Feathers Wasted

I made this video thinking about my January 11th blog entry. We eat about 50 billion chickens a year! But we do not eat their feathers. Historically, we have not known what to do with all the chicken feathers.  A chicken is about 6 per cent feathers by weight.  That is 8-10 billion pounds of feathers a year! Most go to landfills but some are tilled into the soil as a low-grade fertilizer.

A friend gave me several 50 pound feed bags full of large shed wing feathers from his crowned cranes. Some, the “B”-grades got “planted” in a garden.


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Shows how and why I make art with feathers

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How to fix a tattered, frayed feather

Kingfisher-Preen-close3WEBwmOften your feather is not in the best shape. It can be trampled or tossed about by wind or wave and become frayed and tattered looking. The feather’s barbs and barbules (branches coming off the shaft) have little microscopic Velcro-type hooks which usually keep the them together and make a flat and even surface, the vane. But the hooks can come apart.

You can often fix even really tattered feathers with steam. Though steam won’t repair a feather with worn down parts or missing pieces, it fixes feathers with barbs that don’t zip back together, repairs twisted and wavy feathers, and straightens out unnatural bends and curls.

A steam iron works well, but I like to use the steaming spout of a teapot. Just be careful—use a glove so you don’t get scalded. You are really using a combination of heat and steam. Move the feather slowly back and forth in the steaming spout for a few seconds. Pinch the barbs next to the shaft and gently squeeze, then pull away toward the feather’s edge–in the same direction a bird preens.  This youtube video link gives you the idea in about a minute and a half, though it goes for eight minutes.



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Duck Rain


Our last long spell of rain lasted for weeks. I put on my rubber boots and raincoat to watch the ducks swim. Their bodies, wrapped inside warm and waterproof shingles of feathers, were warm and dry. Even though I wore a sweaters and long johns, rubber boots, rain jacket hat and hood, I felt not as well equipped.

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Where do birds go when they die?



If heaven is something a bird ever imagines, I don’t think it would be a place with clouds. Clouds are part of birds’ lives, they fly around in them. Especially during our rainy-cloudy season. We can’t fly, so those of us (probably who live in dryer climates) place fluffy clouds along with angel wings and feathers in the heavens, or at least as bridges between worlds.

I was taking a nice warm morning indoor shower, thinking of these things and thinking how I could use feather in art to describe a bird’s heaven. I recently sketched a series with cloud/rain themes. My inspiration usually arrives as intuition rather than a specific meaning I want to convey. But in the shower, it was as if the clouds suddenly cleared and the stars appeared. I thought, “If a bird had a heaven in its yearnings, it is stars, not clouds.”

This thought, I admit, was probably heavily influenced by the several weeks of constant rain and cloud cover in my area of the world. The sun did shine for an hour yesterday one morning. Like cave-dwelling dwarves, people came out of their houses, squinting and shading their eyes, happy to see beyond the clouds into the heavens.

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A Beating Heart

cockatoo_heart_WEBwmHappy Valentine’s Day!

Who knows if heart symbol-shapes mean the same thing to birds as they do to us. Probably not. Even though birds’ hearts are similar in shape and function to ours, they are relatively bigger. They pump more blood and usually beat faster–a lot faster, 1250 beats per minute for an active hummingbird. But when a hummingbird rests at night, the heartbeat goes down to only 50 beats a minute! I wonder how much faster a hummingbird heart beats when it wakes up, and sees its mate, its valentine.

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Look what I found hiding in this feather

This short video shows some of my process of cutting a turkey tail feather to bring out a little bird.

Everyone knows penguins as land waddlers but what fascinates me most is how well they swim. On a trip to the zoo, I watched and took pictures through an underwater viewing window. I envisioned these birds chasing schools of baitfish, even though the zoo keeper was feeding them dead herring or anchovies.

Later, I examined a stuffed Adelle penguin. Like the turkey, its tail feathers are the bird’s longest at five inches. The penguin uses these thick-shafted feathers not for display or flight but to make a three-legged stool: two feet and the tail.

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An industrial chicken feather problem

rooster feathers

My favorite rooster’s feathers.

From 50 billion chickens killed each year, industrial farmers around the world throw away almost all of their feathers: 8 billion pounds into landfills. The chicken farming business is so competitive that farmers make only a few cents on each bird. farmers would rather sell the feathers than throw them away. There is hope: universities and private research labs are busy finding ways to transform feather proteins into usable products; some are finding their way into the market, but most are in development to make them economically vialble. Here is a list of what I found trolling the WEB for a few minutes:

fertilizer ● animal feed ● extracts for liquid and solid fuel ● hydrogen fuel storage ●  insulation ● absorbent materials for diapers and environmental contaminants such as radioactive strontium and cesium ● ingredients in paints ● filters ● mats for erosion control ● paper ● stuffing for furniture and mattresses ● moldable thermoplastics for soles of shoes, cups and plates, furniture, roofing, and for auto parts such as dashboards ● ingredients in cosmetics ● clothing ● boat construction (mixed with fiberglass ● and circuit boards.

Manufactures will soon take advantage of the special forms of protein found in feathers by grinding, mixing, heating, and formulating them with other chemicals to make feathers a bigger part of your life in the near future.  Perhaps when writing a future blog article, I will use a keyboard made out of feather plastic, use a computer with circuitry made in part from feathers, and sit on a chair made of feathers, stuffed with ground and re-purposed feathers.

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Population problems and chickens

Green Jungle Fowl

Green Jungle Fowl feathers

We humans, being quite inventive creatures, have successfully increased our population to over 7 billion. A lot of our inventions and population increase depend on fossil fuels. Where would we be without use of gas and oil to make fertilizers, to transport raw and finished materials, and to manufacture about everything?

If a certain measure of success is how many there are of an animal, chickens have got us beat. At any one time, 19 billion chickens live in the world according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. In a sense, they are using us. Like we are dependent on oil, they are dependent on us for their population success.

Where would chickens be without us?  Probably where they started: a few relatively small populations of the four species of junglefowl, all in Asia. They look a lot like chickens. The feathers shown here are from a male green junglefowl who sports a beautiful pink, turquoise, and yellow comb on his head.

Next: what to do with all the chicken feathers?

Sources: 1. Howman, Pheasants of the World, 1993 and UN Food and Agriculture Organization http://faostat3.fao.org/browse/Q/QA/E
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It’s funny, but when cutting detailed bird shapes out of feathers, I make very few cutting blunders.

When something has my full attention, mistakes become unlikely. When I make one, it is either a result of inattention to detail, skipping a step in the process, or because I am exploring the “cutting” edge of learning.

I cut the wrong side of one of these feathers when I skipped the step of checking my preliminary sketch to see where to make each cut. An artist, using oils or acrylics, can just paint over mistakes; or even paint over an entire piece. With a feather, an error means starting over. I am looking for a similar feather to replace this one that I ruined.

Blunders like this put me in mind of the process of evolution. A fault in a creature’s body usually makes life harder. The creature dies or doesn’t reproduce more of its kind because the mistake gets in the way. However, once in a great while, one of these errors makes life easier, more effective, better. I haven’t experienced a cutting-feathers-mistake contributing to better art…yet; though every once in a while, I seem to try.

These are guinea hen wing feathers. The piece, once I find a replacement feather, will be 30 by 20 inches, picturing California quails flying up into the circle of feathers.


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