Plumage

Animal activists’ feathers continue to be ruffled! In lieu of fur, feathers are used to create a similar effect and they are as offensive. Feathers were one of the five haute couture trends in autumn/winter 2016-2017 fashions. They were seen on extremities of dresses, outerwear and textiles draped over shoulders. It began a year earlier when international fashion runways saw plumage (particularly ostrich) adorning styles in coats, pants, dresses, skirts, sweaters, bags, purses, foot wear, hats, jewellery, and key chains.


As long as there is a demand for plumage to make utility, decorative and adornment items, birds will be farmed and wild birds’ feathers traded. No one waits for birds to shed/moult their feathers, or die naturally.


Feathers for fans, showpieces, quills, shuttlecocks, fertilisers, bedding (pillows, quilts, duvets of eiderdown or down – fine feathers plucked off live geese), apparel and accessories (cloaks, coats, dresses, boas, garment padding, trimming on garments, clutches), jewellery and ornaments (earrings, necklaces, etc.), headbands, aigrettes, hats, fascinators, tribal headgear and costumes, even toys for cats, are usually obtained from peacocks, ostriches, emus, egrets, pheasants, turkeys, guinea fowls, chickens, geese, ducks, marabous, storks and owls, but can also be of some wild bird specie.

 

Feathers of peacocks are sold anywhere and everywhere in India. Whereas, feathers of guinea fowls, emus, ostriches, other birds including peacock feathers are sold in large quantities online from Kolkata, Howrah, Ranchi, New Delhi, Lucknow, Varanasi, Panchkula, Panipat, Faridkot, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Jodhpur, Ahmedabad, Bhavnagar, Vadodara, Kolhapur, Nashik, Nagpur, Secunderabad, Bengaluru, Kumarapalayam and Chennai.


India's Import Policy

Under India’s Import Policy 2012, feathers and down and articles made from them have been clubbed with artificial flowers and articles of human hair! “Feather dusters” and “other” items are “free” (allowed) to be imported subject to Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 and CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). The same applies to “skins and other parts of birds with their feathers or down, feathers, parts of feathers, down and articles thereof”.


Feather Wear in India

Peacock feathers were seen on Rahul Gandhi during his 2009 election campaign in Manipur.

Illegal under wildlife laws, yet sported by Parliamentarians, the traditional headgear of Arunachal Pradesh’s Nyishi tribe is embellished with a hornbill beak and feathers. To save this state-bird from extinction, the Forest Department and Wildlife Trust of India exchange real hornbill beaks with fibre-made replicas – they are slowly, but surely, catching on. Since then, a conservationist’s report of 2013, while praising the Hornbill Nest Adoption Programme, stated that hornbills were adversely being affected more due to hunting than loss of habitat. Tribes in eastern Arunachal and Nagaland continued to use tail feathers for decorating their headgear during rituals and traditional festivals. Paper feathers were being substituted, but the real ones were highly valued and therefore sold for as much as Rs 1,000/- a feather. (Hornbills are also hunted throughout the North East for their meat and fat utilised for medicinal purposes. The Hornbill Festival, an annual tourism event held between 1-7 December, was established in Nagaland in 2000 as a tribute to the bird.)

 

International fashion stores are increasing their stocks of feather wear and Indian fashion store designers are blindly following. Feather accessories, particularly feather hair extensions and headbands are sold online too. Feather embellishments are a part of attires, accessories, footwear, hair extensions, funky head bands, fringes and other items – mostly a throw back of the 1970s designs. Rooster plumage has become a popular trend as a hairstyle accessory. Feathers of chickens, geese, turkeys, pheasants and ratities are often dyed to make them look more attractive or match an outfit. It is perceived that the use of feathers lends elegance and style – a marketing gimmick. This is probably the reason why peacock feathers have begun materialising on rakhis given by sisters to brothers for Raksha Bandhan.

Luckily, some Indians do not use feathers because they believe them to be unlucky. True, their use certainly results in bad luck for the poor birds whose plumage has been utilised for such trivial and vain purposes.


Emu and Ostrich Feathers

Emu feathers are cheaper than those of ostrich and used in the fashion, art & craft industries, such as for making of feather dusters, pads, fans, boas, apparel, accessories, masks and for finishing metals prior to painting. The feathers are some times dyed and the plain looking natural ones are used as fillings for pillows and mattresses.

General Motors uses ratites’ feathers to polish the wheels of Cadillac cars. In fact, ostrich feathers are utilised as non-static dusters in automobile and high-tech industries, quill pens, hats, fringes & trimmings, boas, apparel, accessories, fans, masks, soft toys, feather-pads & pinwheels, and bleached & dyed feathers for show business.

In addition to feathers obtained from killed birds, or during the moulting season, ostriches are gathered in a pen and burlap sacks are placed over their heads so they will remain calm while those feathers which are becoming loose are painfully plucked out.


Feathers of Ducks, Geese and Chickens

Feathers are a so-called by-product of meat production or cruelly plucked off live birds. Since feathers are soft and trap heat they are used to stuff pillows, quilts, sleeping bags and winter clothing such as quilted coats.


Most 5-star hotel pillows contain goose and eider down although cotton, simbal/kapok (silk cotton from the tree) and filling materials like Comforel (polyester fibre) are good replacements for feathers and down, and are readily available.


Foie gras
and down production are inter-related. Both involve intense torture for the birds. Foie gras is the liver of ducks, geese or guinea fowls and pâté de foie gras production is extremely cruel: ducks are force fed several times a day with a funnel pushed down their throats till such time as their livers get ten times their normal size. They are then slaughtered and their diseased livers turned into a paste called pâté de foie gras. Since it is not possible to gather feathers at the time of moulting, they are forcefully pulled out leaving bleeding, painful follicles. Birds that have been slaughtered are scalded in hot water for a couple of minutes making it earlier to remove the feathers often with a plucking machine.


Following the Government of India ban on import of foie gras, in August 2014 BWC wrote to the Director General of Foreign Trade pointing out that the production of feathers and down goes hand in hand with the production of foie gras and to therefore stop the import of all feathers and down, and also quills and scapes.


Badminton is played with a racquet and shuttlecock (shortened to shuttle – also called a bird or birdie). The shuttlecock consists of sixteen overlapping duck or goose feathers (usually only from the left wing) embedded into a round cork base. In India white duck-wing feathers (smuggled in to West Bengal from Bangladesh) are mainly used for best quality shuttlecocks, whereas white and black wing duck feathers and some times hen’s feathers are used in poorer qualities.

The shuttlecock breaks easily as the feathers are brittle and therefore needs to be replaced frequently during play. Durable plastic and nylon shuttlecocks are available, but tournaments only use those made of duck feathers.


Chicken, turkey, goose and other fowl feathers are often used for fletching which are aerodynamic arrows or darts although modern fletching utilizes plastic as well. It doesn’t have to be feathers, just some thing of the right stiffness, thinness and size.


Chicken feathers, though termed “waste material” by the poultry industry, have been tried out for various applications such as biodegradable polymer production, culturing microbes, production of enzymes and as a feather protein (Keratin) adhesive for wooden boards.


There is an artist in Mumbai who uses moulted pigeon and crow feathers she can find by assembling them into geometric patterns. She has admitted that when she first began to use feathers to make art she did not realise the quantity she would require…


Peacock Feathers

Long and short stalk peacock tail feathers called spears or sticks with moons (eye pattern) are used for home décor, displayed in vases as part of floral arrangements and bouquets. Swords and butterfly feathers (those minus eyes) are used along with feathers with moons for making brooms/zhadu, fans/mayur pankh, handicraft items like framed art-work and book-marks, clutches, headbands, etc. The short plumage from the breast and belly is usually added to feathers with moons for making jewellery such as ear rings and necklaces, is used as fringes on attire and as trimming on hats. Peacock herl or flue (side fibres of eyed feathers, usually bleached, burnt & dyed) is one of the most used materials for fly-tying by fishers. The crest or corona and peacock quills (speckled and iridescent blue wing feathers) are also popular.

Peacock feathers are said to be indispensable in Mayur Chandrika Ayurveda medicine, Pavo cristatus Homeopathic medicine and witchcraft – peacock heads are clandestinely used as charms and talismans. A 2016 study undertaken by TRAFFIC India states “Bhasma and churnam (peacock feather ash) were sold in many Siddha drug stores in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat and Rajasthan, and is used to cure hiccups, vomiting and morning sickness among other illnesses. The Rebari community in Rajasthan use ash of peafowl feather mixed with honey to cure asthma, whereas ash of peafowl feathers mixed with coconut oil is used for headache. One bolus with cow milk daily early in the morning is given for five days to get male child.”

In addition, the plumes are utilized for religious purposes by Muslims and Digamber Jains.


(Similarly, feathers of eagles and hawks are of spiritual significance to American-Indians and we hear of Canadian dream-catcher objects with feathers as a component.)

As the demand for peacock plumes grows, naturally shed long tail eyed feathers are simply not enough and peacocks are increasingly killed – a single peacock normally sheds 150-200 feathers annually.

Although peacocks are protected under the wildlife laws and export of their tail feathers and articles made from them continues to be banned by India and also under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), the gathering and selling (within the country) of claimed to be naturally shed peacock feathers, is not illegal.

The government needs to realize that moulted peacock feathers and those which have been plucked out of a killed peacock look alike.

For positive results, there has to be consistency in ruling. So again in 2010 Beauty Without Cruelty approached the Government of India to entirely ban the gathering, sale and use of peacock feathers. Initially in response to BWC’s request, the Ministry of Environment & Forests was in the process of banning the trade because it was brought to the ministry’s attention that demand for the feathers outstripped their supply, leading to rampant poaching of peacocks. They said amendments to Sections 43(3)(a) and 44 of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 would no longer exempt those possessing a certificate of ownership for peacocks from transferring or selling their tail feathers, nor articles or trophies made from them. In fact a comprehensive ban on the sale, transfer and trade of peacock feathers was expected to be imposed expect for religious use.

Soon after BWC got to know that the expected ban on trade in peacock feathers would not come to pass because the Ministry of Environment & Forests sought comments from the state governments of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. They objected to the ban. Traffic India and the Bombay Natural History Society were also against the ban. Only BWC seems to have been in favour of the ban and feels that, at least, the dancers at the Commonwealth Games 2010 opening ceremony should not have adorned themselves with hundreds of peacock feathers.


Quills and Scapes

Quills are hollow, stem-like main shafts of feathers. A writing pen made of such a feather is also called a quill. Scapes are similar to quill feathers, but a scape can also mean a segment of an insect’s antenna.


Porcupine quills are also fashion accessories with strung and threaded jewellery and parts of some decorations. In December 2014 acting on a tip-off, forest officials arrested two persons in Madurai district for selling porcupine quills and peafowl legs.

In French plume means either a feather or a pen. The citation in every Nobel diploma is calligraphically done using a goose feather. Excellent calligraphy pens are available, so there is no reason to use quills made from the feathers of geese, crows, eagles, owls, hawks and turkeys, or porcupine quills.


Bird Feathers are not meant for Human use

Although each feather is light, a bird’s plumage weighs two to three times more than its skeleton. It is generally known that besides feathers being used for flying, certain birds grow colourful feathers and crests which attract the opposite sex. However people need to also know that feathers play a far bigger role in birds’ lives because they are not only used for flying or fleeing, but they help them in various other ways like swimming, diving, floating, and foraging. They keep the birds clean and insulated, acting as an all purpose protection against different weather conditions. They aid the birds in feeling as well as hearing and masking their own sounds. Many line their nests with feathers. A few even eat their own feathers as a digestive. Feathers have proved to help in times of distress by sending signals to other birds when camouflage hasn’t worked against predators.

 

Knowing this, humans must realise that bird feathers are not meant for them but for the birds themselves who are the rightful owners.

Page last updated on 30/03/17