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Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle…

Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle (2011)

by Thor Hanson

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213884,738 (3.89)6
A biologist presents the natural history of feathers, applying the findings of paleontologists, ornithologists, biologists, engineers, and art historians to answer questions about the origin of feathers, their evolution, and their uses throughout the ages.



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This is not a book about feathers. It is not a book about birds, the creatures with feathers. It is a book about the author's deep fascination with birds and his zeal for learning about feathers. How else can I describe a book that indeed gives great and often amazing insight into birds, in general, and feathers, in particular, while at times getting so far out in the periphery of his subject that even he, at one point, tells the reader, basically, "Whoa, let's get back on topic!" (No kidding.) Indeed, the book shifts often from one extreme of being very college classroom professorial in presentation to another extreme of a bunch of bird-watching/biology nerds in a cocktail lounge in the evening after a full day at the annual ornithology society convention -- think The Big Bang Theory guys at a Star Trek convention -- and pretty much anything in between. Will the average person learn something that will likely change forever how they view birds they may see? Almost unquestionably. Will that person also enjoy the author's many anecdotes? Some, yes, without question. Others, well, maybe if they also enjoyed reading about the vomit flavored jelly beans in Harry Potter. Me? Well, I prefer, given the option of a more -- let's say -- disciplined presentation. Am I glad I read it? Very much so. ( )
  larryerick | Jan 14, 2019 |
I found this book totally by accident. Browsing the fiction shelves at a Friends of the Library sale I was caught by its spine. The cover, so beautiful and bold, drew me in. When I discovered it wasn’t a novel, but a natural history of feathers I could barely get it in my bag fast enough. Thanks to whoever shelved it wrong!

While not a birder per se, I do have an appreciation for birds, flight and the marvels they are. So many different behaviors, environments and body styles - there are few things in nature as broadly diverse as birds. Then there are the feathers. I have a small collection of them in my home. Yes, I know this is a Federal Offense, but I can’t help it and have been known to hide a beautiful specimen on my way out on a hike so I can pick it up on the way back and have less chance of damaging it while I walk and prevent anyone else from snagging it. I also pick them up in the yard, on the road when walking to the mailbox and almost anywhere I find them. From a great blue heron primary to the pointy tail feather of a northern flicker and the contour feathers of turkeys - they are universally appealing. I even bought a field guide to feather identification so I could tell a broad wing hawk feather from a great horned owl feather. They are little wonders of nature and this book dives into the latest (well for 2011) theories and advances into how they evolved.

Here are some of the things I learned -
* Developing feathers, called pinfeathers have a blood supply. I’d always thought they were like claws or hair - like those things, they don't bleed and are largely made of keratin, but no - pinfeathers do bleed. The blood supply is connected until the feather is mature then it disconnects at the base of the follicle. When it’s time to replace it, the new pin feather ejects the worn-out feather. Astounding.
* Many birds scavenge feathers of other birds to line their nests - I always thought it was only their own feathers that filled that role. Nope.
* Some birds expose their legs and increase blood flow to them as a cooling strategy.
* Grebes eat feathers, their own or a duck feather floating by, in order to line their stomachs to protect against the bones of the fish they eat. They feed them to the chicks for the same purpose.
* Quill toothpicks were quite the industry and very popular into the 20th century.
* The US Supreme court distributes 20 (or more, it isn’t clear) quill pens every day on the counsel tables. No one uses them except as souvenirs.
* Old and New World vultures are not related to each other and evolved the bald head strategy independently. It is a direct result of eating carrion - blood and tissue stick to feathers and makes them useless and impossible to clean. No feathers, no problem!

Written in an engaging and enthusiastic style, the book was continually interesting and entertaining. It begins with feathered dinosaur finds and scientists working on the evolution of feathers and flight and how, or how not, those might intersect. Then on to feathers in fashion and other human uses like pens and the functions of feathers aside from flight. There are chapters devoted to colors and breeding displays. If you are into birds or evolutionary biology this book is well worth adding to your library. ( )
1 vote Bookmarque | Dec 8, 2018 |
Hanson is what I think of as a great science writer. He engages our imaginations while imparting facts, and I suspect that is at least in part because he has such a lively sense of wonder that he can’t help but infuse even the most prosaic of information with a feel of awe as if the evolution of feathers or seeds, or whatever else he’s writing about is pure magic. And in a sense, the things he writes about are magic, or as close to as we get in our world.

The discovery of feathered dinosaurs, the evolution of feathers as tools for flight, insulation, and even courtship, are all topics which Hanson covers here, framing them with his own experiences of his backyard chickens, his travels to museums and to meet with bird researchers, his field experiences (one of which made him smell like rotting zebra guts for days.) He writes cleanly and engagingly on all these topics making the information wholly accessible.

The only flaw I found in this audiobook was the narrator. In general his narration is workmanlike, no more, sometimes a bit flat and expressionless, but it serves the purpose. However, when he tries to render voices, it’s at best distracting, as when he lightens his voice for quotes from women, and at worst almost embarrassing as when he renders the speech of a Chinese researcher. It’s not so much that he does a terrible job at either, but that he does it at all. It feels out of place. I don’t know if these were his choices, or if he was asked to do the voices. Either way, I think it was a mistake.

But don’t let that put you off listening if that’s the way you’d prefer to read this particular book. It’s worth it no matter how you approach it. So far, everything Hanson has written is worth your time, in my opinion. ( )
  Tracy_Rowan | Jul 20, 2017 |
A 336-page book about feathers; to be honest, I was initially more curious about how the author had managed to stretch the subject over so many pages than I was with the subject itself. However, as I started reading I soon became captivated. Hanson writes with clarity and an endearing yet restrained enthusiasm, covering a wide range of feather-related areas from microstructure to fashion; in fact, the sheer scope of the subject is amazing. I finished the book regretting my initial cynicism and wondering, in complete variance to my first thoughts, how he had managed to compress the subject into so few words. A wonderful book that has given me a renewed appreciation for what is a fairly mundane and overlooked object — just the type of book I love.
1 vote PickledOnion42 | Jul 5, 2013 |
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