Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle

Thor Hanson / Basic Books / 352 pages

Feathers is an apt title for this book about exactly that—from the evolution of the first feathers and birds, to man’s desire to use feathers as adornment, for warmth, or as prototypes for human flight. Thor Hanson’s book is both academic as well as a good story. He delves into controversies, including evolution from the dinosaur Archaeopteryx and the “ground up” vs. “tree down” theories of the origins of flight. To simplify the technicalities of feathers, Hanson employs common similes—such as a “Mexican wave” to describe how feathers grow. He discusses the amazing and unique qualities of feathers, their versatility and range of functions, and examines how these various qualities have led mankind to covet and copy them—be it to stay cool, keep warm, attract mates, or aid flight. As Hanson explains, we have exploited this incredible natural phenomenon for millennia, and continue to do so, often to the birds’ detriment. Hanson is clearly the epitome of a field biologist, in awe of nature and anxious to get his hands dirty in carrying out his research. He describes with zest de-feathering a deceased northern flicker to catalog the types and number of feathers, and colorfully describes his admiration for the tiny golden-crowned kinglet who, despite its size—and unlike Hanson—is able to survive freezing Maine winters wearing nothing more than its feathers.

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