In the colder countries of the world, the feathers and down of waterfowl had been in great demand for centuries as filling for beds and pillows. Such feathers were perfect non-conductors of heat, and beds, pillows, or coverlets filled with them represented the acme of comfort and durability. The early settlers of New England saved for such purposes the feathers and down from the thousands of wildfowl which they killed, but as the population increased in numbers, the quantity thus furnished was insufficient, and the people sought a larger supply in the vast colonies of ducks and geese along the Labrador coast.
The manner in which the feathers and down were obtained, unlike the method practiced in Iceland, did not tend to conserve and protect the source of supply. In Iceland, the people had continued to receive for many years a considerable income by collecting eider down, but there they did not “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.” Ducks lined their nests with down plucked from their own breasts and that of the eider was particularly valuable for bedding. In Iceland, these birds were so carefully protected that they had become as tame and unsuspicious as domestic fowls in North America. Where they were constantly hunted, they often concealed their nests in the midst of weeds or bushes, but in Iceland, they made their nests and deposited their eggs in holes dug for them in the sod. A supply of the ducks was maintained so that the people derived from them an annual income.
In North America, quite a different policy was pursued. The demand for feathers became so great in the New England colonies about the middle of the eighteenth century that vessels were fitted out there for the coast of Labrador for the express purpose of securing the feathers and down of wildfowl. Eider down having become valuable and these ducks being in the habit of congregating by thousands on barren islands of the Labrador coast, the birds became the victims of the ships’ crews. As the ducks molt all their primary feathers at once in July or August and were then quite incapable of flight and the young birds were unable to fly until well grown, the hunters were able to surround the helpless birds, drive them together, and kill them with clubs. Millions of wildfowl were thus destroyed and in a few years their haunts were so broken up by this wholesale slaughter and their numbers were so diminished that feather voyages became unprofitable and were given up.
This practice, followed by the almost continual egging, clubbing, shooting, etc. by Labrador fishermen, may have been a chief factor in the extinction of the Labrador duck, that species of supposed restricted breeding range. No doubt had the eider duck been restricted in its breeding range to the islands of Labrador, it also would have been exterminated long ago.