Growing up, we had a pair of ducks that lived in the weeds around the barn. Since my mother was an animal science teacher, Larry and Sally were probably hatched in her classroom and then relocated to our farm. Against the odds they survived, staving off barn cats and floating on the manure lagoon for leisure.

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Sometimes they made their nests in the corner of the shop, among the debris there, or on the bank under the cover of goldenrod. We tried to find their nests in time to eat their eggs. Usually, we couldn’t locate them, and a few times that we did, we eventually realized that we weren’t in time. More than once, we left the kitchen gagging to dump out a rotten egg in the lawn.

Many introductions to Iceland’s history start like this: It was once a tough place to survive. In addition to volcanic eruptions, glacial flooding, erratic weather and the inability to grow many types of plants, early settlers had an additional challenge: There were no wild mammals to eat. While inhabitants of North America could take advantage of herds of deer, elk and buffalo – not to mention small game like rabbits and squirrels – Iceland’s only native land mammal was the Arctic fox. Still, they found ways to supplement their diet of fish and livestock products. Although hens were very rare in Iceland, archaeological excavations of farms dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries found lots of eggshells.

Eggs collected from wild birds was a substantial food source for Icelanders until the mid-20th century, but the tradition continues, particularly among older members of the community. In order to sustain the population of local species, care is taken to manage the egg harvest. Every spring, Barrow's goldeneyes land in among the lava-formation lakes in the north. Locals often “tidy up” the nesting grounds before the ducks’ arrival.

The collection of the eggs depends on the weather, but usually occurs after May 20. It is a general rule to leave at least four eggs remaining in the nest to ensure duck numbers hold steady. After the nesting duck is scared away and the appropriate number of eggs taken, the rest are covered in down to keep warm until the mother returns. Nets are brought along to reach the nests down in holes or crevices in the rocks. Eggs are never collected while it’s raining because if the down gets wet, it will lose its insulating properties and the eggs will not remain incubated.


Older Icelanders who keep up the custom sometimes say that they know the Barrow's goldeneye ducks that they harvest from. They remember them from previous years and learn their personalities and how many eggs they tend to produce. Many of these people are also dairy farmers and say that it is a relationship similar to what they have with their cows. Because hens are a relatively recent addition to Iceland, the locals respected these gifts from nature.

In the past, once the eggs were collected, the challenge then became to preserve them. Various methods were used, including keeping the eggs in buckets of lime brine or placed in rye flour. Some people blanched them by boiling them for 10 seconds, wrapping them in paper and keeping them in a colder part of the house. Perhaps most common – and still done today – is to place the eggs in ash and allow them to rot, creating the delicacy called “cured eggs.”

Ducks aren’t the only wild bird from which eggs are collected in Iceland. Many towns along the coast have someone who scales the local cliffs to harvest the eggs of seabirds and distribute them among the community. A brave person is lowered down the cliff face with ropes attached to a pickup truck in order to raid the nests of gulls, guillemots and kittiwakes. The eggs are washed and then “candled,” held up to a light to ensure that there isn’t a developing embryo inside. Eventually, they end up in shops and restaurants and sold as a premium food.

Although egg collecting has been an important part of Icelandic culture for many centuries, it is not the only ­– nor best known – collaboration the Icelandic have with wild birds. Approximately 75% of the world’s eiderdown comes from Iceland to end up in duvets and comforters everywhere. Farmers who own areas that the eider duck traditionally lays eggs provide structures to protect the nests from predators such as seagulls, minks and the Arctic fox. Some of the down is harvested before the eggs hatch, and the rest is collected once the eiders migrate again. Each nest produces 15 to 17 grams of the luxury product, and the ducks are often familiar enough with the farmers to be touched.

In order to survive in a harsh environment, the Icelanders had to forge beneficial relationships with nature. I’d imagine, particularly in the case of duck species, that some generations would have been tempted to hunt the birds to extinction. Instead, with a little foresight, they maintained a food source that lasted for millennia. Being in tune with their surroundings has served Icelanders well and might be a good example for the rest of the world in our understanding of our landscape.