Mooney Goes Wild, Monday August 13th 2018



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Mooney Goes Wild: Feathers

There's a lot more to feathers than meets the eye.  They perform so many functions - not just for the birds that grow and wear them, but for mankind too.  That such a supremely versatile, functional and durable object could have come about by chance through natural selection might at first seem extraordinary but upon reflection, how else could such a perfect thing have arisen?  Nature is all about trial and error, millions upon millions of times in a row, equipping organisms with the tools needed to survive in an ever-changing world.

Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) displaying plumage while fishing in marshland. (Photo by: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images)

And so it came to be that the dinosaurs live on.  They were the first creatures to have feathers, and despite what you may have learned in school they didn’t become extinct at all: they simply, very gradually turned into the animals we know today as birds – the only living creatures that possess feathers.

Image: Hans / Pixabay

In this new documentary, presenter Derek Mooney talks to ornithologists, authors, academics and those who work with feathers to uncover the significance of these plumes within the natural world, their pre-historic origin, how feathers led to the formation of the RSPB, and the huge financial value and varied uses of feathers today...

Hazel Johnston & Eric Dempsey (photo:

Eric Dempsey is an ornithologist, author, broadcaster and Mooney Goes Wild regular.  Eric and his wife Hazel Johnston run, which aims to share Ireland’s rich diversity of birds through guided tours, writing, public and corporate speaking and photography.  Derek meets them at their home in Wicklow for a very special slideshow: Feathers.

Derek next travels to University College Cork to talk to Dr. Maria McNamara, palaeobiologist in the School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences [BEES].  She tells Derek about the pre-historic origin of feathers, which were first found on fossilised dinosaur birds, the importance of fossils discovered at the Jehol Biota in China, and about the Berlin Specimen of Archaeopteryx.  For more information on Dr. McNamara and her work, visit

Left: author Tessa Boase; right: her book 'Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change'

In a glass cabinet in the Museum of London is a purple feather, once worn on the hat of the suffragette leader, Emmeline Pankhurst.  The elegant revolutionary was never without her plumage: it was a highly symbolic part of her brand.  But unease was growing that wild bird species were systematically slaughtered for the millinery trade, and it prompted one woman, Etta Lemon, to found the group that would become the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).  The disparate views between the two ladies is the focus of a recent book called Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change.  Derek travels to Sussex to meet its author, Tessa Boase.  Mrs Pankhurst's Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women's Fight for Change is published by Aurum Press; the ISBN is 9781781316542 and the RRP is €22.  For further information, visit

Milliner Edel Ramberg with some of her creations and the feathers she works with

Decades later, feathers are still decorating the hats of stylish ladies, most notably at events such as the Galway Races or Royal Ascot.  Thankfully these feathers are sustainably and ethically sourced.  Derek visits leading milliner Edel Ramberg at her workshop in Galway to find out more...  To see some of Edel's beautiful creations, visit her website:

Left: Lisa Duffin; right: some down from an Eider duck, used to make the famed luxury Eiderdown bedding

From adorning heads to feathering beds, to be able to include such luxury plumes in your life was a real feather in your cap.  The most famous type of bedding to use feathers is the famed Eiderdown - pillows and duvets filled with the down produced by the Eider duck.  The lightness, warmth and rarity of this down means that it is one of the most valuable types of feather - an Eiderdown duvet can cost thousands of euro.  Derek visited Lisa Duffin, who is Joint Owner & Buying Director of Bottom Drawer, at Brown Thomas in Dublin...  For more, visit

Left: Dr. Richard Collins; right: Common eider (Somateria mollissima) male in spring plumage swimming in lake on tundra. (Photo by: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images)

Dr. Richard Collins, ornithologist, zoologist & Mooney Goes Wild panellist, remembers accompanying Eider duck feather harvesters in Iceland; he chats to Derek about this, and about how Eider ducks are protected in Iceland...

Left: author Kirk Wallace Johnson; right: his book 'The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, And The Natural History Heist Of The Century'

Feathers are so complex in their form that it is extremely difficult to reproduce them artifically.  The high financial value of feathers is quite startling - a shipment of feathers onboard the ill-fated Titanic was insured for $2.3m at today’s value.  Not surprisingly, the huge monetary value associated with feathers has tempted more than one ne'er-do-well to try and procure them by unscrupulous means.  One of the most remarkable cases occurred in 2009, when a student flautist called Edwin Rist broke into the British Natural History Museum's Ornithology Building, and made off with almost 300 of the world's most exotic and rare dead bird species, stuffed into a suitcase.  A fascinating book recently published, called The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, And The Natural History Heist Of The Century, shines a light on this intriguing event.  Derek talks to its author, Kirk Wallace Johnson, about this bizarre and shocking crime... The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, And The Natural History Heist Of The Century is published by Hutchinson; the ISBN is 9781786330147 and the RRP is €20.  For more information, visit


We have THREE copies of The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, And The Natural History Heist Of The Century to give away!  To be in with a chance of winning, just answer the following question:

The British Natural History Museum's Ornithology Building, from where the feathers were stolen, is in the Herfordshire town of:

a) Bring

b) Tring

c) Swing

(Click here for a hint!)

E-mail with your answer, name, phone number and address.  Competition closes at 23:59 on Sunday, August 26th.  Good luck!


It is an offence to 'cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy hedgerows on uncultivated land during the nesting season from 1 March to 31 August, subject to certain exceptions'. For more information, click here.  To read the Heritage Bill 2016, as passed by Dáil Éireann on July 5th 2018, click here.  To read the Heritage Act 2018, click here.

To contact your local wildlife ranger, click here for contact details. To read the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000, click here.

Caring For Wild Animals

Please note that many species of mammals, birds, invertebrates etc... are protected under law and that, even with the best of intentions, only someone holding a relevant licence from the National Parks & Wildlife Service should attempt the care of these animals.  For full details, please click here to read the NPWS Checklist of protected & rare species in Ireland.  If you are concerned about a wild animal, please contact your local wildlife ranger - click here for details.


Please DO NOT send any live, dead or skeletal remains of any creature whatsoever to Mooney Goes Wild.  If you find an injured animal or bird, please contact the National Parks & Wildlife Service on 1890 20 20 21, or BirdWatch Ireland, on 01 281-9878, or visit



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Presenter: Derek Mooney


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