Switzerland County’s Jim Day: skill and artistry in eagle recreations

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When Cycad Productions in New York signed a contract with the Chinese Government that required Cycad to design and construct a major exhibit at the Wetland Park and Visitor Center in Tin Shui Wai, Hong Kong; no one at Cycad had ever heard of Jim Day.

That’s not unusual — almost no one in Switzerland County has heard of eight-year resident Jim Day either.

Cycad, directed by world-renowned designer and sculptor Robert L. Braun, agreed to provide, among others, several “recreation birds” for the exhibit. In order to provide world class “recreation birds” Robert Braun began his search for the best recreator of birds in the world.

His search stopped in Switzerland County, about a mile north of the glitter of the Belterra Casino Resort and Spa.

But to get there, you have to drive through a gently flowing creek that crosses a chunk of concrete that is called a road, and then to Two-Lick Road where you cross a “dry creek bed” (at least it is dry most of the time),

Once across the “dry creek bed”, you find a small building sitting up the hill, off to the right, with the name “Eagle Claw Taxidermy”. Once you walk inside, the world changes. You first meet Jim Day, the owner of Eagle Claw Taxidermy. You then see a magnificent Bald Eagle, and a beautiful Snowy Owl.

You ask: “Isn’t it illegal to own a mounted eagle?”

The answer from Jim Day: “Yes, it is illegal for an individual to own or display a ‘real eagle’, but what you are looking at is a ‘legal eagle’.

Jim explains: “To make a ‘legal eagle’ you first fashion the shape of the body and construct it with polyurethane foam. You then sculpt the head. In order to finish the head, body, and wings, you need artificial 18-mm Bald Eagle eyes, grey goose wing and body feathers, white turkey feathers and white Cornish chicken feathers.”

Finally, though Day won’t say it, the most important ingredient — add the skill and artistry of Jim Day.

Jim sculpts the eagle’s head, beak, feet, and talons and then casts them in polymer resin. He painstakingly cuts and shapes almost 2,000 feathers to exactly match actual eagle feathers. He then paints each feather with an airbrush to duplicate real eagle feathers. Since it is illegal to own or possess even one real eagle feather, Jim Day does much of his research at museums so he can get not only the correct shape and color, but also the feel of each feather.

Jim Day says: “The real thing (eagle) is humbling. The structure is unlike any domestic bird. There is nothing I can do to replicate.” But, he tries.

The result is an award winning ‘legal eagle’ or technically more correct, an award winning ‘recreation’ eagle. A recreation eagle is simply an eagle that looks exactly like a real eagle, but contains no parts or feathers of a real eagle.”

Jim Day began to gain national recognition when he won “Best in World” in 1995 for his recreation of a Bald Eagle with a wing span, standing on a boulder, and second in the world in 2002 with his recreated Golden Eagle. In 1999 he won second in the masters division with his recreation of a Gyr Falcon.

Jim Day had a Snowy Owl ready for the 1997 World recreation competition, but the Ohio River intervened. At the time Jim was preparing to leave for the competition, the normally dry-creek bed that separates his property from the road was running about eight feet deep.

Jim Day’s reputation, gained as a result of his award winning recreations, got Robert Braun’s and Cycad Productions’ attention. In November of 2004, Jim Day was asked to bring recreation samples to an interview at Mr. Braun’s office in New York. Day took his Golden Eagle and his Bald Eagle, and, later, his Gyr Falcon.

Braun’s philosophy at Cycad Productions is that “product integrity is of paramount importance.” In the recreations of Jim Day, Robert Braun must have seen the product integrity he wanted. As soon as he saw then, he offered Jim Day a contract on the spot.

At a later meeting, when Jim Day delivered a Snowy Owl for the project, representatives of the Chinese government said it was the finest example of recreation they have ever seen.

So who is Jim Day, and how did he become a world-renowned recreationist?

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James A. Day was born in Petersburg, Kentucky. He grew up with his parents, Betty and James R. Day and two sisters in a home on Whooper Creek Road. Always fascinated with the birds he saw at his uncle’s farm and around his home in Petersburg, Jim began painting birds when he was nine years old.

At the age of 12, Jim saw an advertisement in an issue of “Outdoor Life” on how to become a taxidermist. With his mother’s support, he signed up for a correspondence course from the Northwestern School of Taxidermy located in Omaha, Nebraska.

Jim’s first efforts were with small game birds. The results weren’t very good. However, with the unwavering support of his mother, who would set up an area for him each night so he could practice mounting small game birds, he improved quickly. During his teen years, he spent most of his spare time improving his skills, often working with the birds and animals that his friends and neighbors would bring to him from their hunting trips.

Upon graduation from high school, Jim quit doing taxidermy, and took over his father’s water delivery business. For almost eight years, he did no taxidermy, though he did continue to paint. Then, in 1983, Jim gave up the water delivery business and went to work in a Florence, Kentucky, factory where he spent eight years as an impregnator. (An impregnator applies the texture to fiberglass panels by applying resin coated cellophane paper to the clear panels.)

During the eight years Jim worked at the factory, lunchtime talks often turned to hunting and fishing. When Jim mentioned he did taxidermy, some of his fellow workers asked him to mount their game. He did. Once Jim’s fellow workers saw the quality of his work, they and their friends started bringing all of their game to be mounted. Before long, every spare minute away from the factory was taken up with taxidermy work.

Several significant events in the early 1990’s changed the direction of Jim Day’s life. The first, as recounted in a 1997 copy of “Heartland USA”, author Soc Clay stated:

“Interestingly enough, Day’s current success started with just another boring night at his old factory job. … There were still two hours to go before he could escape the work place and go home. … he noticed the corner of a sportsman’s magazine protruding from between two pieces of machinery. … As it turned out, that magazine would change Day’s career direction over the next few years. …

“Thumbing through the pages, he came across an ad showing a magnificent bald eagle perched at the edge of a craggy outcropping.”

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Jim Day had always had a passion for birds of prey, especially eagles. He also found he enjoyed creating habitat and bases to mount his work more than he enjoyed the taxidermy itself. And by now, he was spending almost as much time doing taxidermy as he was spending at the factory.

With this in mind, in 1991, Jim’s ex-wife, Beth Ann, suggested that Jim should leave his factory job and return to taxidermy full time. Jim agreed, but in the back of his mind he decided he would also try to make an eagle similar to the one he saw in the magazine ad.

For his first attempt at recreation, Jim went to a poultry farm and bought chickens and geese, and began experimenting. (He now gets his feathers from companies that specialize in goose, turkey or chicken feathers.) Day had many starts, and many failures. It took a full 18 months before he had a recreated eagle he felt was a “keeper”. Today, he laughs at what he thought was a “keeper”.

Jim says: “It sure didn’t look like an eagle. But, I thought it did then. I was proud of it.”

At first his taxidermy work took up most of his time, though he worked on his recreation eagle whenever possible. As time went by, more and more time was spent on recreation and less and less on taxidermy. Today, recreation takes up most of Day’s time. Once his current project is complete, he plans to “catch up” with his backlog of taxidermy work.

Day credits the help and encouragement of John Arrowsmith for his recreation career. Jim started making feathers, bear claws, etc. for Arrowsmith to use as movie props. Among the movie props Day made were Great Horned Owl feathers for a peace pipe that appeared in the Kris Kristofferson movie the Miracle in the Wilderness. He also made feathers for the “Last of the Mohicans”, and though not used, a Turkey Vulture for the Jackie Chan movie “Shanghai Noon”.

During those first recreation years, Arrowsmith suggested Jim Day put one of his eagle busts at an I-75 rest stop that exhibited arts and crafts made by Kentucky artisans. He sold his first eagle bust to a man from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and the second to a man from Newport News, Virginia. Jim also received his first corporate commission as a result of that I-75 exhibit. An executive from the Dana Corporation in Toledo, Ohio, saw the eagle bust and contacted Day to make a life size eagle.

With a taste of success in selling his recreation eagles and a busy taxidermy business, Jim decided to make another life change. He had always wanted to live in an old log cabin. He saw an ad for a log cabin on Two-Lick Road in Switzerland County. Day immediately fell in love with the home and in 1996, he and Beth Ann moved to Switzerland County. Then things went sour.

His first two years brought no income, a flood, and a divorce. The taxidermy business dried up since his Kentucky clients found other taxidermists closer to home, and Indiana hunters did not know him, or his work. At the same time his recreation eagle bust had to be removed from the I-75 rest stop since he was no longer a Kentucky artisan. Without an avenue to exhibit, there was no demand for his recreations.

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Finally, in 1998 things started to look up again. Traditional taxidermy jobs started to come in from local Switzerland County hunters, and eventually from his former Kentucky clients who missed the quality only Jim Day could provide. At the same time, demand for his recreations started to come in, both as a result of his awards, and through word of mouth.

Though his taxidermy work was increasing slowly, Day began to question his decision to go full time into the taxidermy — recreation business. During this time, Jim met and married Sharon Settles — an event Jim says changed his life forever.

Sharon encouraged him to continue his passion for recreation. In order to allow Jim to do his work without having to worry about money or health benefits, Sharon drives to Cincinnati to work everyday.

Jim says Sharon is the best thing that has happened to him. Her support and dedication to him has never wavered, even when he was ready to give up with little or no income. That support allowed him to develop his craft to the point where he is now regarded as one of the worlds best. As a result, he has now recreated and sold over 100 full eagles and eagle busts; two of which are owned by United States Senators.

Several interesting experiences have resulted from Day’s recreations. A few years ago, Ron Cyrus, the father of Billy Ray Cyrus (“Achy Breaky Heart”), asked Jim if he would put an eagle in the AFL/CIO headquarters. Jim agreed.

One of Ron’s friends was Kentucky Senator Wendell Ford. Ford saw the eagle and liked it. He asked Day if he would give one to President Bill Clinton. Again, Jim agreed.

Several months later, Jim received a letter from Vice President Al Gore’s office thanking him for the offer, but informing him that a sitting president cannot accept a gift of art unless the artist is deceased.

Jim didn’t agree to that option.

He now has little time for hobbies that once included the hunting and fishing he enjoyed as a young boy. Jim does find time to continue his painting. Two years ago he started to sculpt larger pieces and has already created a museum quality bust of Buffalo Bill Cody. His sculpture of an eagle bust is perfect. Since it is so difficult for Day to find time to sculpt, Buffalo Bill still wears an old leather cowboy hat. Someday, his hat will also be sculpted.

A new recreational hobby is riding his V-Star Motorcycle to do errands in town. Most of the time the motorcycle sits in the display room while Jim works on his latest recreation.

When asked if he considers himself an artist or a craftsman, Day says: “I guess I am both an artist and a craftsman. Even then, I have never been satisfied with my work. I have to depend on my clients’ reaction to judge my work.”

And the reaction of his clients is overwhelming. Jim has been commissioned to recreate four different vultures for Bob Howard from Palm Springs, California. He has already delivered an African Vulture, an Egyptian Vulture, and a Palm Nut Vulture. He still needs to recreate a Bearded Vulture.

Jim’s favorite vulture recreation sits in a Bass Pro Shop in Minnesota. Last year he completed the recreation of a California Condor, one of the largest birds native to North America with a wingspan up to nine feet.

The California Condor, an endangered species that once had a population of only a dozen, now has a population of about 118. Like the eagle, it is illegal to own a Condor mount, or Condor feathers. Day says: “It is getting to the point where laws are so stringent that the only way you will be able to see what an endangered or threatened bird looks like will be to see a recreation of that bird.”

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“USA Today” recently reported that one-fifth of the 9,775 bird species in the world are in trouble. Even more rare than the California Condor is the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker that was recently sighted in the U.S. for the first time in decades.

The Chinese government recognizes this trend. The Wetland Park exhibit project includes over 600 species of birds, mammals, marine, insects, crustations, etc. Day says their preference would be for every one to be recreated. Unfortunately, most will have to be typical taxidermy mounts. Fortunately, most birds of prey can be recreated.

Thus, they, through Cycad productions, have contracted for a Harpie Eagle, two Snowy Owls, and a Harrier Hawk. These birds, all recreated by Jim Day, will be on exhibit at Wetland Park in Hong Kong.

The Chinese initially would have liked more Jim Day recreations, but with a deadline of July 2005, Jim, who is unwilling to compromise quality, declined to do additional birds at this time.

Jim says: “One project drives the next project to greater perfection.” The next potential project could be Jim Day’s greatest challenge. Cycad Productions is currently bidding on a project that would include the recreation of prehistoric birds. Cycad has indicated to Day that he would be asked to do the recreations.

The challenge will be to determine the body and feather structure with only a skeleton to study. If the opportunity becomes a reality, Jim Day will be up to the challenge.