Carving out a new career

"It was my wife, Jean," says Phillip Zeller of East Arlington, Vt., "who really got me started in the business of bird carving. That was 11 years ago when I was in the hardware and lumber business. One day she asked me if I'd try carving her a bird for our living room. We still have that little fellow, crude as it was."

Today, with up to 3,100 carved birds behind him, Mr. Zeller is considered one of the masters of his craft -- a truly American art form, and a craft which has changed considerably over the last few years.

It is believed that the art of decorative bird carving started in the early days of water-fowling when sportsmen fashioned their own decoys from whatever wood was available. From this beginning came the more refined and eventually the highly detailed decorative decoys for the sportsman's den.

As Mr. Zeller's skills developed, he added song birds, birds of prey, and game birds to his collection, which now includes most American species.

His life-size red-tailed hawk has a four-foot wing spread and close to 800 individually carved feathers, all so perfect that they look like real feathers glued onto a wooden body. High-speed photography has made it possible to study every movement of birds in flight; no longer must his sculptures have that "stuffed bird look."

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