On cold winter days, when the snow lies thick and the wind whistles through the cracks and crevices in my old house, I snuggle under my eiderdown and thank the ducks.
My comforter is called an eiderdown because it is filled with the down from eider ducks. Down is the tiny, fluffy feathers that a mother duck pulls from her breast to line her nest.
Eiderdown is warmer and lighter than goose down or other feathers. It’s the best down—and the most expensive too. I learned why when I visited my friend Hjörtur Hinriksson one day on his farm in Iceland.
Hjörtur and his son Gummi were heading out in their boat to collect eiderdown. They asked me to join them.
We motored out to a small island in the fjord, one of 25 islands the family owns. These islands have no houses or even docks. No one goes there except in June. They are a nesting ground for eider ducks.
We hopped out onto a rock and clambered about looking for nests. But, on this island, there were no nests at all.
We motored to a second island. We searched along the gravelly shore. We poked between the grassy tussocks. Tiny white flowers spangled the thick grass. The sun peeked in and out of the clouds. Sometimes rain sprinkled on us while the snow-topped mountains that edged the fjord sparkled in the sunshine.
Suddenly, a fat brown duck rocketed out of the grass right by Gummi’s feet.
“Here’s one!” he called.
The nest was hidden under the overhang of a big rock. It was woven out of grass and seaweed and moss and lined with soft gray eiderdown. Four pea-green eggs nestled inside.
Gummi carefully lifted the eggs to one side. He scooped out half of the down and put it into his collecting bag. Then he spread out the rest of the down evenly. He set the eggs back into the nest and put a handful of down on top of them, as if tucking them back into bed. The mother duck stood a few feet away and watched him the whole time.
We crossed the island but found only six nests.
So we got back into the boat and motored on. We threaded our way through a maze of green-topped islands. Their black, rocky beaches were covered with mustard-yellow seaweed.
Sometimes we sped along as fast as the boat could go. Sometimes we chugged by slowly—especially when we crossed the swift current called “Man Killer.”
Some of the islands had cliffs where seabirds nested. I saw puffins, gulls, and black guillemots. We also passed an eagle’s nest: The male and female lifted off the cliff. They circled around us on their wide wings.
Finally, we stopped. This island, I could tell, would be full of nests. As soon as we turned our motor off, I could hear the male eiders calling: ah-woo, ah-woo.
Ducks marched ahead of us as we looked for their nests. We didn’t have to look hard. They were everywhere. Ducks flushed and flapped all around us. The females splashed down into the water next to the black-and-white males. Ah-woo, ah-woo.
They sounded annoyed.
I knew they weren’t afraid. Icelanders never kill or eat eider ducks. Their down is too precious. Some farmers even build special nesting boxes for them and put up scarecrows to keep away the ducks’ predators—minks and foxes and especially the great black-backed gulls.
Hjörtur doesn’t go to such trouble, but he does love his ducks. One nest held four newly hatched chicks, charcoal-gray fluffs that sat very still. “Good day! Good day!” Hjörtur said. He passed by without taking any down from their nest.
By lunchtime, he and Gummi had found 200 nests. The mother ducks waddled back. They would tidy up the nests, Hjörtur told me. They may pluck a little more down from their breasts, then settle back in to roost.
Next year, the ducks would nest on the same islands. Hjörtur and his son would come back, too, to politely gather a few bags of eiderdown.
How Icelanders Collect Down
• Lift eggs carefully to one side.
• Take only half of the down from the nest.
• Spread out the rest of the down evenly.
• Set the eggs back. Put a handful of down on top.
• Let the mother duck settle back in to roost.