Sanitizing Feathers for Crafts

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by Dara Trahan, July 2013; links updated August 2015

If you are reading this it is probably because you have been scouring the web for a definitive answer on how to safely clean and sanitize bird feathers. Possibly you’ve been getting a lot of conflicting advise.

First, let me assure you, your mother was right when she told you not to pick up that feather off the ground, that it carried germs.

Feather can and do carry all kinds of things, including parasites, fungus, harmful bacteria and viruses.

As a crafter, we find it very convenient to use what we have on hand or can acquire from relatively inexpensive sources. So when that farmer we know offers some feathers from a chicken that had an unfortunate incident with a car? The tempation to say, “Yes!,” is irresistable.

In the case of feathers, that tempation can also be dangerous unless precautions are taken.  It can also get you into hot water with authorities and customs agencies if you don’t know the rules for harvesting and shipping them.

The following information contains the steps I take to insure my feathers are safe, clean, soft, pretty and, of course, legal:

  • Know your source and the rules: Using that pretty feather you find on the ground in your craft is tempting, but is it legal? There are laws in the U.S. that prevent the harvesting and use of migitory bird feathers and raptor feathers. See this article up at the Department of the Interior site: http://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/mbpermits.html . The gist is that it doesn’t matter that you found the feather, it is a violation to have it in your possession (with rare exceptions). So its best to stick with domesticated species, unless you are positive the feather is from a non-migratory, legally harvested bird, (example: a turkey taken with a permit during turkey season). Some countries also prohibit the importation of feathers or require proof of proper sanitization. Know the rules or at least make your buyer aware that there may be custom prohibitions before selling/shipping internationally.
  • Birds carry parasites such as mites and lice and despite what you have read elsewhere just freezing them for awhile may not do the trick. Some bird mites will infest homes (and the humans who live in them!). See the Bird Mite Org for details: http://birdmites.org/ . The best way to deal with these little critters? Kill them *before* you bring them into your home.  Take a handful of modern mothballs – the kind with paradichlorobenzene – and place them in an air tight container. Add the feathers. Store the container outside the home for at least 24 hours. Note! Mothballs can be dangerous to pets, kids and wildlife so be careful of the storage location!
  • Once the pesticide has done its work we want to take care of any bacteria and viruses. Feathers can hold everything from salmonella to west nile virus to influenza (and more). After removing the feathers from the airtight container, I soak them for at least a half hour in a 50/50 mixture of Isopropyl alcohol and hydrogen peroxide. This mixture will kill the bacteria and render most viruses inactive (you can’t kill viruses as they are not alive). I say *most*, because some viruses may not be suspectible, but the ones we are most worried about, like the flu, are suspectible. Bleach is more effective, but will make feathers brittle and can diminish their color. Hydrogen Peroxide not only oxidizes bacteria to death, but serves to brighten up your feathers without leaving them brittle.  Note: The higher the concentration of alcohol or hydrogen peroxide the better.
  • After their soak, I handwash the feathers in a mild hand soap.  I gently suds up each feather, making sure to remove any remaining stains or debris with my fingers, then gently swish them in a basin of water. This step also removes any remaining chemicals or oil that may be on the feathers while keeping them soft to the touch. You will find this step exceptionally necessary for feathers that have been at the bottom of a cage as soaking alone won’t get rid of the spent seed husks and other (more disgusting) things clinging to the feathers.
  • I then put them in a pan in a warm sunny place to dry before fluffing them a bit. It is important that they dry quickly to avoid any fungal or mold infestations. You can use a hair dyer and child’s toothbrush to speed up the process if desired.
  • Finally, I store the feathers in an airtight ziplock bag in a dry place until use.

One final note, while I’ve used this process successfully on pheasant, chicken, turkey, cockatoo, pigeon and even peacock feathers, delicate fluffy feathers, such as Ostrich, are very hard to “re-fluff” in the end. It’s better to find a safe commercial source for very delicate feathers.

Happy Crafting and I hope this was helpful! What do some of the final results of this process look like? Here’s a mask I made with turkey feathers obtained from a local farm:   http://daragallery.deviantart.com/art/Bird-Masquerade-Mask-by-Dara-Trahan-384649324. And here are sanitized cockatoo feathers: https://www.etsy.com/transaction/112807187?.