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Going for spring walks, especially across countryside, can bring you many experiences and discoveries. You may find a patch of flowers you’ve never seen before, or pick out notes in the varied melody of passing birds. You can see how surroundings have changed with the seasons, weathering processes and repeated frosts having affected the earth in their small, deliberate ways. The road bed may have given a little, causing the potholes that irritate motorists. Roofs need patching, battered by bitter winds. An uprooted tree may have created a dam, altering the flow of a stream. Much like the humans who repair and rebuild, though, the fish will return, driven to spawn as waters warm. This cycle of life hints at another, remnants of which can often be found along the same creek banks, or perhaps buried under chaffy leaves on the forest floor.

Instead of just a shed antler poking up from the ground, a skull or set of bones tells you that a creature breathes no more. This is a little macabre for some, but others might be drawn to it, fascinated. Whether the critter actually died in that very spot is often hard to tell. Carcasses are sometimes carried in the water and washed up on banks, dragged by scavengers, or occasionally even discarded along roads or in ditches by unethical “sportsmen”. Was it killed by a car? Natural causes? Again, often difficult to determine.

You may shy away, and that’s alright. Such an interest is not for everyone. But for those who are curious, intrigued by the form of the bones and the stories they might hold, you can pick them up. With a little time, you can create an interesting display/educational piece, crafting item, or product to sell (just check laws to make sure this is legal in your area, like I did, and don’t try to sell endangered/protected species).

If a bone has been sitting a while, it’s often somewhat cleaned off for you – this takes the least work. Others may be … messy, to say the least. If it’s extremely unpleasant, I’ll leave it a while and come back for it. If a bone is very fresh, such as from an animal you hunted/trapped yourself, it can also be dealt with in the same ways, but you’ll have to prepare it first. Use a knife you’re comfortable with to remove as much outside flesh as you can, and if dealing with a fresh skull, then any device such as a wire or straightened coat hanger to break up and extract the brain. Skulls found outside often do not need that last bit.

I do hunt, but because of the above, I favor the easier cleaning of found bones. Either way, there are several methods.

Use of dermestid beetle larvae:

  • – Bone sutures do not come apart, teeth don’t fall out
  • – Bone must be prepared by fleshing and drying first
  • – A good cleaning job, removes all material and odor well
  • – Does not damage or shrink bone
  • – Takes a while
  • – Somewhat more expensive; you either have to keep your own beetles, or pay someone else

Boiling/Simmer method:

  • – Involves placing bone in simmering water
  • – Inexpensive and adequate for many
  • – Can boil fat into the bone, discoloring it
  • – Bone must be well fleshed, but doesn’t have to be dried
  • – Has to be watched closely
  • – Can damage or shrink bone
  • – Sutures come apart, teeth fall out
  • – Can cause odors during boiling process

Cold Water Maceration:

  • – Consists of soaking the bone in ambient-temperature water
  • – Takes longer than above methods
  • – Smellier method
  • – Bone must be somewhat fleshed, but doesn’t have to be dried
  • – Cheap and easy, requires little supervision
  • – Will not damage or shrink bones
  • – If leaves or other debris get into soaking water, bone can be discolored by them (but this isn’t necessarily bad – I actually like the one of mine that this happened to! See the last image in this post)
  • – Sutures come apart, teeth to fall out

Leaving it where it lies:

  • – Leave bone where it is for an extended period. ‘Nature’ will clean it for you
  • – Often leads to damaged or discolored bones, or bones disappearing entirely
  • – Takes the longest
  • – Unreliable, but super cheap and you don’t have to do anything!

The method I am supporting here is cold water maceration. I don’t have beetles, or a desire to boil any bones on my stove or in my good canning pots, but I do have plenty of water, extra empty buckets, and many places I can put them. I find that a side corner of my deck is adequate. The odor isn’t as offensive as a nearby skunk might be, but you definitely won’t want it inside. It doesn’t seem to matter if the bucket is covered. Nothing has ever bothered mine.

You can take something like this...

All you have to do is select your bone and bucket and fill the bucket with enough water to cover the bone. The process works best in warm weather, but at cool temperatures it just takes longer (I wouldn’t recommend trying to do it in winter, though, because the water may freeze and the process almost stop). You’ll need to keep the water level up, and to remove debris if it gets inside. It’s also best to periodically dump off most of the water and put fresh in, but this seems to be very forgiving. After a while of waiting, you should be able to see that bacteria have done their work. Change the water. If the bone looks fairly clean, rinse a few times and scrub lightly at any clinging particles.

... and make it look something like this ...

You can set them to dry and leave them just like that if you want, but there will be a slight odor and possibly a little discoloration. I ‘bleach’ (whiten) after cleaning. Hydrogen peroxide solution works well. This can be the standard kind found at the drugstore, or stronger stuff from beauty suppliers, diluted before use. Leave the bone in until it reaches the color you want or until it stops foaming, but don’t ignore it in there – it could eventually damage the bone. This process also deodorizes.

... and finally, like this!

If I get a bone looking pretty good using maceration alone, I may skip peroxide entirely and simply dunk in a diluted solution of bleach and water. This takes care of odor and does some whitening, but a skull should not be left in bleach solution for hours. It damages bone and can cause flaking.

After this is complete, rinse the bone well with plain water and set to dry. Once it’s dry, teeth or pieces that have fallen off can be glued with almost any clear-drying glue. You can then leave it as is, or you can clear-coat it. Clear-coating is not necessary, but if the bone is damaged by accidentally leaving it in the bleaching solution too long, it can help seal and protect the flaking surface. My chosen method for this purpose is just a mixture of plain white glue and water, which is also extremely inexpensive.

The bone is then ready for its desired purpose.

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