You don't need to raise birds to get feathers, but it's both easy and fun. Here's the story about how I had chickens for eggs, meat and not least feathers
Only verbal - no pictures.
If you dislike that, don't read on.
From feathers to chickens- and back again
My wife always gives me her special look when I give the chickens my special look - from this angle.
You don't need to raise birds to get feathers, but it's both easy and fun.
Don't expect to be another Hebert or Hofmann within a year if you start raising chickens. But expect to get a lot of useful feathers, have a lot of fun and satisfaction - and lots of eggs and meat.
I will not go into depth about how you build a pen for your chickens, but will say as much as this: you don't need much space or special skills to do it. You get several advantages by having the animals yourself:
- They eat almost all you organic kitchen garbage
- In return they lay a lot of eggs
- They're fun to be around - especially for kids, but also for grown-ups
- They give meat - if not plenty then good meat
- You get some good feathers for your tying
A light Orpington with chickens roaming the suburban garden.
You have the opportunity to have any kind of feathers that you want - except for one: the genetic type. These very specialized birds are not available in free trade, and if you need dry fly saddles and necks in Hofmann's and Hebert quality, you'll probably have to buy them in a flyshop.
As a Scandinavian fly tyer I have a very different need that noone seems to care much about: large hen feathers. Many Scandinavian and particularly Danish sea trout patterns call for large webby feathers. And along with the genetic capes and the teeny Chinese and Indian necks have come a dire need for good and large hen feathers.
Selections of feathers from home brew birds: left it's hen feathers and right rooster feathers. The leftmost black rooster feather is a saddle hackle the rest are neck feathers. Compare with the match.
Orpington neck. The size is more than 35 x 25 centimeters (14 x 10 inches)
Large rooster feathers are also very hard to find. If you tie salmon flies on big 5/0 and 6/0 irons you will have to look a long while for a good feather. Schlappen feathers can do, but saddle hackle in the right size are much better.
And then there's black feathers. Natural black are not readily available either, so here lies an opportunity too.
For these reasons I have chosen large and stout races, but lots of smaller races will satisfy other needs for smaller feathers.
Select your race or races from litterature or go to poultry shows and look at the birds. Note that the bird breeders emphasize the same things that we do: nice even feathers with regular and clean patterns in the right colors. So quality feathers come from purebred quality birds.
I have had the following races:
- Isa Brown - smaller rust color feathers
- Light Orpingtons - large tan feathers
- Black Austral Orps - large black feathers
- White Sussex - B/W Badger feathers
- Silver Egde Wyandotter - Black feather with white edge and center
- Dorking - Large gray/brown/white mottled feathersOther suitable races could be:
- Plymouth Rock - Grizzly feathers
White Sussex rooster. This is just a large chicken developing a beautiful B/W badger neck.
If you want to raise chickens you need to be able to slaughter them. This might seem too much for many people and enough to keep them from starting the project altogether, but if you can kill a fish at streamside or shoot a deer and skin it, you can also slaughter a hen or rooster.
I use a very simple method: catch the bird and hold it or get someone to hold it round the wings to keep it from flapping. If this is done after dark, the bird is a lot more calm than in daylight.
Use a heavy stick or the shaft of an axe and hit the bird hard on the head. And that's HARD! If you can't do it, let someone else or drop the whole project. It's important that the bird looses contiousness with the first blow. I usually strike once or twice more just to be shure, and often the bird will be dead due to a broken neck after these hard strikes.
But in this family we generally agree that the slaughtered bird must be decapitated to be 100 percent dead. I do this using an axe or a very sharp knife. The axe is a bit crude, but very efficient. If you do not want to spoil the small feathers highest on the neck, use a knife and cut very close to the skull.
When you cut the head, be prepared for a lot of movement and a lot of blood. Have a bucket ready and hold the bird tightly over the wings and let it bleed into the bucket.
If you want the feathers close to the head both clean and intact, there's no use in cutting the head. How to slaughter without cutting the head is a good question. I know people who poison the birds, but that means goodbye to the meat. Your choice.
The other possibility is that the bird died a natural death - either in your own pen, in captivity elsewhere or in nature.
The dead bird needs to be fairly fresh and you need to make sure that it's not too dirty or infected with bugs. The living bugs can be killed by freezing the animal, but eggs and different other stages need to be taken care of with other treatment. Your own birds will be fairly clean if you have taken proper care of them, but wild birds are notoriusly dirty and infected.
Read more about slaughtering in this supplement
Breast view (above) and back view (below) of the dead bird with indications of where to cut for the neck piece (black line) and the saddle/side piece (yellow line). The left wing is transparent for clarity on the picture below.
When the animal is dead you are ready to skin it. Do this while it's fresh and before any other plucking or cleaning.
If the head is still on, the skinning is quite clean and can be done on a kitchen table. I usually use the bathtub which is easy to clean up afterwards.
Turn the bird over and locate the sternum - breastbone - which is a ridge in the center of the breast. Cut in the groove just in front of and above the sternum. I use a pair of strong scissors which is the easiest. A sharp knife can also be used.
Cut along the front of the neck to just under the head. Be careful not to cut the crop - the small bag where the bird predigests the food. Do this by lifting the skin which is not directly attached to the body, but 'floats' loosely on a layer of thin membranes and sometimes fat.
Expand the first cut perpendicular to the sides around the neck. Follow the line of the skull up to the comb.
You can now start peeling the skin of the neck by gently pulling it loose. Places where it's better attached to the bird you might need to help with the scissors, but overall it's better to use the fingers in order to avoid cutting holes in the skin.
Neck and/or saddle
Now is the time to decide whether you want a neck only or a comination of neck and saddle and maybe the sides (flanks) also.
If you want the neck only, just cut gently all the way around the base of the neck - from breastbone to breastbone. The base of the neck were it joins the back/saddle is generally naked or thinly covered with feathers. This makes it easy to cut the skin without cutting any feathers.
The finished piece of skin: neck only (black line) or neck, saddle, and sides (yellow line).
If you want to use the saddle and the sides of the bird, continue the frontal cut down the sternum to a position where the feathers don't seem useful any more. From there cut up under the wings. You now need cut cut round the base of the wing which can be a bit tricky. If you want to keep on the wings you should now break each wing off in the joint and cut the skin behind the wing. You will need to remove the bones and flesh in the wing later.
Once over the wing you can cut and lift the skin down the back of the bird on each side of the saddle. The skin is often tightly attached to the body in the front and middle of the saddle just between the wings.
How far back you go depends on you, the state of the feathers, and how useful you find the feathers just in front of the tail.
Stretching and drying
Before the skin can be stored it has to be dried thoroughly. This can be done by plain air drying but you will have to aide the drying and preservation process by using salt or borax. I usually use salt which is right at hand in the kitchen, but it does leave the skin quite stiff.
Nail the skin to a board to let it dry.
You will also want to pin the skin to a board. Take a piece of wood and a handful of thin 15-25 millimeter (up to 1") nails. Stretch the skin into the shape you want. Start by pinning the neck section to the top of the board and then stretching it with a few nails down the side and back edge.
Don't be bothered if it doesn't look like a Hoffman or Metz neck. It's hard to cut the regular shape of these necks.
When the skin is stretched you can remove the last residues of fat, membranes or meat that might be left. Now pull it up the nails to let air enter from the feather side and keep the feathers from getting squashed.
Sprinkle salt or borax in a thin layer on the skin, don't mind if some gets on the feathers.
Now leave the board somewhere warm and dry for a few days or weeks. Days will usually suffice.
Preserving and storing
Depending on the state of the feathers you can now just take the skin off the board, brush off the salt/borax and then store it in a ziplock bag.
I usually clean the skin by soaking it for a few minutes in luke warm water and washing it in normal hair shampoo. After this I treat it with hair balsam, rinse and dry with a blow dryer. This will leave the feathers clean and soft, but somewhat messed up. A few seconds in the steam from a boiling kettle will cure that.
The now moist skin can be dried between sheets of newspaper and after a few days be stored in ziplock bags.
I have not yet had a skin rot or mold on me - and I have (knock on wood) never seen bugs in my fly tying materials.
I got this excellent piece of advice from Ed Strzelczyk:
Having a few years of experience of raising Chickens and pheasants for hackles, I would like to share a few points to ponder and a very quick and clean way to kill birds. So it is not left up to one's imagination.
First off, I don't condone letting your birds die in there cage!
I also don't condone cruelty to animals even if unintentional, the best way to avoid it is by being informed.
If your not willing to gain this knowledge then raising animals is definitely not for you.
For one to get good hackles, the birds need to be in prime health having not only a good diet of commercial feed,
but also some scraps from the kitchen, like lettuce, potato skins and such. Young Dandelion shoots are a favorite too.
Birds even like things like ants, grasshoppers and a special treat you can get for them is meal worms. Fresh water daily is needed for birds to digest their food.
I have water, commercial mash along with poultry grit always available. Grit helps grind the food in there crop.
In the morning I let my birds out for some sunshine, which helps produce shiny feathers, and toss them some scratch grains. Later in the early afternoon, I go out and toss more scratch grains and scraps.
Since we have owls, fox and other vermin, I will go out once more before it's dusk and walk them into there coop for the night.
Since the birds need to be at least 2 years old before one will get good feathers, you should do some reading up on poultry.
Learn how to care for and watch for signs of diseases, and how to treat them. There are commercial vitamins which help tremendously. Birds need to be wormed before winter and dusted for mites and fleas.
Your birds can get parasites like ring worm from eating earth worms when the ground is wet, so select a drier spot for them.
A good place to find information is from the library and or the internet, do a search for poultry. There are lots of resources.
To make a quick humane kill I have been using the following method for the past 5 years:
Place two wood or concrete blocks about 8" (20 centimeters) tall in bottom of a clean garbage can. I made a screen to sit on top of these blocks (chicken wire doubled up will do).
When your ready to start, place a block of dry ice in the bottom of a large coffee can inside the Garbage can. Don't forget to wear gloves as your bare skin will stick to the dry ice and get burned by it.
Place your screen on top of blocks over the top of the coffee can and dry ice and have your lid ready.
Pour in about a quart of water into the coffee can so it mixes with the dry ice and close the lid.
The chemical reaction of water and dry ice makes CO2 carbon dioxide.
Get your bird and place him in the garbage can on the screen then close the lid tight. Wait about 1-3 minutes depending on how good of gas buildup you made inside the garbage can. I peek before I start and you will get the hang of it with very little practice (first couple of birds).
The bird is basically deprived of oxygen and you will hear a faint death purr when it passes on. Grab another bird and quickly exchange with the one before, making sure that the lid is tight!
I have twine hung from the rafters and hang the birds by there feet to skin.
I don't gut them until later,after skinning them so the feathers stay fairly clean of blood.
Then I prepare the birds for the table.
After you have done this a couple of times, you can get a production going. Two people can kill and skin 24 birds in about 3-4 hours.
I lay the skins on newspaper, skin side down and layered between more newspaper in a stack ready for the next step, scraping the skins with a dull edged butter knife.
I use Borax rubbed well into the skins and let dry for a day, This pulls the oils from the skin. The next day, I brush off the borax and scrape the oily spots again and re-borax and let dry.
I should mention that I keep these skins in a Rubbermaid tub. A large one works well. This keeps flies from laying eggs on the skins. Make sure you have them laying flat.
Once dried I cut the neck and saddle patches, and put them into separate freezer bags and freeze them for a couple of days.
Here is three key point to remember !
- Get a good cloud of CO2 inside the can before you place the bird in it.
- Once started, keep the lid tight on the garbage can.
- Be quick about things when you need to uncover it, so the gases you have built up remain in the can.
The CO2 is harmless to the meat, so go ahead and make soup, you can safely eat the birds.
The Hazards involved:
- Do not to fall into and get stuck in the can as it works the same for all who need oxygen to live. This is especially a hazard to small Children use common sense and watch your small children that might be around.
- Dry Ice burns if you touch it with bare hands! Not only will you get burned, but when you pull it off it will take off layers of skins which burns for days, not to mention an easy way to get infection. This also is the end of your doing anything with your hands for weeks. Wear gloves when handling dry ice. Trust me on this one, really.
Ed Strzelczyk firstname.lastname@example.org