Tag Archives: Birds

Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson

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.

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Filed under Birds, Natural History, Thoughts

Crow Country by Mark Cocker

Crow Country by Mark Cocker

Vintage Books, London, 2008

From my TBR pile.

Mark Cocker is not a biologist or any kind of scientist but he was introduced to the mysteries that are rooks at young age and has been fascinated by Corvids ever since.

One evening, near his home in Norfolk, England, he watched a massive, ear-shattering gathering of rooks and jackdaws on the way to their roost.  From that point on they became an obsession and he traveled the length of England in search of them, trying to find answers to why they gathered and where they choose to roost.  Interspersing his travels with poetry, historic journal entries and scientific research, he wanders his home territory, fascinated by these birds.

Cocker’s writing is poetic prose, layered with feeling and deep thought. It is the kind of “nature” writing that stops me, makes me really think about my own assumptions, about what I “know”.

You may ask, how could the rook have subverted my whole approach to birds?  The answer starts, like birding itself, with the business of identification.  You can’t proceed with an interest in ornithology unless you are able to identify the creatures you observe.  Identification itself hinges upon breaking down a bird into its constituent parts – the primaries, wings, tail, head, legs, etc.  Having deconstructed it into this detailed feathered map, one can then attach a specific name to the suite of observed features.  In a sense the issue of the rook’s flocking instinct was previously important to me only as a characteristic allowing me to recognize the bird.

I have come to recognize that even this exercise carries within it a subtle kind of complacency, a curious intellectual sleight of hand, because every time you pin a label on a living creature it reaffirms a sense of mastery over it.  The naming of the thing gives you the wonderfully reassuring illusion that you know it.  You don’t.  Sometimes all you have is a single datum.  The name.  In a bizarre way, the process of recognition can actually be a barrier rather than a doorway to genuine appreciation.  From page 39.

This is  nature writing at its best, filled with facts and history, featuring beings that have lived with and haunted humans for centuries.  It is also a reminder that the earth is not just ours.  It is a place  shared with a multitude of other creatures.  If we wish to lead full and joyful lives, we must value our connections to them

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Filed under Birds, Corvids, Natural History, Review, Science, TBR Double Dare