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When hair fads and rooster farmers collide

Singer Steven Tyler arrives at the world premiere of Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides at Disneyland on May 7, 2011 in Anaheim, California.

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Flip through any fashion magazine these days, and it's apparent that feather hair extensions, those colourful, clip-on plumes worn by celebrities from Steven Tyler to Selena Gomez, have become the latest, hot hairstyle trend. But the popularity of feather extensions has taken off so dramatically and unexpectedly that salons and rooster farmers are struggling to keep up with demand.

At Earth salon in Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood, stylists can't keep them in store, as customers eagerly snap them up, says colour technician Stephanie Murphy.

"It's crazy," she says, explaining that just last fall, staff members could easily order feather extensions from suppliers. Then, a few months ago, as the trend became mainstream, they suddenly found their suppliers' phone lines constantly busy.

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"By the time we finally got to speak to someone, they just said that there's not enough to go around and the supply was really limited," Ms. Murphy says.

That's because until feathers began appearing in celebrity hairstyles last year, the market for them was mostly limited to the world of fly-fishing, where they're used as lures. Now, the demands of the fashion industry are driving up prices in what was once a niche trade. While fly-fishers previously paid pocket change for feathers, salons like Earth charge around $45 for the application of multiple strands of feathers, and $20 for single strands.

While stylists may use a variety of feathers, such as peacock or hen, it's rooster saddle feathers, or the plumes that grow on the birds' backs, that are most coveted because of their versatile, thin, silky strands.

"You can curl them or you can straighten them," Ms. Murphy says. "They can be as subtle or as freaky as you want them to be."

The global supply of quality rooster feathers, however, is dominated by a single farm. Whiting Farms in Delta, Colo., claims to have an estimated 75 to 80 per cent share of the world market, and harvests feathers from 65,000 birds a year, all of which have specifically been bred for the fly-fishing market.

About a year and a half ago, fly fishing shop operators began reporting a strange up-tick in sales, the farm's president, founder and poultry geneticist Tom Whiting, says.

"They told my sales guys, 'Yeah, the craziest thing happened. These ladies came in and bought all these saddles,'" he says.

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By the fall of 2010, the trend exploded. Salons across North America began calling his farm directly to request feathers, while fly shops started offering to buy saddle feathers back from customers at double the price to resell them to the fashion world.

"It's truly nuts," Dr. Whiting says, noting he was selling rooster pelts at about $36 U.S. wholesale a year ago. Today, the same pelts go for about $300 to $400 each.

Roosters only grow one set of quality saddle feathers in their lifetime, and to minimize any pain or discomfort, Dr. Whiting says he euthanizes the birds before harvesting the feathers. While he describes his birds as "the most pampered commercial chickens in the world," animal rights activists have criticized the feather hair extension trend.

"Would you support the slaughter of thousands of animals each week just so that you could jump on board with the latest fashion trend?" asks an article posted on the website of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "That's exactly what girls are doing when they purchase feather hair extensions for their locks."

Dr. Whiting, however, says since his roosters are specially bred, they wouldn't exist if people didn't want them for their feathers. (Because there is no market for their unpalatable meat, he turns their carcasses into compost.)

"Some people have an issue with that, and I say that's fine," Dr. Whiting says. "I'll respect your views if you respect mine."

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His more immediate concern is how to cope with the frenzied demand. It takes about 14 months between the time he starts breeding new roosters till their feathers can be harvested, and Dr. Whiting recognizes the boom may not last.

"The very nature of fads ... is they change. Something new comes to supplant it, then it's gone," he says.

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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