Carving out a life in birds

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By Tim Nolan

Paul Morrissette sits on his back deck. It is an early morning in May 2010. The chorus of life echoes from the dense woods beyond him. He sips his coffee slowly, savoring its taste and the moment. He reminisces of a childhood spent finding a similar joy and peace from nature, kayaking on the Farmington and hiking in Vermont. That was before he was laid off from his job as a printer for an insurance company two months earlier.

In retrospect, Paul humbly says he was lucky, as his kids were already grown, and he and his wife Melinda were living comfortably in Granby. However, he needed something to fill the void. Sure, he had been carving birds out of wood since 1992, but he never imagined it could take up enough of his time or completely satisfy him.
Paul was introduced to the art of bird carving while on vacation in Hyannis, Mass. He was at a store named Call of the Wild when he saw his first carving. Always having had an affinity for birds and the outdoors, he was hooked. Paul read everything he could about the art: Its history, prevalence, and techniques. Through his research, he came about the Wood Carvers Shop in Meriden, where he studied with Keith Mueller. From there, he began to carve on his own.
On that May morning seven years ago, Morrissette’s wife of 41 years was flipping through a magazine when she happened upon an ad for a bird-carving seminar at the Vermont Raptor Academy taught by its founder, Floyd Scholz. Wanting to cheer her husband up, she ran the idea across him.
To put it in perspective, imagine spending 10 days with your favorite athlete or chef or musician, heeding their advice while building a personal connection in the process. By comparison, Scholz is one of the world’s top carvers, having been a professional carver since 1983. Not surprisingly, Paul gave a resounding yes. For 10 days, he spent 10 hours a day learning from and working with a world–renowned carver. They discussed everything from banjos to RC helicopters. “Floyd had the most influence on my carving skills. He is a friend and a mentor,” says Paul.
When he came back home, he went to work with a fury. “I normally spend 50-60 hours on each bird. Being a perfectionist, I almost always find something wrong with the bird and go back to it to add or change something,” he explained. This 50-60 hour process is just that: a process. Every bird begins with a block of wood and a vision. “From there it‘s a downward bell curve. I start out confident with what I want to carve, and by the halfway point I think to myself “this is a disaster,” but in the end it turns out being all right,” says Paul of his thoughts during a project.
“All right” is quite the understatement. Mr Morrissette can turn an unassuming block of tupelo wood into a magnificent bird, mounted on a wood base similar to its habitat. Only the eyes, legs and talons are not wood. The eyes are glass and the legs are metal rods coated in epoxy. The legs and talons are then painted over with acrylic paint. With some birds, he carves an open beak and inserts an epoxy tongue with tweezers. His pieces are so lifelike that he now has to hide his birds of prey when his grandchildren visit. “I wish I could mount one of my hawks on a mouse or a rabbit, but if my grandson or daughter saw it I’d never see them again,” he jokes.
Morrissette’s first carving was a western tanager. He has since done everything from smooth hunting decoys to a red-tailed hawk whose tail feathers he purposely staggered and overlapped to make more realistic. Paul has entered a number of his birds into carving competitions, where he has placed anywhere from honorable mention to second best -in-show.
Morrissette stresses that bird carving isn’t just a crafty hobby. It’s an art form. It’s turning something rough into something magnificent. It’s turning a rough time into a wonderful opportunity, much as Morrissette did seven years ago.
If you would like to see more of Morrissette’s carvings, go to his Facebook page Morrissette Bird Carvings. If you would like to learn about bird carving or Morrissette himself, or purchase one of his works, feel free to email him at