The dining room table at the Kompanjes is covered with a plastic tablecloth. On it – side by side with the fruit bowl – lies a herring gull that died after an accident in Alkmaar. The left side of its body shows serious injuries, and one of the bird’s legs is bruised. Kompanje was called after the animal had been put down by the vet. He regularly prepares gulls as specimens, and with birds of this size, he might as well do it on his dining room table, at home in Barendrecht. While Kompanje shows how he removes the gull’s skin with his bare hands and a scalpel, his wife and son move around the table to put on the kettle or grab a late lunch.

Erwin Kompanje villen
Kompanje in the midst of skinning the herring gull.

McFlurry Hedgehog


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Think of a random animal and in most cases, Kompanje (who can usually be found wearing an elegant tailored suit, complete with cufflinks – and today’s no exception) can offer some interesting anecdote or other. Whether it’s a barn owl, squirrel or campus fox (‘mainly subsists on a diet of shawarma’), an albatross, bar-tailed godwit or Eurasian woodcock (‘number one cause of death: flying into stuff – it’s a very clumsy bird’), the hapless Domino Day Sparrow or the McFlurry Hedgehog. But, above all: gulls. French gulls, Russian gulls, Norwegian or Belgian gulls. The great or lesser black-backed gull, the European herring gull. Why gulls? “I’m particularly fascinated by run-of-the-mill species. While it’s fun to come across a bird that actually belongs in North America, it’s clearly out of place here. You can’t draw any conclusions about a species from those finds.”

There’s a reason why Kompanje’s wife and son aren’t ruffled by this dining room dissection. He has been making ‘study skins’ (a form of taxidermy in which the animal’s skin is preserved in a stretched pose for easy storage) for years. He emphatically sees himself as a scientific taxidermist: “You also have people who focus on looks. They may even earn a lot of money doing this, but apart from that, they have no interest in the animals whatsoever. It’s different in my case. As a young fellow, I was already very interested in birds. I even had a stint as a commercial taxidermist, because I wanted to earn money to move out of my parents’ place. I borrowed some library books on the subject, read them cover-to-cover a few times and got cracking.”

Erwin Kompanje veren inspecteren
The tips of the feathers are as distinctive as a human being’s fingerprints. That’s why Kompanje sketches them. Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Driving down the motorway picking up owls

After moving out, it didn’t take long for Kompanje to switch to scientific taxidermy. “I wanted to build a scientific collection for academic research – one that would allow us to compare plumages from different periods, for example. Or study which impact nutrition has on the animal’s development.”

Over the past year, he has prepared no fewer than 400 birds – a direct result of the Covid lockdown. “We can no longer eat out or go to the theatre, leaving me with more time to spend on this stuff. In April, for example (when we were working from home), I would drive along the A15 toward Nijmegen and back, picking up dead owls along the hard shoulder. And after dinner I would often spend a spare hour preparing skins – three or four times a week, and occasionally I’d do ten birds in one weekend. There’s a kind of mindfulness to it too.”

Using his hands and a scalpel, Kompanje separates the herring gull’s skin from its muscles and organs, which he will soon be replacing with wire and kapok: a kind of stuffing. He then measures the bird’s wings, beak, tail and legs. He also records crucial information like where and when the animal was found, as well as the contents of its stomach. You can find the most unusual items in there – from fish to junk food, dumplings to Christmas decorations. “This time round it’s some grass and sand.”

The kapok, which Kompanje will be using to stuff the gull’s prepared skin, can be seen bottom left. Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Fish stall in Amsterdam

This particular gull has actually been ringed, which yields a wealth of interesting information. “Birdwatchers enter photos of the animal in a database, allowing us to see which area it lived in. Between May 2017 and the present, our bird was reported on a total of 90 occasions – a number of times with its regular mate. And the database also tells us she was born on the island of Texel, nested there every year and spent the winter in Alkmaar. Gulls are real ‘chancers’, and they often specialise in something to get by. For example, some gulls that live on Texel fly over to Amsterdam for the day – to one specific fish stall even – to snatch some fish there. After that, they fly all the way back. Then there are gulls that specialise in opening bin bags, for example, with other birds watching to see how they do this, and grab a few morsels for themselves.”

With details like this, an animal becomes more than just a specimen – it gains a character of its own; a story. Kompanje is particularly proud when one of these ringed birds turns out to be particularly old, with an interesting history. “I can really daydream about finds like that. If it has flown very long distances, I’ll be thinking to myself, ‘What an adventurer! I wonder what kind of experiences it has had on its travels?’ His respect for animals is clearly reflected in how he talks about them. “I occasionally miss that in our society: the carelessness with which we eat them, for example – and the scale on which we do this. Animals aren’t interchangeable.”

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