Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson
Basic Books, New York, 2011
Borrowed from my local library.
Feathers is my favorite kind of science book. An author becomes obsessed with something, travels all over to gather information, talks with many experts and eventually writes a book sharing that obsession.
Vultures made me do it. That’s my stock answer now, whenever people ask me about this book. It was vultures that first spurred my interest in feathers, years ago on a research project in Kenya. Watching the great birds hiss and squabble around a carcass, I though how perfectly their feathers (and lack thereof) were suited to the lifestyle. Bare heads and necks provided for cleaner feeding as well as heat regulation, stretched out long during the day and tucked bake into a plush downy collar at night. Their dark body plumage resisted bacteria and absorbed the hot African sun, helping them stay warm in the chilly high altitudes where they soared, searching for the next kill.
The vultures started me thinking about feathers, and I’ve never stopped. From the preface.
Hanson takes the reader through the multiple theories of the evolution of feathers . The fossils of feathered dinosaurs found in China have expanded the theory that birds evolved from ancient reptiles but there are those who believe birds evolved on their own, the Birds Are Not Dinosaurs crew. Then there are the different ideas behind the development of bird flight, was it ground up or tree down?
Feathers grow from follicles, like hair, but their structure is intricate and varied. There are an astounding number of feathers that cover each bird, different types of feathers serve different purposes and birds control individual feathers to raise and lower their body temperature. Some birds have very intricate feather movement to adjust and control their flight.
There is even a chapter on feathers as fashion and an economic commodity, just fascinating. Hanson writes in an easy, casual style that includes scientific theories and natural history. This is a fun and informative read, great for a natural history buff.