Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle
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Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle

4.08 of 5 stars 4.08  ·  rating details  ·  476 ratings  ·  88 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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Marvin Goodman
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
aPriL purrs 'n hisses
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
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...more
Jul 26, 2011 Becky 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...more
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
This is the kind of book that injects magic and wonder into the world by illuminating the scientific and aesthetic marvels -- and mysteries -- of feathers. Are they what dinosaur scales became? Did they evolve for flight? For insulation? For elaborate mating rituals? Why and how does at least one species of bird (the manakin) play its feathers like a highly specialized violin? Why do birds molt and replace their feathers so often? What goes into the creation and upkeep of the extravagant feather...more
Thor Hanson takes us on a joyous ride through the world of feathers, from details on evolution, function and structure to their uses in human society. A fascinating, must-read book which goes down as an essential piece of popular science writing.
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.
Kam-Yung Soh
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...more
Clark Hays
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...more
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...more
Alison Dellit
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...more
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
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
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...more
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
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
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.
Bess Camarata
I loved the subtle humor in this book. Deer DNA found in a plane engine shortly after Christmas, the death truck, the story told to explain why vultures don't have feathers on their heads: all great. The musical pursuits of Manikins surprised me.
If I had one complaint, it's on page 9:
"Texts like the New Testament's Psalm 91 even attribute feathers directly to the almighty: 'He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his winds shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.'"
Marie O'Mahony
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
This was a Librarian recommended title which was absolutely fascinating. The San Juan Islands biologist writes in casual, conversational style. I was so amazed to learn everything about how feathers are created. The birds are truly wondrous. Hanson begins with paleontology, trips through the history of feather uses, everything that's been associated with feathers. I highly recommend it.
My dear mentor and professor recommended this book to me and at first glance I said, "I already know about birds!" Boy, was I mistaken.

This book was astounding! Although I do have a background in biology, evolution, and ornithology, I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about the mystical flying creatures we call birds. No ornithological background needed!

Hanson has a gift of making educational information read like an exciting novel and I continued to learn more about birds...more
Deon Stonehouse
Thor Hanson is a marvelous writer, he makes his passion for the natural world quite compelling. I found myself totally involved in the story of a fossilized wing being used in a debate on evolution. And he doesn’t stop with the original owners of the feathers using them; he takes the book on to show how man has benefited from fly fishing to downy pillows. Just think of the abuse a feather must endure, sub zero temperatures and ferocious winds for the Penguin in Antarctica. Or the way a Pelican’s...more
Jonas Gehrlein
Feathers is a comprehensive about the use of feathers both for birds and humans.
Hanson loves going of a tangent to something else which little importance for the subject but the book is easy to read and if you want to know more about feathers read you should read this book
Jamie Johns
This was such an amazing read considering all the science and biology that is put into this book. The cover drew me in, but the narrative kept me turning the page. Hands down my current favorite book I have read recently.
My favorite part was the teacher who was going through a boring recitation of how feathers grow when he realized in front of his class that the received wisdom could not possibly be correct. He woke up and thought it through from first principles while teaching an undergraduate class. The insights that came out of that led to predictions on how feathers evolved. Over the next 30 years, fossil after fossil was uncovered confirming his insights. The description of that electrifying moment of intel...more
It is a great joy to come across an information-packed book that appears to be written with joy and enthusiasm. When I first started reading this volume, I recognized it as one that I would want to savor over some time so I returned my book to the library and purchased my own copy. Hanson discusses the evolution of feathers, or what can be discerned about the evolution dating back to dinosaurs, and evolving with numerous possible benefits to animals – not initially including flight. Hanson also...more
Suzanne Lavine
Well worth reading

not being a person who is a bird fanatic, I wasn't sure if I would like this book but I was hooked within the first few paragraphs! entertaining, educational, and lots of very interesting facts and experiences shared.
Linda Benedict
What a fascinating book! Covers feather evolution, how they insulate, how they are used in flight, courtship, and waterproofing. Also looks at how they have been and are used by humans.

I was most intrigued with the theories on evolution. Dinosaurs didn't disappear, they evolved into birds. Dinosaurs had feathers before flight evolved, probably for warmth and decoration.

When there is more than one hypothesis all are discussed, though it is clear which the author believes to be true. Lots of inte...more
The mark of a really good writer is that they can take a basic topic — say, feathers — and turn it into a fascinating book. That's what Thor Hanson has done.

The 100 million year old story of a natural marvel, and if you think that only birds have feathers, then you're wrong, so do Las Vegas showgirls, quill pen and hat makers, and, a long time ago, even some dinosaurs.

The book starts with the discovery of fossil feathers in Northeast China in Liaoning province that was a watershed moment in the...more
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On The Nature of ...: Feathers 1 1 Feb 09, 2013 07:07PM  
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Dr. Thor Hanson is a conservation biologist, author and award-winning poet. He has traveled the globe studying everything from primates and vultures to the pollination of rainforest trees. Hansons writing has appeared in a wide range of newspapers, magazines and scientific journals. He lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest.
More about Thor Hanson...
The Impenetrable Forest: My Gorilla Years in Uganda The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History Warfare Ecology: A New Synthesis for Peace and Security

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