It’s a tricky idiom! Literally:
Hoti kho so, āvuso, samayo yaṁ kukkuṭapattenapi nhārudaddulenapi aggiṁ gavesanti.
There comes a time when they search for fire with just a chicken-feather or a strip of sinew.
I used plurals to make the syntax smoother, and added “as kindling”, but maybe I shouldn’t.
The commentary says this:
Taking such a little bit of fuel (sukhumaṃ upādānaṃ), they seek fire. It is lit when they get even a tiny spark.
Compare the discussion of the air element below, which uses a similar phrasing, with vātaṁ pariyesanti, where gavesanti and pariyesanti are synonyms.
Hoti kho so, āvuso, samayo yaṁ gimhānaṁ pacchime māse tālavaṇṭenapi vidhūpanenapi vātaṁ pariyesanti
There comes a time, in the last month of summer, when they look for wind by using a palm-leaf or fan
Now, knowing little of such things, I wanted to check whether feathers can actually be used in this way. And lo! Survival frog says:
Bird feathers are very flammable, and when they’re dry, you can quickly build a fire with just a small spark.
Which is not far from being an actual translation of the passage with commentary.
Now, the hard part is the meaning of daddula. It occurs in a similar context in an7.49:2.4:
It’s like a chicken’s feather or a strip of sinew thrown in a fire. It shrivels up, shrinks, rolls up, and doesn’t stretch out.
Clearly the sense is the same as the previous one, and here (in this later translation) Ven Bodhi has “strip of sinew”, so it looks like he revised his MN translation.
Nhāru has a well-established meaning of “sinew, tendon, muscle”, so why did BB earlier use “hide”? It seems this was influenced by the commentary, which says the phrase refers to the parings left when making leather. Elsewhere, nhāru and camma (hide, leather) are clearly differentiated, so this seems unlikely.
So what do we know? That these are the very last and most meagre things one might use to kindle a fire from a spark; that they curl up as they burn in a fire; that they are both animal products; and that they would be available in an apocalypse.
Slightly tangential: where do they come from? The commentary suggests that nhārudaddula would be workshop parings, but that seems a little specialized, not quite fitting with the apocalyptic scenario.
I think these are the organic leftovers remaining on dried-up animal carcasses. Fire has consumed almost everything. Dead things litter the apocalyptic landscape. So you’re scraping up whatever you can: a feather from a dead bird, a scrap of sinew from a dead dog. And that’s the best you can use to try to light a fire.
I don’t know of any method for actually creating a fire using feathers and sinew. So it seems the passage is about someone who tries to find just the smallest spark, maybe in a glowing ember from a dying fire or a lightning strike, and uses a feather or sinew as kindling.