Feathers from a bird—dead or alive—are great for arts, crafts, and decorations. But you can’t just throw them in a box the way you can with other decorations.
Feathers carry germs as well as any parasites that were living on the bird from which they were collected.
You need to give any feathers you collect a thorough cleaning, not just to keep from catching an infection or getting a mite infestation, but also so your feathers will last longer in any artwork or display you create.
In this article, we will tell you how to preserve bird feathers for long-lasting display in eight steps, four steps to sterilize them, and four more steps to get them ready for storage until you are ready to use them.
Four Steps for Sterilizing Feathers from Birds
Your first step in preserving feathers is to make sure they are sterile.
Generally, this requires four steps.
Soak Feathers in Hydrogen Peroxide and Isopropyl Alcohol for 30 Minutes
Before you do anything else, you need to make sure that you kill any bacteria, viruses, and mites that may remain on the feathers. There will almost always be all three.
Find a container large enough to hold your feathers without bending or folding them. Place the feathers in a loose layer inside.
Make a mixture of equal volumes of isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, and cover the feathers.
Let the feathers soak in the mixture of isopropyl alcohol and hydrogen peroxide for 30 minutes, or longer, before moving on to the next step.
Soaking feathers in the mixture of rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide removes any dirt or fecal matter that may have been clinging to them.
The rubbing alcohol kills any active viruses or mites, while hydrogen peroxide kills any bacteria.
As an added benefit, the hydrogen peroxide also brings out the natural colors of the feathers.
Wash the Feathers in Warm, Soapy Water to Remove Debris
Once you have removed the feathers from the germ-killing mixture of alcohol and peroxide, it is time to clean each feather in warm, soapy water. Here’s how you do it:
Fill a sink with warm water. Apply a squirt of dish detergent to each feather and then rub the soap onto the feather in the warm water.
Move your finger from the base of the feather to its tip, following the direction of the plumes.
Then rinse each feather with clear water, moving your finger from the base of the feather to the tip once again to remove any suds.
Alternatively, it’s OK just to swish each feather in a sink or basin of warm, soapy water until any visible dirt or debris falls off. But be sure to give each feather a rinse in warm, running water.
Let the Feathers Air-dry in a Warm, Sunny Place
Once you have washed and rinsed all the feathers, arrange them in a single layer on a cookie sheet or some other flat container.
Place the container with the feathers in a warm, sunny location where the feathers won’t blow away in the wind, such as a sunny window sill.
You don’t want your feathers to stay damp so long that they start to grow mold.
If you don’t have a warm, sunny location for drying them, then dry each feather with a hair dryer.
Fluff Up Any Misshapen or Matted Feathers by Hand
Once the feathers have dried completely, it is time to fluff them up by hand.
Rub your fingers along the rib of each feather, moving with the grain of the feather from the base to the tip.
Make sure they have returned to their beautiful, natural shape before you put them into storage for future use.
Some feathers, like ostrich feathers, are hard to fluff up after soaking and washing them.
Consider buying large feathers from an arts and crafts store rather than attempting to reshape them by hand.
Four Steps for Getting Feathers Ready for Storage
Now that you have your feathers clean and dry, there are four more steps to get them ready for storage.
Rub Your Hands With Citronella Oil
Citronella oil is a natural insect repellent. It also kills mold and fungi.
If you rub a few drops of citronella oil on your hands before you handle your clean, dry feathers, it will be transferred from your fingers to the feathers.
There will be just enough citronella oil on the feathers to make them resistant to bug attacks and mold while they are in storage.
Don’t like the smell of citronella oil on your fingers? Or do you have an allergy to citronella oil?
Another way to get the benefits of citronella oil for storing your feathers is to put 5 or 10 drops on a clean cloth.
Then put the cloth in the container you use to store your feathers.
Place the Feathers You Want to Store in a Zip-lock Plastic Bag, And Close Tightly
Choose a zip-lock plastic bag big enough to store your feathers. (You may need more than one bag.)
Gently slide your clean feathers into the bag. Add the cloth with the citronella oil, if you are using that method.
Squeeze out any air, and close the bag tight to prevent mold and insect attacks.
Always put feathers from different birds in different storage containers.
That way, if one bird had mites that you missed while cleaning the feathers, you won’t contaminate the feathers you are saving from the other bird.
You can use freezer boxes, Tupperware, or any other container you like, as long as it can be tightly sealed.
It is not essential to store feathers in zip-lock plastic storage bags. Add cedar planks or mothballs to the feathers before sealing for additional protection.
Store Feathers in a Cool, Dry, Dark Place
The color pigments in feathers break down if they are exposed to sunlight. It is important to store feathers in a cool, dry, dark place.
A chest, a drawer, or a closet should be fine. Feathers that are stored in a cedar chest or a cedar-lined box are less likely to suffer insect attack.
Re-Sterilize Any Feathers That Develop Fluff or Tiny Holes During Storage
Sometimes mite eggs survive even a thorough cleaning, and hatch once the feather is in storage.
They will eat tiny holes in the feathers, or destroy just enough of the plume to make the feather fluffy.
If you see this happening while your feathers are in storage, take out the whole batch and repeat all eight steps before you store them again.
Frequently Asked Questions About How to Preserve Bird Feathers
Q. Do these techniques work for storing fishing lures?
A. Yes! All of these techniques are ideal for keeping fishing lures in good shape for 10 years, 20 years, or even longer.
Q. Does humidity interfere with storing bird feathers?
A. Bird feathers become brittle if they are stored at a humidity level of less than 35 percent.
If you live in a desert climate, this means that you will have to use any feathers you store in a year or two.
If you don’t, they may lose some of their detail. Once you put the feathers into artwork, however, normal humidity from other household activities will keep them from getting too dry.
If you live in a very humid climate, make sure that you store feathers in a dark place that is kept at room temperature.
If there is a lot of humidity in the air when you put the feathers in the bag, and the bag gets unusually cold, condensation can form.
Tiny drops of condensation can cause the feathers to become matted and moldy.
Q. Can’t I just freeze feathers to kill mites and bacteria?
A. Putting freshly collected feathers in a freezer set at 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 Celsius), or colder, for at least 48 hours will kill mites and bacteria on feathers.
It may not have any effect on viruses in fecal matter on the feathers. Freezing is easier, but rinsing feathers in alcohol and hydrogen peroxide is more effective.
Q. I have a bird feather that has rolled up into a strange shape. What can I do to get it back into its original form?
A. Hold a feather in the steam from a tea kettle for a few minutes. Then preen it back into its original shape with your fingers.
For larger feathers, you can use a power steamer, the kind you use to remove wallpaper. Here is a link to a demonstration of this technique in a video.
Q. Will moth balls (naptha or paradichlorobenzene) stop the growth of mites that can eat feathers?
A. Moth balls kill mites, but they can impart an undesirable odor to feathers.
An alternative is adding a tiny amount, about a teaspoon (5 grams), of dog or cat flea powder to the storage bag before sealing it.
Or you can use any powdered insecticide containing the active ingredient carbaryl.
You can rely on the essential oils of cedar if you have a cedar lining in the storage chest where you store your feathers, but it is still a good idea to put them in plastic bags.
Q. How do I stop beetles from eating stored feathers?
A. If beetles get into the drawer or box where you are storing your feathers, you can stop them with flea powder or any other powdered insecticide containing carbaryl.
Beetles are not likely to be a problem unless you have stored your feathers in a thin plastic bag in dry conditions for 10 years or more.
Discard any feathers that beetles have damaged. Put a tiny amount (1 teaspoon, or 5 grams) of insecticide in the bag with the feathers you want to keep, and reseal the bag.
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