Down and Feathers
What is the live-plucking process like?
Typically, geese and ducks are lifted by their necks, their legs are tied, and their feathers are pulled out in large chunks in a process that the industry refers to as “ripping”.1 The birds struggle and panic, sometimes even breaking limbs in an attempt to escape. A 2009 Swedish television program, Kalla Fakta, produced a two part documentary on the topic of live-plucking in Hungary which revealed:
…birds on their backs screaming and struggling to free themselves…as their down is ripped from their bodies at rapid speed. Afterwards, several birds are left paralyzed on the ground with large flesh wounds. The birds with big gaping wounds are then sewn back together with needle and thread on site by the workers themselves and without any anesthetic.2
Upon viewing the footage, Swedish vet Dr. Johan Beck Friis described the live-plucking process as “nothing less than qualified torture”3. In an interview with CBS 5 of San Francisco, SPCA veterinarian and bird expert Dr. Laurie Siperstein-Cook responded to the footage, stating that it must have been “horribly, horribly painful” and that “if you choose to buy a down product…you may be supporting torture.” The news piece also visited Wal-Mart, NorthFace, and REI, none of whom could offer any information about whether their feather and down products came from live-plucked birds. 4
The birds are live-plucked for the first time at about ten weeks old, and are plucked again four to six times a year until they are sent to slaughter at about four years old. (Ducks and geese can live about 12 to 15 years.)5,6 Other birds are part of the food industry: white geese, bred for their meat, are plucked up to three times before being slaughtered at about 26 weeks of age, and grey geese, raised for foie gras, are plucked one or twice before being slaughtered at 12 weeks.7 The research done for Kalla Fakta estimated that 50-80% of the world’s down is live-plucked.8 Industry groups responded by claiming that the actual percentage was much lower, but another investigation–this one conducted by Ikea–confirmed the high numbers.9 That same year Ikea phased out Mysa, a Chinese brand of down bedding, citing welfare concerns about live-plucking.10
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The largest down-producing countries are Hungary, China, and Poland, and all three harvest feathers via live-plucking.11 80% of the world’s down and feathers come from China.12 The industry considers feathers from live-plucked birds to be of better quality, since removing feathers from a carcass and then washing and drying them can cause damage.13,14 and the process is also more economic, since the birds can be plucked again and again before being slaughtered. It takes the down of 75 birds to fill one comforter.15
Not surprisingly, research backs up claims about the suffering of live-plucked birds. An article published in Research in Veterinary Science concluded that the feather-plucking process is painful for birds, stating that pain receptors had been indentified in the skin of avian species like ducks, geese, and chickens and that “the follicular wall of the feather is richly supplied with general somatic afferent (sensory) fibres, and nerves are present in the papilla, pulp and feather muscles…and the feather is firmly held in the follicle.” 16. Another study found that blood glucose levels of geese nearly doubled during plucking, a sign of extreme stress.17
Of course, ducks and geese are not the only birds raised for their feathers. Others include fancy roosters, raised and genetically bred specifically for their long, colourful feathers, as well as ostriches.
The feathers of these fancy roosters have traditionally been used as baits for fly fishers, but feather hair extensions have become very fashionable recently. The birds are raised in enormous, windowless sheds, and at six months of age, they are moved to the stacks of individual cages where they will spend the last half of their lives. Tom Whiting of Whiting Farms, the largest fly feather producer in the world, described the process:
“[We’re] sentencing [each rooster] to a solitary cage for the last 6 months, with nothing to look at or listen to other than lots of other confined roosters … [y]our sentiments can quickly shift from wanting to evaluate their necks to wringing [t]hem. Some of my most sheepish moments in life have been after hurling an especially bad rooster across the barn in utter frustration…” 18
At one year of age, the roosters’ feathers have grown to a maximum length, so they are slaughtered.19 The birds are killed because their first set of feathers are the valuable ones; any subsequent growth is “not as good”.20 The roosters are raised for their feathers alone; said Whiting, they “aren’t good for anything else.” Their bodies are composted. Chickens can live up to 10 or 15 years.
Ostriches, who are raised by the thousands on large farms, are live-plucked. Some farms exist solely for feather harvesting; others raise the ostriches for meat and leather as well. Despite the fact that ostriches can live to between 40 and 70 years, those destined to be meat or leather are slaughtered around one year of age.21
There are two methods of removing feathers from live ostriches, clipping and plucking. Both require the bird to be restrained, either in a “plucking box” or a paddock so small that he cannot kick or turn around. Often the bird has a black hood put over his head. Younger birds are plucked once they reach the age of “adult feathers” at about the age of 16 months. Every 7 or 8 months after that, their large feathers are pulled from their skin. Live-plucking is also considered good when it comes to producing “quality” ostrich leather; the characteristic circular marks in the leather are actually scars from the feathers being pulled out while the bird is still alive.22,23 (Learn more about leather at our page.)
Clipping is different but similarly inhumane: the birds are restrained as workers cut feathers off with hedge trimmers or pruning shears at about two inches above the bird’s skin; any closer can cause hemorrhage and feather regeneration damage, since blood vessels and nerves run through the centre of feathers. There is no doubt that this process is painful for the birds, and up to 50 feathers can be clipped from one adult male ostrich at one time. The next step is “quilling”, where workers pull out the quills of the feathers that were intentionally left in the follicle during the clipping process. This is done with pliers or by hand, and its purpose is to prevent hemorrhaging and to maintain the commercial quality of future feathers.24, 25
7. Steve Boggan, Feathers ripped from birds’ backs and gaping wounds sewn up without pain relief, The Daily Mail, 2012 Nov. 28
10. Adriana Stujit, IKEA drops live-plucked Chinese bedding from shops, Digital Journal, Feb. 17, 2009
12. Adriana Stujit, IKEA drops live-plucked Chinese bedding from shops, Digital Journal, Feb. 17, 2009
14. Steve Boggan, Feathers ripped from birds’ backs and gaping wounds sewn up without pain relief, The Daily Mail, 2012 Nov. 28
17. J. Janan et al., “Effect of Feather Plucking in Geese’s Blood Glucose Level,” Hungarian Veterinary Journal Jun. 2001.
19. Associated Press, High fashion or bait? Fly ties now hair extensions, June 3, 2011
20. Whiting Farms press release, 2011
21. M. M. Shanawany, John Dingle, Ostrich Production Systems parts 1 & 2, 1999
25. M. M. Shanawany, John Dingle, Ostrich Production Systems parts 1 & 2, 1999