Unless you're an amateur ornithologist or a former Jeopardy! contestant, you probably had no idea that the scientific names for bird feathers are remiges (for the flight feathers on the wings), and rectrices (for the tail feathers). But according to new research from Lund University in Sweden, bird feathers might have a couple of new, more common names: lunch and dinner.
Professor Rajni Hatti-Kaul and her team of biotechnology researchers are looking into ways that the millions of tons of bird feathers that end up in the dumpsters behind slaughterhouses might wind up in our stomachs instead. Hatti-Kaul and Mohammad H. A. Ibrahim have identified a kind of bacteria that is capable of breaking down the protein in the feathers into edible amino acids. The resulting protein liquid could then be used for animal feed, in cosmetics or, ultimately, as a food source for humans, too.
"If we continue to gnaw away at the Earth's resources and spit out waste at the rate we do today, we will need 1.6 planets to survive. But we only have one Earth," Hatti-Kaul said. "Therefore, we need to find new, smart and creative ways to reuse waste to a greater extent."
If you can get past the very strong ick factor of eating bird feathers, there are some real benefits beyond just finding a viable purpose—and viable protein—inside a byproduct that would otherwise be scrapped. (This kind of repurposing isn't unusual for food scientists; a team from North Carolina State University have considered doing something similar with peanut skins).
The process of turning feathers into protein does not require any chemical additives, and it also has a high protein yield. According to the University, just one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of feathers will result in 900 grams of protein. One hundred grams of chicken breast meat contains about 40 grams of protein, which means that it would take more than twice as much meat to equal the protein in a kilogram of feathers. (Tell that to your Crossfit-obsessed friend and see whether he'll eat all of his throw pillows before the weekend).
Bird feathers don't seem to have been used as a food source before—well, at least not for humans; however, some weird-ass freshwater birds have been known to consume them. Grebes and some other fish eaters have been known to chow down on their own feathers, which then line their digestive tracts and protect their stomachs from being punctured by fish bones. According to Stanford University biologists, up to 50 percent of the stomach contents of Horned Grebes or Pied-billed Grebes may be their own feathers, which is probably one of the least appetizing statistics you'll read today.
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Hatti-Karl and her team hope to fully develop this process by the end of 2018. We're gonna wait until she's taken a bite or two, then go from there.