Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle

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Overview


Feathers are an evolutionary marvel: aerodynamic, insulating, beguiling. They date back more than 100 million years. Yet their story has never been fully told.

In Feathers, biologist Thor Hanson details a sweeping natural history, as feathers have been used to fly, protect, attract, and adorn through time and place. Applying the research of paleontologists, ornithologists, biologists, engineers, and even art historians, Hanson asks: What are ...

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Overview


Feathers are an evolutionary marvel: aerodynamic, insulating, beguiling. They date back more than 100 million years. Yet their story has never been fully told.

In Feathers, biologist Thor Hanson details a sweeping natural history, as feathers have been used to fly, protect, attract, and adorn through time and place. Applying the research of paleontologists, ornithologists, biologists, engineers, and even art historians, Hanson asks: What are feathers? How did they evolve? What do they mean to us?

Engineers call feathers the most efficient insulating material ever discovered, and they are at the root of biology's most enduring debate. They silence the flight of owls and keep penguins dry below the ice. They have decorated queens, jesters, and priests. And they have inked documents from the Constitution to the novels of Jane Austen.

Feathers is a captivating and beautiful exploration of this most enchanting object.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Robert Michael Pyle, author of Wintergreen and Mariposa Road
Feathers is simply a splendid book! Even for one biased toward butterfly scales, their closest competitors in the animal raiment line, feathers in all their glory can only be seen as astonishing. With elegance and wit, Thor Hanson captures not only their awesome esthetics, but also the astonishing evolution, historical and cultural impact, and sheer wonder of avian plumage. Rendered in exquisite detail with delicate touch, like a feather-painting of old, this is the best kind of natural history—quilled by a real field biologist who is also a fine writer.”

Bernd Heinrich, Emeritus Professor of Biology, University of Vermont; author of Winter World and Mind of the Raven
“Feathers are truly remarkable. In this book Hanson shows how they are the key to many of the most fascinating and diverse aspects of bird biology, how they have affected our understanding of evolution, and how they have and are enriching our everyday lives. This is science written in clear and entertaining prose; a great read.”
 
Frank B. Gill, author of Ornithology
“Thor Hanson has captured the wonders of feathers in gripping prose that will likely change forever how you look at birds and their colorful adornments. This is rich and engaging ornithology at its best.”
 
Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain
“If you feel a sudden need to read about dinosaurs, flyfishing, muttonbirds, and showgirls, this is your book! Absolutely fascinating history, and a terrific read, Feathers is another Thor Hanson classic!”
 
Peter Matthiessen, National Book Award winning author of The Snow Leopardand Shadow Country
“A fascinating book about the most remarkable—and beautiful—of all avian evolutionary adaptations, with wonderful accounts of ornithological investigations and the solving of biological quandaries and questions, all of it unusually well-written. Highly recommended.”
 

Wall Street Journal
“[Hanson] has produced a winning book about the extraordinary place of feathers in animal and human history…. like all true birdwatchers, Mr. Hanson knows it isn’t just the bird at the far end of the binoculars but the human being at the near end that matters, and he is writing as much about the human urge to understand, appreciate and appropriate the wild world as he is writing about feathers, which he calls, in his subtitle, a ‘natural miracle.’…. Feathers is an earthbound book, but this does not keep the author—or the reader—from looking up in wonder.”
 
New York Times
“[A] fine book…. Mr. Hanson’s pleasure in feathers is infectious…. [Feathers] is gracious, funny, persuasive and wide ranging. Feathers, Mr. Hanson reminds us, teach a remarkable amount about evolution, insulation, engineering, archaeology and fashion. Better still, as this book shows, they allow not only birds but the human imagination to take flight.”
 
New Scientist
“[A] sparkling history…. Well-written science adds gravity to the more featherweight content of witty anecdotes – from interviews with feather-clad Las Vegas showgirls to plucking roadkill in the name of biology. The skilful way Hanson combines the two makes this book popular natural history at its best.”
 
SeattleTimes
“[D]elightful…. [A] fascinating inquiry into one of those common things that are easy to overlook until someone shows what a miracle it is…. Birds, the only animals with feathers today, wear these magic coats of stunning variety whose forms so perfectly fit their functions. Hanson’s book reveals much about that marvelous magic.”
 
Library Journal (starred review)
“[E]njoyable, wide-ranging, and well-researched…. Highly recommended for birders and science buffs.”
 
Maclean’s
“[E]ngaging…. For all the intriguing science, what really livens up Hanson’s passionate discussion of his ‘natural miracle’ are the stories he tells.”

Nature
“Thor Hanson’s storytelling is enhanced by his infectious excitement…. Hanson’s tale is comprehensive, accurate, timely and engaging…. Feathers is a compelling introduction to one of nature’s wonders.”

Science
“Hanson writes in a colorful, conversational, and non-technical manner that conveys his enthusiasm for the subject…. The book offers a readable introduction to feathers and what they mean for birds and mankind.”

Bird Watcher’s Digest
“To read Feathers is to meet up with an enthusiastic old friend who simply cannot wait to tell you about something he just discovered. Deceptively conversational and fast moving, disguising the true depth of information it conveys with buoyant, good-humored prose, Feathers is a book not only intellectually accessible to anyone with an interest in the subject but also one that should be considered a must-read by bird watchers and naturalists of all levels of interest or experience.”

Audubon
“[C]aptivating…. Beginning with the evolution of birds, Hanson, a biologist, explains competing theories with ease, and unfolds the human fascination with feathers in terms of science, commerce, tools, folklore, art, and aerodynamics with panache. Anecdotes infuse the fascinating survey.”

MontanaOutdoors “[A] delight. As the name makes clear, it’s all about feathers—their evolution, use by birds, and extremely high value to humans, from quill pens and trout flies to women’s hats and Aztec emperor headdresses.”

BioScience
“From basic research about bird biology and the evolutionary origins of feather to falconry, couture, and bioinspiration in industrial design, the book treats us to a series of engaging essays about feathers, both on and off the bird…. Hanson weaves his prior encounters with birds and his experiences as a scientist into the text, offering lively anecdotes about his student days and subsequent life as a professional grant-seeking field biologist. He is particularly adept at portraying how science really works…. Hanson’s prose is polished, lively, and evocative. The outcome is a book that is easy and entertaining to read, yet one that is able to satisfy our intellectual curiosity.… In Feathers, Hanson is remarkably successful at offering something for everyone. Readers from young adults to professional ornithologists and from those interested in nature to those more interested in human culture will enjoy this book…. Ultimately, Feathers is a book to read for pleasure, but along the way, we gain knowledge and insight into nature and our relationship with it.”

Orion
“Part natural history, part portrait of human obsession that takes the author from a fly tier’s bench where beautiful salmon flies are created, to Vegas dancehalls, to the secretive world of feather dyers and costume makers, Hanson’s book shines with the evident love of an enthusiast…. Hanson sets out to make feathers as enthralling for the reader as they are for him—and succeeds…. Hanson’s excitement rubs off on the reader, and anyone who has watched a bird and marveled will find Feathers an informative delight.”

Amanda Katz
…the greatest strength of Feathers lies in the science and natural observation that predominate in the book's first half. Mr. Hanson is gifted at explaining scientific findings and controversies…Feathers is more a work of synthesis than of groundbreaking ornithology. But as synthesis goes, it is gracious, funny, persuasive and wide ranging.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
"As light as a feather," "a feather in her cap," "you could have knocked me over with a feather" are just a few examples of how feathers permeate conversation. We usually think about feathers when we're trying to identify a bird at the feeder on our deck, but feathers are found in pillows, sleeping bags, and fertilizer, and a century or two ago they supplied writing instruments and women's hats. Conservation biologist Hanson (The Impenetrable Forest: My Gorilla Years in Uganda) takes readers on a wide-ranging tour of the world of feathers, from Las Vegas revues, whose performers wear thousands of dollars' worth (and they're heavier than you think), to the world of fly fishing, where unscrupulous collectors illegally seek out rare feathers for their lures. Hanson divides his book into five sections: Evolution, Fluff, Flights, Fancy, and Function. He explains clearly for generalists why paleontologists now believe many dinosaurs sported plumage. On the grand tour of Vegas, Hanson visits a shop that still dyes feathers by hand, and in Washington, D.C., he visits scientists at the Smithsonian whose expertise is identifying plumage. Hanson also recounts many personal encounters with feathers and their avian owners in the wild. Readers from science buffs to those interested in cultural history will find this a worthwhile afternoon's read. Illus. (June)
Seattle Magazine
"[Feathers] gracefully explores the evolutionary processes that led to the development of avian plumage."
Seattle Weekly
"[Hanson is] a conservation biologist, yet the book isn't too weighty a treatment of a very light subject. It's popular science as he travels from Wyoming fossil beds – in search of Archaeopteryx, the first feathered dinosaur – to New Zealand, where he helps Maori hunters gather the charmingly named muttonbirds during their flightless period of molt. We also get a lesson on tying fly-fishing lures, hand-carving quill pens, and visit a down feather broker right here in Seattle."
Discover
"Few of us would connect the extravagant costumes of Las Vegas showgirls to avian mating rituals, but that's what biologist Thor Hanson does in this natural and cultural history of the feather. He gives unexpected substance to his nearly weightless subject, traveling from Chinese fossil beds – which provide a fascinating look at the relationship between plumed dinosaurs and modern birds – to a Seattle factory where duck and goose down becomes insulation. He also shares delightful facts, such as why vultures have featherless heads. You'll want to pass these tidbits on."
BBC Wildlife (UK)
"[Hanson] looks at, thinks about, dreams of and chases [feathers] across the globe. In doing so, he writes the story of the world as seen through the story of feathers. It is a tale that includes the origins of flight, the science of how feathers push up through the skin of birds, the lives of other scientists (and yes, there are many) obsessed with feathers and much, much more…. Feathers will encourage you to look at flight differently. In fact, it will make you want to gently pick up a sparrow and take a good look at what you have been missing.... Damn good book."
BirdWatching
"Wow! Thor Hanson's fun, wide-ranging romp through the world of feathers covers feather science and evolution, plumed showgirls in Las Vegas, quill pens, and a falcon feather that's on the moon."
Maclean's (Canada)
"For all the intriguing science, what really livens up Hanson's passionate discussion of his ‘natural miracle' are the stories he tells."
Natural History
"Hanson adorns his narrative with fascinating digressions on such diverse topics as the ability of birds to selectively molt worn or damaged feathers, the diving speeds of falcons…, and the great Trans-Saharan Ostrich Expedition of 1911. In sum, Feathers is an impressive blend of beauty, form, and function."
Charleston Gazette
"[A] terrific natural history of the one anatomical structure that is unique to birds."
The Economist
"Thor Hanson's new book takes on the intriguing subject of feathers. With infectious enthusiasm, he describes them, from their earliest known incarnations to their place in the modern world…. Hanson's unpretentious style makes what is essentially an excellent scientific work into an enjoyable read for the ignorant and uninitiated…. [H]e has delivered an illuminating study of an evolutionary marvel."
Wall Street Journal
"[Hanson] has produced a winning book about the extraordinary place of feathers in animal and human history…. Mr. Hanson may be a scientist but he writes like a man who believes in the value of story…. Mr. Hanson offers more than a fanciful, associative style. He is a very good explainer of serious biology…. But like all true birdwatchers, Mr. Hanson knows it isn't just the bird at the far end of the binoculars but the human being at the near end that matters, and he is writing as much about the human urge to understand, appreciate and appropriate the wild world as he is writing about feathers, which he calls, in his subtitle, a ‘natural miracle.' The unifying element in his writing is a contagious curiosity about the explainable world…. Feathers is an earthbound book, but this does not keep the author—or the reader—from looking up in wonder."
Library Journal
Conservation biologist Hanson (The Impenetrable Forest: My Gorilla Years in Uganda) may be the first to consider feathers in many contexts: paleontology, evolution, physiology, anatomy, aerodynamics, fashion, culture, literature, and history. In this enjoyable, wide-ranging, and well-researched book, Hanson explains the mechanisms whereby feathers keep birds cool or warm; the complex—at times extravagant—role feathers play in wild bird courtship; the controversies among scientists as to how and why feathers evolved; feather forensics, useful in crime and aircraft crash investigations; the millinery trade (feathers as fashion); and the modern use of feathers and the dynamics of the bedding and clothing industries they support. Useful appendixes include heavily annotated diagrams of different feather types and a brief list of major conservation associations. VERDICT Highly recommended for birders and science buffs.—Henry T. Armistead, formerly with Free Lib. of Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews

When a vulture feather accidentally dropped at his feet as he watched the birds fly overhead, field biologist and conservationist Hanson (The Impenetrable Forest, 2000) felt called upon to choose feathers as the subject of his next book.

In this wide-ranging study of our feathered friends, the author also looks at the many uses of feathers throughout history, from featherbeds and down quilts to arrows and pens, and as a fashion statement "in fans, dusters, boas, floral arrangements, and in the fringes of cloaks and shawls," as well as women's hats. In fact, feathers were the highest-value cargo carried on the ill-fated Titanic. As far back as 30,000 years ago, our ancestors recorded their fascination with birds in cave drawings. The discovery ofArchaeopteryx, a crow-sized fossil with feathers and the skeleton of a reptile, just two years after the publication of Darwin'sOn the Origin of Species, was the beginning of a century-long controversy over the evolution of birds, with a consensus reach only recently. It is now generally accepted that birds have evolved from meat-eating dinosaurs. Hanson recounts the many disputes over the evolutionary development of feathers and conundrum of how landed creatures gained the ability to fly, and he explains how even half-formed feathers would have conferred an evolutionary advantage to winged dinosaurs (insulation, protection from insects and thorns, greater maneuverability and sexual display)—all of which play the same function for modern birds and have been adapted for human use.

A delightful ramble through the byways of evolution and the wonderful world of birds.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465028788
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 7/31/2012
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 424,080
  • Product dimensions: 5.58 (w) x 8.08 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author


Thor Hanson is a conservation biologist, Switzer Environmental Fellow, and member of the Human Ecosystems Study Group. His first book, The Impenetrable Forest: My Gorilla Years in Uganda, won the 2008 USA Book News Award for nature writing. Hanson lives with his wife on an island in Washington State.
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Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Acknowledgments xi

Preface xiii

Introduction: A Natural Miracle 1

Evolution

Chapter 1 The Rosetta Stone 13

Chapter 2 Heat Shields, Gliders, and Insect Scoops 29

Chapter 3 The Yixian Formation 43

Chapter 4 How to Catch a Muttonbird 61

Fluff

Chapter 5 Keeping Warm 83

Chapter 6 Staying Cool 101

Flight

Chapter 7 Ground-Up or Tree-Down? 117

Chapter 8 A Feathered Hammer 131

Chapter 9 The Perfect Airfoil 141

Fancy

Chapter 10 The Birds of Paradise 157

Chapter 11 A Feather in Her Cap 175

Chapter 12 Give Us Those Nice Bright Colors 195

Function

Chapter 13 Of Murres and Muddlers 213

Chapter 14 The Mighty Penna 233

Chapter 15 The Featherless Head 247

Conclusion: A Debt of Wonder 263

Appendix A An Illustrated Guide to Feathers 275

Appendix B Feathers and Conservation 281

Notes 283

Bibliography 301

Image and Quotation Credits 319

Index 325

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 13 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 9 of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2013

    Kaity to wolfmoon

    Look i will promes not to hert you if you stop herting cats

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2013

    Ginger

    "Grabs the cat" YOU ARE NEVER EATTING KITS EVER AGAIN!!!!!! "cuts his back and tail hard" I WILL KILL YOU AND I DONT CARE WHO YOU ARE!!!! STOP GOING TO THIS CLAN OR ILL KILL YOU!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 9, 2013

    Rosestar

    Waits for Firepaw.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2012

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2012

    What clan is this?

    Can i join? Im a black and white striped she that needs a mate.Pianostripe

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2012

    Lightningstar

    Brightfur is locked out she wants u to go to the next result!

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2012

    Birdpaw

    Yea, softnote..i need a mentor too

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2012

    do you want to rp kits?

    If you are interested, go to the new prophecy: twilight by erin hunter. Read the post titled RP KITS!!! Thanks and i am sorry for tresspassing. I hope you understand. And scourge is from BloodClan his camp is at dracula. ~Morningsky

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2012

    Scourge to softnote

    Do u want to join clans?

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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