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by Gina Hilton
(Bittersweet, Volume I, No. 3, Spring 1974)
Luxuries like feather beds and pillows used to be commonplace household items in any Ozark farm home. Though people worked hard to raise and make everything they needed to live, the women saw to it that they were as comfortable as possible with the resources available to them. Right at hand were the feathers on their poultry flocks. Most farm women had a few ducks and geese to supply the family with feathers and enough left over to give a pair of pillows and a feather bed to each child as he married. It was an easy matter to set a few duck eggs under an old setting hen, and be in the feather business.
Most of the people born before 1930 slept on feather beds and pillows in their childhood. Though many now use mattresses, they still much prefer feather pillows to cotton or foam rubber ones because of resiliency and life in the feathers which will last for years.
Hazel Cravens learned to pluck ducks and geese from her mother while growing up on a farm. Borrowing her nephew's ducks, she showed us how.
Besides the ducks you do not need much equipment to pick feathers. Two straight chairs, a cotton bag to put feathers in and a cloth to tie the duck's feet are all that is needed.
Have a comfortable chair that has a flat seat low enough that your feet rest comfortably on the ground. The back of the other chair is to hold the cotton bag. Make sure the bag and chair are close together because your arms will get tired putting feathers in the bag. Since you are going to be there for a long time, be as comfortable as possible.
The cotton bag is put over the back of the extra chair so that it does not fall off. Hazel likes a clean bag or white feed sack of any kind. She said, "You can make a bag out of any kind of material, but if you have a clean white feed sack, that's one of the best things to pick in. The air will go through this bag and the feathers will dry out faster in a bag of this type. Turn it wrong side out so they won't get in the seam. We'd lose a lot of feathers getting caught in this seam."
You also need a strong cloth string to tie the duck's legs. The soft wide cloth will not cut into the flesh of the duck.
Ducks hatched in the spring are usually ready to pick in hot weather. Pick in a shady place out of the wind. Early in the morning when it is not too hot is a good time. Ducks are usually ready to pick when they are two months old. After that they can be picked every six weeks until cold weather.
You cannot get enough feathers for a full pillow from one duck, nor even ten. The feathers will keep if you do not get enough the first picking. Simply air the feathers outside in the bag for several days before hanging up in a dry place. After you pick the second or third time, you may have enough for a pair of pillows.
When you have your chair and bag ready, catch a duck and tie her feet together with the cloth string so that you can handle the duck while picking and so that her sharp toes will not scratch you. Hazel told us, "You cross your legs, if you can, and wrap your string around a couple of times. Probably one knot will hold it. You hold her feet as you pick. You put her head kind of behind you under your arm. You turn her down for obvious reasons and then you pull the feathers out."
When you pull the feathers, just get one handful at a time. Once you get some feathers in your hand, do not let go or they will blow away. Just reach over and put them in the bag. Use one hand to pull the feathers out and the other to hold the duck's feet.
The down and small feathers are what you want. When picking the down, be careful not to skin the duck. Picking ducks does not hurt them. They will lose the feathers anyway. You pick on the underside of the duck, then turn her over and pick on her back around the wings and neck. You can pull the longer feathers too, but you should not put them in the pillow because they have stiff quills that would make an uncomfortable place. You can pull them if they are in the way to get the softer ones for she will shed them also.
You should pick ducks before the second growth comes in and they have already lost some of the first growth. The new feathers, or green feathers, have moisture in them. They can be used in pillows but they take too long to dry. The main reason for getting your ducks picked at regular times is so the feathers will not be green.
When the bags are half to three-fourths full, tie the open ends. Hang the bag of feathers outside in the shade to air, on a good windy day. Take the feathers in at night so the dew will not fall on them to keep them completely dry. If there were no green feathers, a few hours of airing will probably be enough.
Feathers have oil in them. If you hang them in the sun, or store them in a hot place, the oil will be drawn out. Since ducks are naturally clean, feathers require no cleaning or washing if picked and aired properly. If the feathers do get oily, they can be washed, bag and all, but they are very hard to dry. It would be impossible to take them out of the bag, so they must be aired for several days while you fluff the feathers up many times.
Tie the ducks feet with a cloth rag.
Pull the feathers out with your fingers ....
one hand at a time.
Sometimes if the family has a large enough flock of ducks and geese there would be enough feathers to sell. In the 1920's feathers would bring about a dollar a pound but it takes an awful lot of feathers to make a pound, probably the feathers from four or five ducks.
Ducks and geese besides furnishing feathers, have several other uses. They lay big eggs which with a slice of meat and biscuits prepare you for the day. If the flock increases, the extra ducks can be sold in the fall when it gets too cold to pick. or the ducks can be eaten. A few ducks or geese around the farm make good pets and are enjoyable to watch. The soft voiced drakes, recognized by the two feathers that curl on their tails and the loud-mouthed females always seem happy and have so much fun in the nearby pond.
After plucking the feathers, let the ducks loose. They usually waddle off awkwardly quacking loudly their opinion of recent indignity. Relieved of some of their feathers, the ducks are probably more comfortable in the hot weather. Far from being bare since you do not pick all the feathers, the ducks look only a little ragged after the picking. Very soon new feathers will grow back. Slowly the feathers will accumulate sc that by the end of the summer even with only a few ducks, you will have enough fresh, clean feathers to make a pair of pillows.
Reach over and put the feathers in the bag.
Turn the duck over and pick the back.
Showing the soft down under the feathers.
Interview by Gina Hilton and Jenny Kelso Photographs by Robert McKenzie