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How Feather Extensions Are Changing the Way Chickens Live (and Die)

Whether it’s Steven Tyler, Miley Cyrus, or sorority girls all across the country, demand for long "saddle feathers" is way, way up.

Almost 30 years ago, Tom Whiting got some eggs from Henry Hoffman, a chicken farmer and breeder in Oregon, who had been raising 2,500 chickens in his backyard. Hoffman was a fly fisherman who was breeding the birds for their feathers—the long, skinny, variegated feathers that fishermen use for tying into flies.


Now, Whiting has apparently become something of an unwitting feather king. Steven Tyler and Miley Cyrus have snatched up his feathers, which are now retailing for hundreds of dollars more than their suggested price, mostly because of growing demand from hair salons and pet groomers. As Jennifer Collins at Marketplace reports:

He sold feathers to craft stores, makers of Hawaiian leis, even Vegas show girls. But he's never seen demand like this. He raised prices on pelts of the popular feathers about 40 percent, but even that hasn't slowed sales.

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Of course, these aren’t just normal feathers from normal chickens. They’re much longer. Each chicken gets his own cage so they don’t fight. The chickens have been selectively bred to have really long legs so their feathers on their backsides—known as saddle feathers—can grow as long as possible without dragging on the ground.

For chickens, the farm life is apparently pretty good, as long as it lasts. But what happens to the rest of the bird when it's time to harvest the feathers? According to an interview on the Itinerant Angler podcast (mp3), Whiting says:

[Henry Hoffman] used to literally chop their heads off. He was only doing 20 or 30 a day… because that’s how much his hogs could eat in a day. He raised pigs and they’re omnivores. After he skinned off the feathers, I think he’d eat a few himself and throw the rest to his hogs. We can’t do that. I just harvested 780 earlier today. We’ve got to do that three, four days a week year. We don’t chop their heads off. We euthanize them with CO2 gas… We just dip ‘em in the gas and out like a light. It’s an irreducible fact that you’ve got to kill them to get their feathers.

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Ah, the lengths we'll go for the sake of fashion.

Images of taxidermied birds, via Whiting Farms

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