How would it feel to know that you are about to start a fight with a species that doubles your in population? Well, that is what we humans do daily when we feed on chickens, given that the United Nations estimates that there are over 19 billion chickens on Earth today, meaning they outnumber us more than two to one.
Chickens and other birds are characterized by feathers that serve different purposes like allowing the bird to fly, blend in, keep dry and stay warm. Feathers are available everywhere as long as there are birds, and are usually trashed. However, composting could be an alternative and this article looks into composting bird feathers.
Can You Put Feathers in Compost?
Certainly, feathers are compostable and should end in the composting bin rather than being trashed. This comes as perfect news for people who rear chickens and have a lot of wild birds flying around in the backyard.
Bird feathers are considered green compost ingredients because of their nitrogen properties. In fact, feathers are some of the most nitrogen-rich composting materials around.
One source argues that feathers from poultry and game birds consist of about 90% protein by weight and contain approximately 15% Nitrogen. The protein is in the form of keratin which is fibrous, insoluble and resistant to biodegradation, meaning that the nitrogen will not be available as a nitrogen source to plants without the keratinolytic activity of microorganisms.
This is not a problem for the home composter as these microbes are widely distributed in the environment including the soil and some of them will be found in the composting material already in the bin
To compost feathers, first, find a good source of the feathers. If you are fortunate enough to keep backyard chickens, you will have a constant supply of the feathers lost by the chickens naturally daily or those from the chickens you slaughter.
If you do not have a great source of feathers, turn to your old pillows. Sad old pillows that have lost their oomph can be opened up and emptied. Also, if you can, try and find a factory that makes down products; they may be persuaded to give you their leftover feathers for free.
Secondly, make sure your composting bin is positioned and covered well to avoid it tumbling down and having the feathers blow everywhere. As such, whenever you add feathers, usually daily, cover the bin well with heavy material, or soak them in water for a day beforehand. Doing this both weighs the feathers down and also jump-starts the decomposition process.
Be careful not to use bird feathers you randomly find laying around without knowing the source. This is because the feathers could be from sick or diseased bird species. The disease could survive in the feathers and live through the composting process and end up back in your garden.
Also, if you are using feathers from a pillow, be sure not to use thermoplastic feathers. They are petroleum-based and made from fossil fuels. Not only do they contribute to the destruction of non-renewable resources, but also they take forever to decompose and when they do, they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
This contributes to global warming and could also leech harmful chemicals into the soil and waterways. Thermoplastic feathers are also non-biodegradable and will defeat the whole purpose of composting if used. In domestic compost, bin bird feathers will break down within just a few months if mixed with a good carbon source.
Are Feathers Biodegradable?
Bird feathers are completely biodegradable. Feathers decompose with time, whether through composting or not, although the latter approach would take quite some time, especially if it does not rain. Chicken feathers are versatile enough that they are now being used to make biodegradable and environmentally friendly plastics.
Feathers are made up of 90% keratin, the same fibrous protein that gives hair, hoofs and horns their toughness. Feathers are about 8 times as strong as cellulose and by design, they are strong and durable.
The research into bioplastics made from feathers believes that due to the high keratin content of feathers, they will produce a bioplastic that is stronger and more tear-resistant than starch or plant-based bioplastics.
However, they have to be fully sanitized to remove all pathogens. There is also the problem of the feathers flying away with traditional machinery because they are light.
To make the new plastic, the researchers started with chicken and turkey feathers that had been cleaned and pulverized into fine dust. They then added chemicals that made the keratin molecules join together to form long chains.
The final product was a plastic that was stronger than similar materials made from starch or soy proteins, which also stood up to water. Unlike most thermoplastics, which are petroleum-based, chicken-feather plastics are made without the need for fossil fuels, making them environmentally friendly.
Moreover, since there are billions of chickens and tons of feathers, the plastic is therefore sustainable. More work is still needed to bring the new plastic into large-scale production. The good news is that chicken feathers could soon be moving from the coop to the cup, making biodegradable bioplastics.
Do Feathers Decompose?
Yes, naturally occurring feathers fully decompose, whether they are composted or not. Of course, you have to agree that composting them will help quicken the decomposition process.
If you leave the feathers on the ground or simply bury them, they will also decompose, although this might take quite some time, especially if there is no rainfall. Specifically, bird feathers contain beta-keratin, a particular protein arrangement that can form into long, stiff fibers, much like a fingernail.
The keratin makes them strong enough to help the bird while they are on their bodies. However, once they are on the ground or being composted, bacteria have their way with it, enabling them to decompose, despite their earlier tough nature.
These bacteria possess an enzyme known as keratinase which hydrolyses the disulfide bonds present in keratin, breaking the protein down into smaller parts that may eventually be fed through catabolic pathways
This is however not the case with all feathers: thermoplastic feathers do not decompose, and if they do, they take forever. They are petroleum-based and made from fossil fuels.
Unlike bird feathers which are organic, plastic feathers are inorganic and cannot decompose easily or naturally. Most bacteria cannot break these plastics since they are inorganic products.
However, UV light from the sun can break the plastics down, although it will take a long time. It is no wonder finding a plastic feather intact, decades after burying it.
It will therefore come as great news to learn that these same feathers can make bioplastics, which are biodegradable and can decompose. It also comes as a relief learning that researchers have found a bacteria that breaks down plastic, meaning it can also break down the traditional plastic feathers.
Can Worms Eat Feathers?
Indeed, worms eat feathers. In fact, worms are used to compost slaughterhouse waste, including feathers, bones and blood, as well as organic waste from kitchens, gardens, farms, sugar mills, municipal garbage collection.
Using worms for compost is called vermicompost and is an effective way to compost any organic matter. Using worms to break down feathers explains why a nation like the US, whose poultry industry produces more than one million metric tons of feather waste annually, is never faced with an issue of too many feathers.
While slow to decompose either in regular or worm composting, feathers and other products like hair are organic and make lists of acceptable materials for worm composting compiled by sustainable agriculture organizations.
Worm composting or vermicomposting is an effective way to reduce household garbage and can be done anywhere, including in a tiny house or a large house. Vermicomposting is an effective way to take care of the tons of feathers around, which would otherwise end up in landfills.
When in landfills, their protein-rich keratin structure will all go to waste and additionally, the feathers will cause a nitrogen problem which will pollute the environment.
While feathers are slow to decompose wither in a regular or worm compost, because of the fibrous protein, they will make for healthy food for the worms whose primary purpose is to feed on the feathers and help them decompose.
Even though worm composting avoids the high heat associated with regular composting as bacterial activity raises the temperature in the middle of the pile and kills off pathogens, the worms themselves appear to be able to reduce pathogen levels that may be present in the feathers as they digest and process organic material.
Are Feathers Good for the Garden?
Feathers are more than good for the garden, they are amazing. They occur naturally from all the birds you can think of, although the majority are chickens. Being part of an organic living thing, they will decompose and add to the richness of the soil.
Feathers are great for the soil in several ways. First, consider their nutritional makeup. According to Carry on Composting, feathers from poultry and game birds consist of about 90% protein by weight and contain approximately 15% Nitrogen. The protein comes in the form of keratin which has been mentioned several times in this article. It is fibrous, insoluble and is also present in bones and nails, making them hard.
The fact that the keratin is resistant to biodegradation, means that the nitrogen will not be available as a nitrogen source to plants without the keratinolytic activity of microorganisms. This is where the second point comes in.
Secondly, you can compost the feathers to introduce all the richness present in the feathers to the garden. In a domestic compost bin, bird feathers will break down within just a few months if mixed with a good carbon source.
The source of carbon will therefore be brown materials such as sawdust, wood chips, dried leaves, and wood shavings. Since they are light and can fly away with the wind, it is advisable to soak the feathers overnight in water before adding them to the composting bin.
This not only saves you the hustle of chasing the wind and your feathers but also helps kickstart the decomposition process because moisture is an essential part of the whole process.
Rather than using commercial fertilizers and plant food, use bird feathers to make environmentally friendly compost which will then be used in the garden. They will help better your soil, improve your harvests add nutrients to your soil and hold it intact when there is nothing planted there.
The leafy greens such as spinach, kale, broccoli and others will especially appreciate a dose of nitrogen in the soil, which will be readily supplied by the feathers through the compost. It is an inexpensive way of improving the garden and as long as you have bird feathers around, your garden will never produce below expectations.