The Vega archipelago is the realm of the eider duck. For more than 1000 years, the islanders have gathered seaweed, laid it out to dry and then used it to make nests beneath driftwood shelters or in small houses built of stones. The families have fashioned nests for hundreds of birds, made sure that the birds got the peace and quiet they needed to settle down on the nest, and ensured that neither birds of prey nor four-legged predators robbed the nests.
In return, they helped themselves to half of the fresh eggs and collected the eider down when the birds left the nest for the last time. The down gave them around half their annual income, so it was important to persuade the birds to nest on their property. This is why the islanders began to make the birds feel at home by fashioning nests in specially built houses close to their own homes. It was vital for each individual islander to persuade as many eiders as possible to nest on her or his land. The birds were protected from hazards during the incubation period. Their painstaking efforts thus gave the islanders easy access to the valuable down from the birds.
When the inhabitants abandoned the islands from the 1960s onwards, the eider population declined. American mink ravaged most of the former down sites during the 1980s and -90s, and only a few eiders nested in the houses the islanders had built for them.
The World Heritage status resulted in the tradition being revived on more and more islands. In 2009, 1271 birds nested at seven of the old down-collecting sites and nearly 3000 houses and nests were made. Eighteen bird tenders are now preserving the tradition, as opposed to six or seven when work to gain World Heritage status began in 2000.
The eider season
The bird tenders are on the islands from April to July. In April, they gather seaweed and lay it on the rocks to dry. It is used to make nests in ‘eider houses’ made of wood, stone and whatever other materials are available. Old seaweed and earth are removed before the freshly dried seaweed is shaped into a nest. The houses are made to give the birds attractive, dry and protective shelters to breed in and to keep the down with which they line their nest clean and dry. If the down is full of grass and moss, it takes a long time to clean. When the duck has found a nest that satisfies her, she puts the finishing touches to it while her mate keeps her company. The eggs are laid in May and early June. The drakes then leave the breeding sites, congregate into flocks and head out to the skerries to moult. They return in September.
The ducks pluck down from their breast and place it beneath and around the eggs to hide and warm them when they leave the nest to drink or wash.
When the chicks begin to leave the nest, they return to its warmth from time to time in the first few days to dry their downy plumage. Then the hazardous, seaward journey begins. Black-backed gulls try to take the chicks, and dangerous situations arise if the chicks stray far from their mother or bad weather prevents them from hearing her warnings. The chicks spend the rest of the summer swimming with their mothers. Ducks without chicks of their own often help to look after them.
World-class eider down
No other duvet filling is so light and gives off so much warmth as eider down. Unlike down from geese and other ducks, eider down has tiny barbs which keep it together to give superb insulation.
The annual global production of cleaned eider down is 2000 kg. Most of this is cleaned mechanically, but the people of Vega and the surrounding district still manually clean the down, a time-consuming task. The rough cleaning must be done immediately; otherwise the down will be ruined. Most of the work is done on the islands in the summer, on calm days. It takes a couple of weeks to clean one kilogram of down. The down is dried, shaken, rough-cleaned and then fine-cleaned. A down harp, a frame fitted with a network made of fishing line or nylon thread, is used for the fine cleaning. A wooden harp stick is scraped back and forth across the threads causing them to vibrate so that clean down attaches to them and rubbish and feathers fall off.