Sunday, December 1, 2013

Book Review: Feathers by Thor Hanson

All Images (C)Thor Hanson/Basic Books Unless Noted
A Cast of Archaeopteryx lithographica

All birders love feathers.  Well maybe not love, but they know how to appreciate the power of the feather.  Any time we go "ohh" and "ahh" about a bird, we are admiring the feathers.  Hanson's book is a great walkthough on the natural and social history of the feather.  Without getting boggled down on too much of the science, Hanson describes the origins and possible origins of feathers.  In fact, this is one of the real strengths of this book, it describes the debate over whether or not birds are dinosaurs.  Using experts to explain and explore the debate, Hanson journeys through the evidences and thoughts.  While, more and more seem to be leaning towards agreeing that birds are dinosaurs, Hanson does a good job of exploring the questions, counter-questions, and the evidence.  Fossils around the world continue to emerge revealing more and more evidence of dinosaurs with feathers.  I'd share more of Hanson's  explorations and tests, but then you might not read the book.

The last few chapters have to with human fascination with birds and feather.  Hanson focuses on the Victorian Naturalists' obsession with the New Guinean Birds of Paradise.  They valued the birds for the feathers and wanted them to complete their collections.  This brought the birds to the brink of extinction.  Of course, Humans desire for feathers has gone beyond scientific interest.  When Feathers in women's hats became the rage, birds wee the ones who paid the price.  The Great Egret, Hanson tells us, also almost went extinct.  While they've recovered, fashion has definitely taken a toll on birds (along with many other things).

Overall, the book is a great guide to appreciating the beauty and the evolution of feathers.  Hanson writes a great history of the feather.  This book can help illuminate a much appreciated feature of our avian (and dinosaur) friends.

Thor Hanson's Website

NPR Article on the Book

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