The Symbiotics of Harvesting Eider Down

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In an adaptation from his forthcoming book, Harvest: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects at The Guardian, Edward Posnett reports on the give-and-take relationship eider ducks have with human harvesters in Iceland. When eider ducks nest, they line their homes with precious down to protect and warm their young. During nesting season, Harvesters keep watch against predators, collecting the down only after the ducks and their young have left.

In a cafe 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. Every June, he said, about 500 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 tyres, 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,” he said.

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 20,” 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 Christ-like act of self-sacrifice. On the pastor’s land, the eider, too, makes herself vulnerable for her offspring, although 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 28 days, during which she may lose a third of her body weight; some mothers starve to death.

Later, as we made our way back to the church, the pastor let out a cry and pointed to a nest that he had missed during the previous gathering. Covered in moss, grass and broken eggs, it looked like a furry grey omelette or pancake. He wedged his stick under the down, easing it gently from the grass, and picked it up. Laden with seaweed, twigs and dirt, it reminded me of the contents of a vacuum cleaner, half fluff, half debris. Unlike the clean down my wife had held, it had a pungent, mouldy aroma, suggestive of the sitting duck from which it came. Looking closely, I saw the remains of several eggs caught up in the down. Rendered rubbery by rainfall, their fragments were proof of what the pastor had said; he always allowed the ducklings to hatch before collecting their bedding. “Take it as a gift,” he said.

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