On Feathers…

Goose Feathers

I was pondering the ins and outs of feathers this morning; the geese are moulting and every day the yard, barn and feed room are scattered with feathers. Here’s two I picked up this morning – both off the same bird, Hannibal the Cannibal, who is grossly traduced by his name. He’s a loving parent, a devoted mate and brave in defending his family – and yes, if you trespass on his priorities he will give you a nasty nip, but we have a mutually respectful relationship and, although he’s not above getting me behind the knee with a tweak of his beak, he also stops short if I turn around and wag a finger at him with a watchful ‘I see you!’

Look at the size differential in these two feathers, though. One’s a primary flight feather from his wing, and the other is a tiny little feather from the back of his neck. What a difference! Every feather on his body seems to be subtly different from all the others – specialised for flight, or for shedding water and wind to keep the weather off, or fluffy to trap heat and keep him warm, and every one shaped perfectly to form an all-over suit of protective weather-armour. Even though my geese can’t fly – they’re domestic geese, not wild ones, and bred over centuries to be too heavy for their wings to carry them into the air – still their wing feathers have the asymmetric shape required for maximum efficiency through the air, the quills heavy, strong and stiff, and the vanes either side of the quill shaft are tough and hard, too.

In contrast, that tiny neck feather is delicate, so fine I have to concentrate on picking it up without damaging it, and sits on the end of my little finger, so light even breathing near it wafts it away.

One of the reasons for considering this amazing variety in feather design – apart from marvelling at the engineering brilliance achieved through of millions of years of evolution! – is that when I use feathers for craft work or for magic (or both) it’s important to choose the right feathers for the job.

The big primary wing feathers are almost too big for craft work. I use the secondary wing feathers for dreamcatchers, but these big stiff quills on the primaries are ideal for making quill pens – if you can bear to strip off the feather and just use the bare quill! – or for fletching arrows (not a skill I practice). In magic, I use them for precision-wafting smudge-smoke and incense-smoke, for which they’re ideal.

I have fans made from the dried whole wings of roadkill woodcock and blackbirds that I use for more general wafting of smoke – I always feel it’s a terrible insult to a creature not to make use of their discarded bodies, and the beautiful patterns of their wings make equally beautiful ritual fans.

Smaller feathers are good for decorating sticks, bags and beadwork. As a general principle, when you’re making any ritual tool, the more effort and work you put into the crafting, the more you will be repaid with a tool that is more attuned to you, more responsive and better at channelling energies for your purposes. There are limits, however – these minute little feathers from Hannibal’s neck are so tiny, I’d need tweezers and a magnifying glass to fix them into any piece of work and the time it would take to cover any amount of a surface with them would be phenomenal.

I also choose which species of bird to use feathers from for each project – I have geese, Muscovy ducks, assorted chickens and quail here as domestic species, and I’m always on the lookout for shed wild bird feathers or roadkill when I’m out and about. Domestic species carry a subtly different energy to the wild ones – they’ve lived with us for so many centuries, they’re more attuned to human ways and their feathers reflect this. Similarly, there’s a difference between the energies carried by wild birds who visit our gardens and birdtables – the blackbirds, robins, thrushes, sparrows, finches and tits – and the wilderness-wild species who will have nothing to do with us – the hawks and eagles, the herons and kingfishers.

Different again are the game birds, the ones who know humans only as a ruthless predator. Theirs is an elusive energy, seeking to hide and flee, and it’s important to take that into account when using their feathers. There’s little point using the feathers of a pheasant, for example, if you’re trying to decorate a talisman for courage to stand up and fight your corner – for that, you’d do far better with the eagle and hawk feathers. For a charm to persuade someone to ignore you, then choose a bird that seeks to be unobtrusive, not a peacock.

The one thing I will not do is kill any bird purely for the sake of its feathers. If I find a dead bird, or if I’m killing a bird for food, then I will use the feathers rather than waste them – but I only kill for necessity, not for convenience and never for vanity.

If you’re looking for ethically-sourced feathers for any craft project, do please drop me a line – I usually have a box of feathers sitting about and if you tell me what you need, I’ll see if I can supply it.

Bird Wings: clockwise from bottom left, a woodcock wing fan, a pair of magpie’s wings, two pairs of hen pheasant wings.

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