The properties of eiderdown—extreme lightness and insulation—make sense when you consider the life of its owner. The eider is a fat seabird, more penguin than duck, and many of them spend most of their lives in the Arctic Circle. Visit the Icelandic coast and you will see hundreds, bobbing gregariously in the sea. Brash creatures, their boldness inspires admiration in the Icelanders. “The eider is an unsung hero, far braver than any bird of prey, which it is known to attack to protect its offspring,” one local told me.
The story of how most feathers come to fill our bedding is anything but comforting. According to trade bodies, most feathers are a by-product of the meat industry. Less fortunate birds may have their plumage ripped out while they are still alive, a practice known as live-plucking (and reported to be common in China and Hungary, both major exporters of down).
As I held a clump of eiderdown in my hand, one Icelander told me something that seems to offer an alternative to this unsettling relationship between humans and birds. He said that the eider it once belonged to is probably still alive. Not in some dark barn, or even in an open-air enclosure, but in the wilds of the Arctic Circle.
In a café in Ísafjörður, the pastor explained how he harvests eiderdown. As part of his parish duties, he runs a small farm, a throwback to earlier times when pastors in remote areas would survive off the land. Even now, life here can be unpredictable, especially in winter, when the weather turns violent. In 1995 two towns in the Westfjords were buried by avalanches, killing thirty-four people. Parish ministers were among the first to reach one of the villages and offer comfort to the survivors.
Every June, he said, about five hundred ducks arrive from the sea and waddle to his farm. Eiders do not naturally nest in such large colonies, but will congregate close to human settlements to seek shelter and protection. The ducks nest anywhere: in tires, doorways, and even houses. “I always take a lot of flags with me and I put a flag beside each nest so I will be able to find it again. Because they are incredibly camouflaged, these ducks. You can almost step on them.”
At night the pastor guards the flock of eiders from their predators: seagulls, foxes, and mink. “I was quite lucky in that I got interested in guns when I was just a little over twenty,” he said. “It was before I started studying theology.” If he were to fall asleep, a fox would have a feast of sitting ducks. “It’s more than a financial loss, it’s also like they are depending on me. So I don’t want to let them down. I used to be a night watchman so I have a little bit of experience staying awake.”
In the Middle Ages, pelicans were thought to pierce their own breast to draw blood to feed their young. The mythical act was known as vulning, a Christlike act of self-sacrifice.
On the pastor’s land the eider, too, makes herself vulnerable for her offspring, though it is down, not blood, that she draws from her breast. From this down she builds a nest for her eggs; her own bare skin, freshly revealed, covers them with warmth. She sits on her eggs for some twenty-eight days, during which she may lose a third of her body weight; some mothers may starve to death.
After incubation, the eggs hatch, the mothers waddle back to the sea with their offspring, and the pastor gathers their down, his protection fee. “I never collect the down until they are gone,” he said. “Some of the farmers say they like to take a little bit of the down [while the ducks are still nesting]. I just like to leave them, not to disturb them in any way. . . . If you frighten them, they jump up and shit all over the nest.” The “shit” he describes is not in fact excrement, but a brown oily liquid with an odor similar to that of frying liver. “[It is] so strong,” recorded one Belgian eider enthusiast, “that an egg touched with it is refused and even discarded by the hungriest dog.”
The scene described by the pastor has been a common sight in Iceland for centuries. Down has been collected here probably since the arrival of Norse settlers in the ninth century. The sight of thousands of tame eiders close to human settlements astounded early European travelers in Iceland. C. W. Shepherd, an Englishman who visited the island of Vigur in the Westfjords in 1862, described a farm besieged by eiders: “The earthen walls that surrounded it, and the window embrasures, were occupied by ducks. On the ground, the house was fringed with ducks. On the turf slopes of the roof, we could see ducks; and a duck sat in the scraper. . . . A windmill was infested; and so were all the outhouses, mounds, rocks, and crevices. The ducks were everywhere.”
Environmentalists, economists, and ornithologists have all fallen in love with Icelandic harvesting. There is an irresistible simplicity to the relationship between the harvesters and the eiders. If a harvester cares for the ducks, more and more will come to nest, increasing the amount of down that can be gathered. At times, the relationship can be tested. As the pastor told me, some harvesters cannot resist collecting the down while it is still fresh, removing a portion of an eider’s nest before her eggs have hatched and replacing it with straw. It is not pleasant to watch nesting eiders being disturbed, but they quickly return to their nests and apparently do not hold grudges; the same ducks return year after year.