfirmed sightings, the bird — driven out of existence by clear-cutting of old-growth river bottom hardwood forests — has been classified as critically endangered and perhaps extinct.

But in the hands of longtime woodcarver Dean Hurliman of rural Burlington, all three are coming back to life in sculpture, The Hawk Eye (http://bit.ly/2nC79qW ) reported. Especially the woodpecker.

Because of the hope some have in its survival, Hurliman said he has been able to find interest in those carvings from birding “true-believers,” and has donated some to universities and government agencies in 13 states. Auburn and Louisiana State universities have them. There’s one in the Wapsi Nature Center in the Quad Cities.

“You get a chance for thousands of people to see them,” he said.

Last year, he hand-delivered one, unannounced, to the Tensas River preserve in Tallulah, Louisiana, where a pair of stuffed examples are on display in the visitor center. Today, the carving also is hung for visitors to see.

“He showed up like any other visitor,” said Brett Hortman, refuge manager at Tensas River, which is 80,000 acres of mostly restored bottomland hardwoods, located in a tract where Singer Corp. once sourced the wood for the cases its sewing machines came in.

Without much preamble, Hortman recalled, the visitor announced he had something for him, and then presented the carving, which is in a flying pose.

Although not perfectly to scale, he said, the replica still “is really cool,” and has been given a place in the visitor center — hung from the ceiling so it appears to be in flight.

“We’re glad to have it,” Hortman said.

For Hurliman, 71, the statuary marks a change in direction, and perhaps a final one as aging hands become more susceptible to aches and pains than in younger days, for a hobby that began in the 1970s.

The lifelong Burlington man and his wife of 45 years, Karen, a retired hairdresser, have lived since about 1990 in a home he built himself on a hilltop off Prairie Grove Road. Spanning a decade from start to finish, the project interrupted his pursuit of carving duck decoys.

Hurliman has hunted in the past, but not for many years. His interest in duck hunting, however, led him to pull a book from a library shelf: “Decoys and Decoy Carvers of Illinois,” published in 1969 by Northern Illinois University Press. In it, the now-nine-years-retired Hurliman found inspiration in an image of a decoy found on the Mississippi River near Oquawka, Illinois.

“For some reason, that just really struck me,” he said of the photo, which shows a black-painted decoy, it’s head turned up and bill open as if calling to other ducks.

He would go on to add: “I’ve always kind of been fascinated by ducks,” then cite a line of the William Cullen Bryant poem, “To a Waterfowl.”

From that image, Hurliman carved almost 300 decoys, selling a handful over the years, giving away many, many more and keeping plenty for himself. Each is numbered, dated and signed, which collectors like. The first, a mallard drake he still has in his collection, was made from laminated pine boards. From his second one on, he has used solid pieces of wood, much of it sourced locally.

Each has been carved, cut in half, hollowed out, put back together with dowels and glue, then painted, signed, dated and numbered then varnished. He is self-taught at the craft, and the progression of skill from his first try is visible in later decoys.

Hurliman said he avoided copying decoys by others as he was learning.

“I wanted to establish my own style,” he said. “It’s best to develop your own style, and make something that’s pleasing to you.”

Over the course of a decade, meticulous record-keeping shows, he carved 37 decoys before trading his hobby for the serious but slow task of building a house by himself. Once moved in, the carving resumed in 1994. A few years later, in about 2000, Hurliman changed up the style of his decoys, pairing their new look with the poetry he had written.

Having composed 21 poems dedicated to his love of ducks and the outdoors, he started etching his poetry onto the bottoms of his decoys. The poems are drawn from personal experience or stories told to him by others. He wrote about being a solitary boy, walking home from school watching a solitary duck flying above him. He wrote about a duck hunter’s opening day wedding. He wrote about taking his dog and his wife on a hunt for wood ducks. And more.

First to get a poem, “Walking the Levee,” was Hurliman’s 101st decoy, carved in 2003.

The combination of poetry and decoys seemed a natural, as the decoys, while functional, were made primarily for display. Several of the poem ducks have been on display over the years at the Art Center of Burlington. Others he has donated for the local Ducks Unlimited fundraiser auction.

“I’d be disappointed if someone put it in the water,” he said.

Another style change would follow, with even more detail coming to the decoys. Feather contours would be carved. Bills would be opened. Poetry would be set aside. Later still, Hurliman would bring his ducks out of the water, carving finished bellies, adding legs and webbed feet. And then, he tired of carving ducks altogether.

Enter the Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon and ivory-billed woodpecker.

The bygone species have given Hurliman’s longtime hobby new variety, but as his hands increasingly feel their age, his thoughts have turned to giving them a rest.

But not quite yet.

“I plan to do 10 more ivory-bills,” he said.

Beyond that, there’s always being content simply watching birds out the window at home, and on regular hikes he takes with his sweetheart, across the Mississippi River at Big River State Forest in Illinois.

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Information from: The Hawk Eye, http://www.thehawkeye.com

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