When it comes to the subject of feathers, our language all too often belies the truth. We use phrases such as “light as a feather,” “feather-weight,” and “downy soft” in describing things that are insubstantial or delicate. Were our colloquial phrases to more correctly reflect the truth we might instead make reference to the durability of feathers or their astonishing protective qualities; “tough as a feather,” “feather-tight,” and “snug as a down-covered chick” might become the norm. Thor Hanson knows these things well, not just intellectually as the result of reading about them but from first-hand, first-rate investigation and experimentation in the best traditions of a field biologist, the results of which we are fortunate to be able to read for ourselves in his recently published books Feathers; The Evolution of a Natural Miracle.
Try to think of a bird and not imagine feathers. It’s impossible. Even a a plucked chicken in a supermarket shows evidence of it once having been surrounded in feathers. And this is as it should be; for as Hanson clearly (and most entertainingly) explains, the very evolution of birds as a Class is inextricably interwoven with the evolution of the feather itself. Without feathers, not only would birds not be anything like what they are today, they would in all likelihood not be at all.
From flight to environmental protection against everything from heat, cold, and rain to predation and parasite infestation, feathers are a bird’s most important asset in life. Even their ability to communicate with one another heavily depends upon their feathers (in ways which, given the ability of birds to see into a wider range of the electromagnetic spectrum than our puny human eyes can and thus clearly see patterns in the plumage of one another that are entirely invisible to us, we can scarcely imagine).
To be sure, many previous books have included information about many of the remarkable qualities of feathers; most every field guide or book explaining the physiology of birds addresses the subject. However few, if indeed any (at least to the knowledge of this reviewer), have approached the astonishing depth as well as the vast breadth of the subject in so inviting a manner as Hanson has in Feathers. By his own admission, there are many who know more about the subject or at least one aspect of it than he does; indeed, he interviewed many of them while writing the book and much to its benefit records the results of these conversations within its pages. What he himself adds to the work is the very thing that makes it such a delightful book to read: his seemingly limitless curiosity and the willingness to follow it to wherever it led him, regardless of how impossibly strange a question or idea may have seemed at the time.
To read Feathers is to meet up with an enthusiastic old friend who simply cannot wait to tell you about something he just discovered regarding a subject in which you both share a common interest. Deceptively conversational and fast-moving, disguising the true depth of the information it conveys with Hanson’s 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 as a must-read by bird watchers and naturalists of all levels of interest or experience.
This review was originally created by The Well-read Naturalist for publication in Bird Watcher’s Digest.
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.