When life gives you dead birds, make a hat!

Photo: Shelby Gilje The pheasants’ lives may have been cut short by a hunter, but the hat lives on some 51 years later.

Photo: Shelby Gilje
The pheasants’ lives may have been cut short by a hunter, but the hat lives on some 51 years later.

Shelby Gilje
Seattle, Wash.

When our daughter, Kari, was born in Bremerton, Wash., my husband, Svein, and I received numerous traditional gifts—baby clothing, teddy bears, crystal wine goblets. But one gift was unexpected and unconventional—two pheasants.

A rolled up newspaper had been left on our porch and—silly me—I assumed there would be flowers inside to celebrate the arrival of our baby. However, when I unrolled the newspaper, there were two dead birds, a gift from a freelance photographer with whom we worked at the local newspaper.

Not being the daughter or the wife of a hunter, frankly I was taken a bit back. Stunned would be more like it. Inside with the birds was the photographer’s business card and a sweet note. In my wildest dreams I could not imagine why he would gift us with the birds.

A friend who came by later that day told us how lucky we were. “This guy really likes you two and he’s brought you something he treasures! Fresh pheasant! Just think; he had to hike out to the woods, know where to look for the birds, shoot them, and haul them home. This is a treat! You had better thank him profusely.”

That evening I headed off to a hat-making class in which I had enrolled. I was almost finished with a shocking pink, wide-brimmed hat blooming with silk flowers. As we students worked in class I mentioned the pheasants. Our instructor, Dorothy Vezetinski, quickly said: “Do not throw away the skins! Pluck the feathers and you’ve got the beginning of a really elegant hat.”

My husband cleaned the birds. But how to cook them? We consulted a more experienced friend who advised: cook them like chicken, but add butter as wild game tends to be dry. The next night we roasted them and made mushroom gravy and rice. They were delicious. Indeed it was a real treat!

My hat instructor advised sorting the feathers by color. As near as I can recall they were sorted into six piles and stored in envelopes. At our next class she eyed the feathers, and asked what color suits I had. “Green,” I said pointing out a favorite color. She went to her fabric cupboard and took out a bolt of fabric that nearly matched my green wool suit. She cut and fitted the fabric onto a pillbox hat form.

Next we glued the feathers onto the pillbox in order of color, creating a border on the hat.

After 51 years, the green suit is long gone, but the hat lives on. Because of the richness of feathers’ shades—burgundy, camel, black, rust, gold, and a hint of blue—it’s a durable hat that can be worn with many colors.

It was also a lesson in repurposing / recycling long before those terms became fashionable and politically correct.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 17, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.