Down is a popular fill for duvets and pillows, but which is better for bedding, goose down or duck down? We look at the differences between duck and goose down, and whether the use of down is ethical.
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Let me start by saying, as a Vegan, I choose not to use down in any form, and I have written articles for LeafScore about some of my concerns when it comes to down, including by-product down which is marketed as more ethical.
If I were to choose an ethical down, it would be Eider down. In my view, Eider down is the only ethical option for down products.
However, down isn’t going away as a material used in bedding anytime soon, so if you do choose down, here are some practical tips to help you decide between duck and goose down.
- Smaller birds, smaller feather clusters
- More oily, less brittle, more durable
- Readily available
- Low fill power
- By-product of meat industry, mostly sourced from China
- Can smell gamey, especially when wet
- Larger birds, larger feather clusters
- More insulating, stronger
- Less oily, more brittle
- High fill power, more luxurious
- Live plucking
- No smell
What is down?
Let’s start with the basics.
Down is the fluffy, dense, super insulating material under the feathers of birds like geese and ducks. These under-feathers help the birds to regulate their body temperature without adding much body weight.
Most down, regardless of its source, is plucked from the birds’ stomach or underbelly, where the down is thickest. This makes sense when you consider that these water birds spend a lot of time floating in cold water.
Down has a different structure to feathers and is more filament-like. The plumule – a wispy, barb-covered structure – traps air and is largely resistant to wind. This unique design is what makes down so lofty, lightweight, and warm.
Down is also able to absorb moisture and sweat without losing its insulating properties. And because it is breathable, it is a great material for bedding as it releases that moisture during the day. Remember to air out your bedding and your down pillows and duvet won’t provide a hospital place for dust mites.
The difference between goose down and duck down
Geese are much larger birds than ducks. In turn, goose down has larger clusters than duck down. These larger clusters are more insulating, stronger, and lighter than the smaller clusters in duck down. Goose down is also softer and less oily (which contributes to it being lighter and loftier).
On the flip side, duck down is more readily available and, therefore, more affordable than goose down. And those natural oils in duck down make it less brittle and dry and arguably more durable.
If you’re looking for a duvet or pillow with fill power of 750 or higher, you’re almost always going to need goose down. That’s because this high fill power is usually only possible with a high proportion of large plumules, which means geese.
In rare cases, a higher fill power may be possible with duck down alone. Some duvets use a blend of goose and duck down to provide high fill power, loft, and luxury without the lofty price tag.
In general, though, luxury down bedding requires premium quality goose down.
Where down comes from
Duck down is a by-product of the meat industry, with most ducks bred and killed for meat, eggs, and foie grass. The majority of duck down comes from China (where duck meat is more commonly eaten), though some comes from duck operations in Canada and Europe.
Goose down is often a product of live plucking, given that geese tend not to be raised and killed for meat. The best quality, densest down comes from mature geese. This can mean that a single goose is repeatedly, forcibly plucked over the course of its short, painful life.
Because geese are bigger and have larger down clusters, it takes the down plucked from around 40 geese to make a queen-size duvet. In contrast, a duck down duvet will require down from 75 or more ducks.
Procuring down from ducks and geese is a painful business. This means many consumers avoid virgin down, even while understanding the amazing benefits of it for bedding and technical wear.
There is one cruelty-free option for virgin down though; Eiderdown.
This type of down comes from wild sea birds called eider ducks. These ducks pluck their own down to line their nests, and humans have long harvested this down once the birds are done with it. That’s why in some places, a comforter or duvet is sometimes called an ‘eiderdown’!
Does down smell?
Most modern down bedding does not smell like the birds it came from. This is because the down undergoes intensive cleaning and sterilization, often with formaldehyde, to eliminate any gamey odor.
That said, of the two, duck down is more likely to retain some of its original smell. Ducks sit lower to the ground than taller geese, meaning they pick up more smells that get trapped in the down.
Ducks also eat grubs and worms and other critters, while geese are plant-eating herbivores. This is part of the reason why geese have less oily, less odiferous down.
Most people won’t be able to detect any residual odor from down, be it from ducks or geese. If you have a very keen sense of smell though, goose down may be preferable. Note, too, that down is more likely to smell gamey when wet, with most odor dissipating once down dries.
Final thoughts on goose and duck down
Unless you’re a real down connoisseur, you likely won’t be able to tell the difference between goose and duck down for smaller, lighter items such as clothing and pillows. However, for heavier items such as comforters, there’s a distinct difference between how goose down and duck down feel and perform.
Here’s a quick cheat sheet for direct comparisons of duck down versus goose down.
If money is no object and you really want a lighter, loftier, more insulating pillow or duvet, though, goose down is always the top choice.
However, for most bedding, a combination of duck and goose down is a good choice, marrying high fill power with affordability and durability. If you want to avoid virgin down entirely, consider options made with recycled down.