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Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle

4.04  ·  Rating Details ·  969 Ratings  ·  119 Reviews
Feathers are an evolutionary marvel: aerodynamic, insulating, beguiling. They date back more than 100 million years. Yet their story has never been fully told. In Feathers, biologist Thor Hanson details a sweeping natural history, as feathers have been used to fly, protect, attract, and adorn through time and place. Applying the research of paleontologists, ornithologists, ...more
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published May 31st 2011 by Basic Books (first published January 1st 2011)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,833)
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aPriL does feral sometimes
May 29, 2016 aPriL does feral sometimes rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, science
Great read. A lot of little fluff which adds up, chapter by chapter, into a surprisingly attractive, colorful tail of history, biology and science. I think nesting for a few days with this book hatches more curiosity than any desire for throwing rotten eggs. I am now cuckoo for watching the skies because I had a hoot reading this book. My head is still spinning 180 degrees, all a-flutter at the interesting flybys past feather-light informative facts, which for all of the light touch was by no me ...more
Marvin Goodman
Apr 07, 2012 Marvin Goodman rated it really liked it
I love a book that takes a subject I know nothing about, one in which I don't consciously harbor any interest in, yet draws me in completely. I know nothing about paleontology or birds, and very little about non-mechanized flight, but my Dad gave a glowing recommendation for this book. I picked it up and was immediately drawn to Hanson's enthusiasm for his subject, and his ability to explain the concepts to a complete neophyte like myself, without giving the impression that he was speaking down ...more
This book was a pleasant surprise and enjoyable to read. It's the first non-fiction book I've read that centers on animals rather than humans and I have to admit that it was a nice change! Hanson is detailed and specific enough to make things interesting, but also is ambitious in scope (lots of ground covered). Who knew that feathers could be so fascinating!

Great mix of natural history, social history, economics and personal narrative. Definitely recommend!!

BTW the author lives in the San Juans
Soh Kam Yung
Oct 09, 2012 Soh Kam Yung rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, nature, reference
An impressive book about a 'feather-weight' subject. Through personal research and interviews with various people, Thor Hanson has shown that feathers are really a biological and physical wonder. You probably won't look at a feather and say, "Oh, just a feather," after going through this book.

Hanson starts by describing the appearance of the feather in prehistory, via fossils like Archaeopteryx lithographica and then the discovery of dinosaurs with feathers in the Yixian Formation in China. Then
Mar 26, 2015 Matt rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Compulsively readable. Unlike other natural histories I've read, Hanson keeps his chapters short and focused and they are more fascinating for it. A marvel of insulation, water resistance, lightweight aerodynamics and color, feathers are truly an incredible example of evolutionary engineering, and this book will alter your perception of and appreciation for them.
May 11, 2014 Ron rated it it was amazing
A most excellent book. Hanson covers the best research on the evolution of feathers (yes, some dinosaurs definitely were feathered, as recent fossil finds in China clearly show) the functions (many and various) and uses (also many and various). He discusses theories on the origin of flight (tree down or ground up? Or a likely combination of the two?) and provides lots of cool facts about various birds and what feathers do for them. His discussion of courtship display of birds of paradise made me ...more
Jul 26, 2011 Rebecca marked it as to-read
Cover design win! When viewed from the front or the spine, the letters of the title are just graphic shapes, not a readable word. According to the back flap, the illustration is from Shutterstock, and in fact, there you can find a whole set of black-on-white feather silhouettes that are all lovely, but this one does have the most motion.

Cover aside, this seems like an interesting history. I would be interested to read more about what feathers have to say about the bird/dinosaur connection. NY T
Atila Iamarino
Oct 08, 2014 Atila Iamarino rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Tema inusitado e bem tratado. Tem aquela pegada pessoal do autor descrevendo situações e conversando com pesquisadores, bons comentários e insights legais. Adorei a parte do tráfico de avestruzes para África do Sul. Não tinha me atentado para o quão isolantes penas podem ser, a ponto de aves migratórias e pinguins aguentarem condições de sensação térmica de -80ºC, sem precisar do tanto de gordura que nós precisamos.
Mary T
Feb 16, 2015 Mary T rated it really liked it
I had a difficult time "getting into" this book. However once I did, I found it to be informative and interesting. I have shared interesting facts about feathers with friends.

I read this book as the result of being a member of an Audubon Book Club. While I don't think it would appeal to all, I believe that not only those interested in birds would find this interesting, but also those interested in learning the many uses of feathers, in the past and currently would find the book interesting.
Alex Daniel
Aug 14, 2015 Alex Daniel rated it liked it
Thor Hanson's FEATHERS comes close to being a great popular science book, but alas, it succumbs to that conceit that all popular science books do these days: the author is the protagonist for some reason. If you take discount the appendices, bibliography, index, and reference notes, FEATHERS is about 270 pages. In those pages, several pages just mark that a new chapter is starting. Other pages are dedicated to illustrations, some of which are relevant to the content, others, not (a cartoon of a ...more
Apr 28, 2015 Perri rated it really liked it
A book club selection, not as boring as I thought it would be ;) It's like when you're listening to someone who is so passionate, you get caught up in the enthusiasm? Hansen actually does a great job of explaining biological/ scientific terms, so a layman can understand-even throws some humor in there. That he got me through this book, I learned something and actually enjoyed it, I'll have to give him four stars. Plus, he's a heck of a nice guy.
Mar 06, 2015 Mari rated it really liked it
Great coverage of the topic, very engaging! There were a few sections that I wanted to go even more in depth on, but I guess that's sort of the point of the book -- to give you the first few steps, and not an entire degree in ornithology or something. Being able to get some insight as to how the structure of a feather functions in a variety of conditions was very enlightening, and easy to understand by way of the text.
Aug 02, 2015 Eric rated it it was amazing
I had to read this book for my AP Environment Science Class. I thought it would be dull and boring, however Thor spun a great book into existence by weaving many stories and facts together. I thought it was really well put together and I recommend it to the reader who is interested in birds, dinosaurs, flight and how all three connect.
Jun 05, 2015 Ken rated it really liked it
The title says it best. Feathers are extraordinary things that allow birds to be extraordinary animals. I really enjoyed when the author talked about how research is being done on fossils to figure out how feathers developed.
Dec 18, 2011 B. rated it liked it
A pretty enjoyable read.

I expected more of a book on birds, but this book focused a lot on the evolutionary history of feathers, then later on human use/utilization of them. Generally well-written.
Steve Kachman
Nov 22, 2014 Steve Kachman rated it it was amazing
This was a great book. I enjoyed the structure of the author bringing you along on an exploration of feathers and the way he captured the joy of being a biologist.
Nov 12, 2014 Megan rated it it was amazing
This is a really good pop science book, even if you're not a bird watcher. I really liked Hanson's ability not only to explain scientific concepts, but to tell stories.
sarah  corbett morgan
Fabulous read. Top notch creative nonfiction., interesting--I never knew how feathers were sorted before. Thoroughly enjoyed it.
Jul 17, 2015 Stefan rated it it was amazing
This is a brilliant book on a most captivating subject. I would strongly recommend reading it.
Feb 18, 2016 Sydney rated it it was amazing
Shelves: environment
Listened to this book driving from Massachusetts to Ohio and back. Mr. Hanson made a wonderful traveling companion. This is history, natural history, sociological study and so much more of feathers, from dinosaurs to Las Vegas show girls and fly fishing. Every section had a narrative arc and was enlivened by Mr. Hanson's personal experiences in pursuit of the facts (and fancies) about feathers. I will probably buy the paperback and re-read, but it was a wonderful book to listen to. (Thanks, Audi ...more
Clark Hays
Nov 16, 2013 Clark Hays rated it really liked it
Feathers: From Dinosaurs to Poop-footed Vultures to Showgirls

Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of the anecdote in nonfiction, especially when it involves the author telling non-essential stories about how they came to be interested in a topic. By virtue of devoting the time and energy to write the book, the author is clearly committed, knowing why they are committed doesn’t add much. And just by virtue of reading the book, I’m clearly interested in the topic, so I’d much rather see the space devoted to
Jul 10, 2011 Allyson rated it liked it
I would have rated this more highly but while his story and subject matter is amazing, his prose suffered in comparison to Karen Russell and her Swamplandia; my previous read. Her book contained vivid imagery of feathers around the bird man and vulture descriptions that were 2 stars above this author's abilities. Had I not just read her book, perhaps I would have been more receptive or impressed with this read.
I love this cover and while he has comparative moments of beauty inside, overall I wan
Alison Dellit
Dec 25, 2012 Alison Dellit rated it it was amazing
Of all the books I took away with me on holiday, this was the one I looked forward too most. And while the focus was not as tightly drawn on evolution as I hoped, it did not disappoint. Rather than hiding his passion for the subject matter, Hanson wraps it in sharply written self-deprecating humour which makes the book, like its topic, light and complex, with surprising substance.
Hanson covers the current consensus around feather evolution by explaining how it was arrived at, making it easy to
Sep 12, 2011 Kili rated it liked it
I'm half way through this book and I'm not sure I'll make it all the way through. Single-topic-in-depth books can be fun: The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, for example, and they can be tedious. I'm finding this book on the tedious side. I don't think Hanson is a great writer, eg when describing watching feathers in a commercial separation machine, he said it was "like staring into the spin and drift of dozens of newly-formed galaxies". I like the emotion, but i have no idea what ...more
Nov 09, 2013 Jessica rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: more-like-this
Feathers begins with several excellent chapters on the natural history of birds and feathers, discussing Archeopteryx and other more recent fossil evidence from China (up through 2011) showing the evolutionary connections between teropods and modern birds. Hanson then deftly explains the various debates surrounding the actual evolution of feathers, showing how the five stages of development necessary to create modern feathers can be found in the fossil record. He also talks at length about the u ...more
Last Ranger
Dec 28, 2012 Last Ranger rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle
Thor Hanson

A Bird in the Hand---

Among paleontologist the evolution of the bird has always been a controversial subject and that of the feathers no less so. Thor Hanson has brought it all together in this fine book. He addresses many important questions. Where did birds come from? Was it from the trees down or the ground up? Are feathers for display, insulation or just flight? Written for the non-specialist the book is, at times , kind of technical but
Jun 04, 2013 Scott rated it it was amazing
Shelves: sci-tech
This is an excellent popular natural history of feathers. As a starting point, that probably sounds like an oddly specific kind of book, one that would appeal to a very limited audience of bird enthusiasts of a literary bent. However, Thor Hanson's book has a wide general appeal, precisely because birds and feathers are almost universally fascinating to humans. I am a bird watcher, and of course was interested by flight and the evolution of the feather, a subject covered in detail with reference ...more
Oct 02, 2012 Laurel rated it it was amazing
Wow! Fun, fascinating, and full of truly awe-inspiring details, fascinating historical information, biological and evolutionary insights! Want to know which (human)gender is responsible for the near-demise of exotic birds because they insisted on wearing feathers on their hats? (Hint: it's the same gender who started virtually every Audubon chapter in the country.) Want to know the six ways that birds use to keep cool? Or how a bird weighing less than an ounce keeps warm in the winter? How feath ...more
May 04, 2014 Laura rated it liked it
Shelves: animals, nonfiction
I was really looking forward to this one, so perhaps I set my expectations too high. The author explores many aspects of feathers, particularly with a cultural focus, but I found his approach of inserting his own cluelessness as the launch point to each story as a waste of time. I didn't feel that I learned much new, as everything kept to the surface. It's an interesting read, but don't expect any inspiring scientific, historical, or societal insights.
Marie O'Mahony
May 22, 2013 Marie O'Mahony rated it it was amazing
I bought this book because of my interest in biomimetics or biomimicry as it is also called, that is good design extracted from nature. Biomimicry is one of the big buzz words in design and fashion at the moment with a lot being written on the subject - some good, some bad and some indifferent. Feathers comes under the 'good' category I'm pleased to say. Well written and engaging, it provides enough detail to be a useful resource with descriptions that are understandable to non-ornithologists. T ...more
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Thor Hanson is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Switzer Environmental Fellow, and winner of the John Burroughs Medal. His books include The Impenetrable Forest, Feathers, and The Triumph of Seeds. Hanson lives with his wife and son on an island in the Pacific Northwest. Learn more at his website:

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