Culture

Inside the World of Elite Bird Costuming

A niche part of the larger "furry" subculture, bird costumers create carefully crafted, life-size versions of avians and other bird-like creatures.

Rue costume by Hillary Esdaile. Photo: Courtesy of Hillary Esdaile

This Saturday, residents of Pittsburgh will witness a very curious migration. At the corner of 10th and French, locals will pile into bleachers and line the sidewalks. There will be street vendors, excited children, and a ragtime band. Then, suddenly, out of the David L. Lawrence convention center will come a strutting crowd of brightly colored anthropomorphic animals—birds and cats and dogs and bats and more—resplendent in fur and feathers, waving and cheering. The surreal scene might look like something from a fever dream (or a nightmare, depending on the person), but it will be very real. This is the annual Anthrocon parade, part of a weekend-long celebration of the animal-costuming hobby.

Animal costuming is popular among a subculture of anthropomorphic animal fans, colloquially known as “furries.” There isn't a stereotypical furrythey come from a variety of backgrounds and ages. And not all furries dress up in costumes. But those who do wear anything from clip-on ears and tails to full body outfits called fursuits—picture a sports team’s tiger mascot or a science fiction latex monster suit. Bird costumers are a niche group within the larger fursuit subculture; more typical are fursuits based on mammals. Anthrocon, which is the nation’s biggest event for animal-costume enthusiasts, is in its 21st year and expected to attract more than 9,000 attendees to Pittsburgh this year. There, costumers gather each year to trade tips and tricks while showing off what they’ve been working on since last year's Anthrocon, or attending classes such as “Vocal Techniques for Fursuiters” and “Unicorn Riot Dance Class."  

Among the various human-sized birds in attendence at Anthrocon might be the work of Jennifer Miller of Olean, New York. Miller, a frequent Anthrocon attendee, was the winner of the prestigous 2015-2016 Federal Duck Stamp contest. In addition to being a skilled professional wildlife painter, though, Miller also has a  talent for working in a three-dimensional medium: She makes amazingly lifelike hand-crafted bird masks and costumes.

Miller got into the costuming hobby as many do—through a love of Halloween.  “I've always been a child at heart,” she says. “Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, and I thought it would just be really neat to make a really cool costume. It had to be bird-based, since I am a tremendous bird nerd.”  

Since then, Miller has become an expert costumer. And like her paintings, her creations are extraordinarily detailed and realistic. The masks are especially labor intensive. To make them, Miller starts with resin molds, or "blanks," that approximate the shape of a bird’s skull and beak. Then, she layers ethically (and legally) harvested feathers, synthetic fur, and paint in patterns that simulate a real bird’s plumage. The eyes are carefully constructed from hand-painted acrylic hemispheres. “The masks are a challenge, because you have to accommodate for a human head inside, which is decidedly not bird-shaped,” she says. “They take such an enormous amount of time to make that I'm lucky to get two done a year.”

"Kleiveer" Bearded Vulture costume by Jennifer Miller. Photo: Brian Carpenter

Nowadays, even the simplest bird mask that Miller makes can cost a collector or fellow costume enthusiast upwards of $1,000. There are some deep pockets in the furry community, and Miller’s work is in high demand. But not all of her costumes are available for purchase.  

Miller, who spends much of her free time working with rescue birds, also sees her craft as a way to engage the general public on conservation issues. When helping the National Aviary in Pittsburgh gather donations, she witnesses just how effective her costumes can be. A flat image of a Philippine Eagle doesn’t exactly grab people, but “when the Philippine Eagle mask comes out, however, people are very engaged,” she says. “It sticks with them.” She’s also made a Pileated Woodpecker costume for a local nature center and wears it when she does programs with schoolchildren.

Hillary Esdaile, of Seattle, Washington, is another bird costumer and frequent Anthrocon attendee. She credits Jennifer Miller for getting her hooked on the scene after trying on one of Miller’s masks. “It was all over for me after that,” Esdaile says. “I had to get in on the bird-face action.”  

Like Miller, Esdaile is a professional artist, but she doesn’t just wear animal costumes. For Esdaile, the social aspect of the hobby is its biggest appeal, and she also enjoys non-animal recreational costuming, or cosplay, which involves dressing up as some of her favorite characters from film and television, or even her own original fantasy characters. In the world of elite costuming, it is considered extremely tacky to dress in a store-bought outfit, so Esdaile makes whatever she wears. She used the skills accumulated over a decade of dedication to her craft to create Rue, her raven character. Technically Rue is a kenku, a kind of mischevious bird-person from Japanese mythology, but even if one wasn’t familiar with the origin of the character, Rue is an obvious and startlingly realistic anthropomorphic corvid.

Made from a variety of materials, including handcrafted foam feathers and hundreds and hundreds of real, meticulously hand-set rooster feathers, Rue was a passion project for Esdaile. “The whole costume took 100 percent of my leisure time for about a month,” she says. “There was a lot of experimentation involved.” (For those interested, Esdaile has posted a FAQ with step-by-step instructions on how to create your own raven costume right down to the articulated eyelids and hand-painted acrylic eyes.)

Not all bird costumers are as concerned with verisimilitude as Miller and Esdaile. Kay Kennedy, a Baltimore-area native and graphic designer by trade, decided to take a more conceptual approach with her latest feathery creation. Kennedy, who also goes by her cosplay persona Byndo Gehk, recently debuted her yellow chocobo costume at a local costumers convention. A chocobo is a fictional flightless bird resembling an emu, or perhaps considering the size of its beak, a Titanis walleri.  Kennedy constructed the outfit from a fabric base in two pieces, then laid it with hundreds of hand-painted feathers of mainly goose and coque, the costume industry's term for rooster tailfeathers.

Unlike Miller’s Philipine Eagle or Esdaile’s raven, Kennedy’s chocobo doesn’t feature a mask or much of an attempt at replicating avian anatomical features. Instead, it’s meant to evoke the grace and power of a large bird without being too literal. Or, as Kennedy puts it, she wanted to make a design that portrayed “our big chicken friends” as “majestic and fierce.”

Costuming culture can be intensely competitive, but bird costuming remains a close-knit, supportive community within the furry subculture. And even though Kennedy, Edaile, and Miller come from different parts of the country, dress as different species and characters, and have disparate approaches to their art, furry conventions like Anthrocon provide a place where they can catch up, show off their plumage, and maybe even let their feathers down a bit. In short, Esdaile says, “we can flock together." 

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