Woman with a feather in her hat and wearing a feather boa

Historically, feathers have been worn as fashion accessories such as shown here. The woman has a feather in her hat and is wearing a feather boa.

While feathers are often considered a by-product of poultry production (and often a waste by-product), some producers raise poultry specifically for their feathers. Feathers are used in a number of decorative products such as boas, feather fans, masks, costume accessories, bird ornaments, and even earrings and flowers. Feathers are also routinely used in the production of fishing flies.

There are three main types of feathers as shown in the image.

Types of feathers

While chicken feathers don't weigh much, with the amount of chicken produced in the U.S. annually, the volume of feathers produced is considerable. For the 8+ billion broilers produced each year, 2-3 billion pounds of feathers are produced. Research has shown that the keratin in the feathers (a protein also found in hair, hoofs, horns, and wool) can be used in the production of a wide variety of products.

  • Pillow stuffing
  • Diapers
  • Insulation
  • Upholstery padding
  • Paper
  • Plastics
  • Feather meal

Feather fiber has properties in common with cellulose, the starch that forms wood and paper. Feathers are keratin just like wool, but the surface area is much larger because the diameter of the fibers is smaller. As a result, the fiber can absorb more moisture than wool or cellulose fibers. The crystal structure of feather fibers also makes them naturally stable and durable.

More than 16 million diapers, made from wood pulp, are discarded each year. A year's worth of feathers could replace approximately 25% of the wood pulp used annually for diapers.

Three companies - Featherfiber Corporation, Maxim Systems, and Tyson Foods - are now working to scale up the production of absorbent feather-based products including diapers, filters, insulation, upholstery padding, paper, and even clothing.

The orderly structure of keratin helps stabilize the structure of plastics, making them stronger.

Feather meal is produced by a high-pressure, steam-processing method similar to autoclaving, followed by drying. Heat and steam hydrolyze the feathers into a cysteine-rich, high protein product that is 60% digestible.