Sweaters for birds: It may sound like a hopelessly twee thing only found on Etsy, but rescue birds all over the world are able to stay comfy thanks to the quick-knitting needles and fabulous designs of skillful volunteers.
Nicola Congdon, an avid chicken enthusiast in Cornwall, England, is just one example of a bird rescuer who’s realized that the most efficient way to heat up her shivering flock is via sweaters.
Many of the birds in her piecemeal brood are retired cage-laying hens that responded to the tight, overcrowded, stressful conditions of their industrial upbringing by pulling out their own feathers. Without their feathers, the birds have trouble staying warm when the weather turns chilly.
“It’s important to make people aware of the poor conditions the hens live in and the fact that they have no feathers when they are retired,” she told Mashable. While her flock is now well-stocked with winter wear, she continues to offer her knits to other rescues and chicken owners for a small donation.
Susie Coston, the national shelter director of Farm Sanctuary, an animal rescue organization headquartered in upstate New York, is quick to note that if a bird is healthy, it doesn’t need the added warmth—and wearing such a garment could stress the bird out. But for birds facing health problems, sweaters can be perfect as long as the birds are supervised. For example, Congdon only leaves the sweaters on for 30 minutes at a time and makes sure to supervise the birds when they are donning their wooly attire.
Featherless-ness is not the only ill a miniature sweater can help fix. In 2001, an oil spill off Australia’s Southern coast decimated crucial habitat for Little Penguin populations on Phillip Island and drenched more than 500 of the tiny birds in thick, toxic oil. To prevent the penguins from cleaning their feathers and ingesting more of the oil before rescuers could bathe them, the birds were temporarily suited up. The dress code worked, and over the last decade or so the Penguin Foundation, a local rescue group on the island, helped tailor sweater patterns specifically for oiled birds. When another spill occurred, knitters around the world—including Australia’s oldest living man—enthusiastically rose to the challenge, and the rescue group now has enough sweaters to last well into the future.
While knits seem to work well for short periods of time on smaller birds, the curve-hugging fit doesn't flatter every figure. Larger birds seem particularly predisposed to getting their claws tangled up in the looped yarns of knitted garments, usually while scratching or cleaning their feathers, Coston says. So when a flock of rescued turkeys molted mid-winter, caregivers at Farm Sanctuary adorned the birds with a more forgiving fleece coat to cover the turkeys’ busty bods from the cold—an added benefit was that the birds could wear the solid material for longer periods of time without risking entanglement.
Farm Sanctuary is just one group currently accepting fleece coat donations for turkeys and chickens (and some of their bigger farm animals) to round out their winter wardrobe. If you’re eager to take up needle and thread in the name of bird attire, contact your local rescues first to see if they’re in need of such garments—or wait until the Bay Area’s WildCare Hospital opens its 2016 plea for knitted (k)nests.
And while bundled-up birds may be the cutest style to come out of the rescue world, keeping your feeders full is an equally worthy way to keep birds warm this winter—you can always save your knits for friends and family.