PASCO — Danny Owens stood in a ballroom Friday at the Pasco Red Lion and scrutinized a gadwall duck.
He shone a small flashlight over the duck's contours to examine whether the taxidermist who preserved the bird accurately captured what it would have looked like in life. It was mounted to a display that replicates a glassy pond.
"Each water fowl, each duck, has a distinctive head shape," said Owens, a national champion bird taxidermist from Lubbock, Texas. "If you know those shapes, you can take one look at a bird and know if it's accurate or not."
In this case, the taxidermist -- likely a novice or hobbyist -- hadn't quite captured the essence of the living gadwall. The head shape and eye angle were off, and the body lacked symmetry.
Those are things he would bring up if the taxidermist opted for a one-on-one feedback session, he said.
Owens was judging the duck as part of a competition sponsored by the United Taxidermists Association at its 2012 expo in Pasco -- the first of what organizers hope will be a regular event that connects those who practice taxidermy with those who want to learn.
The event began Wednesday and opens to the public today and Sunday.
For a $5 fee, visitors can peruse more than 100 animals preserved and mounted in displays that are intended to replicate their natural environments and activities.
"Taxidermy is an art form," said Craig Lewis of Burbank, the association's board chairman. "We use their real expressions, real colors. We try to display them in a natural setting."
Lewis has been a professional taxidermist for about six years since he retired from full-time work, but said he has practiced the craft for more than 30 years.
His primary passion is birds, although as a matter of good business, he will take any animal a customer wants preserved.
He became interested in taxidermy after he started pheasant hunting as a boy alongside his father.
"I thought they were so pretty I wanted to keep one," Lewis said.
So he signed up for a correspondence course and taught himself taxidermy using books and pictures.
Now, he tries to help others learn through the United Taxidermists Association, an international organization with about 800 members, Lewis said.
He said many taxidermists once guarded the secrets of their trade and were unwilling to share or teach others.
"Now, it's just the opposite," Lewis said.
Participants who paid an extra fee were offered seminars to either learn the trade or improve their skills. Topics include how to mount a pheasant or a small mammal, fish form carving and head casting, mule deer anatomy, composition and the rules of the art, and a two-part seminar on mounting and finishing a turkey.
The association also is offering a chance for taxidermists to show off their specimens and have them graded by judges, all of whom are champion taxidermists.
A "supplies room" includes an array of vendors hawking the tools and services of the taxidermy trade. Practitioners can buy mannequins and skins or furs from various species, hand-painted glass eyes and replicated mouths and snouts.
They also can talk to companies specializing in tanning hides or shipping items -- including a broker who can help world travelers navigate the bureaucracy of shipping game from overseas.
Lewis said he hopes Tri-Citians will come and learn about the intricate art form he loves, and appreciate the way in which taxidermists help preserve a piece of natural history.
"I think it's neat to come in and see a display of the creatures of the world," he said.
The next UTA expo in 2014 is in North Platte, Neb. For more information, go to www.utataxidermy.com.