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Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle First Edition Edition

4.8 out of 5 stars 85 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0465020133
ISBN-10: 0465020135
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Editorial Reviews


Robert Michael Pyle, author of Wintergreen and Mariposa Road
Feathers is simply a splendid book! Even for one biased toward butterfly scales, their closest competitors in the animal raiment line, feathers in all their glory can only be seen as astonishing. With elegance and wit, Thor Hanson captures not only their awesome esthetics, but also the astonishing evolution, historical and cultural impact, and sheer wonder of avian plumage. Rendered in exquisite detail with delicate touch, like a feather-painting of old, this is the best kind of natural history—quilled by a real field biologist who is also a fine writer.”

Bernd Heinrich, Emeritus Professor of Biology, University of Vermont; author of Winter World and Mind of the Raven
“Feathers are truly remarkable. In this book Hanson shows how they are the key to many of the most fascinating and diverse aspects of bird biology, how they have affected our understanding of evolution, and how they have and are enriching our everyday lives. This is science written in clear and entertaining prose; a great read.”
Frank B. Gill, author of Ornithology
“Thor Hanson has captured the wonders of feathers in gripping prose that will likely change forever how you look at birds and their colorful adornments. This is rich and engaging ornithology at its best.”
Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain
“If you feel a sudden need to read about dinosaurs, flyfishing, muttonbirds, and showgirls, this is your book! Absolutely fascinating history, and a terrific read, Feathers is another Thor Hanson classic!”
Peter Matthiessen, National Book Award winning author of The Snow Leopardand Shadow Country
“A fascinating book about the most remarkable—and beautiful—of all avian evolutionary adaptations, with wonderful accounts of ornithological investigations and the solving of biological quandaries and questions, all of it unusually well-written. Highly recommended.”
Wall Street Journal
“[Hanson] has produced a winning book about the extraordinary place of feathers in animal and human history…. like all true birdwatchers, Mr. Hanson knows it isn’t just the bird at the far end of the binoculars but the human being at the near end that matters, and he is writing as much about the human urge to understand, appreciate and appropriate the wild world as he is writing about feathers, which he calls, in his subtitle, a ‘natural miracle.’…. Feathers is an earthbound book, but this does not keep the author—or the reader—from looking up in wonder.”
New York Times
“[A] fine book…. Mr. Hanson’s pleasure in feathers is infectious…. [Feathers] is gracious, funny, persuasive and wide ranging. Feathers, Mr. Hanson reminds us, teach a remarkable amount about evolution, insulation, engineering, archaeology and fashion. Better still, as this book shows, they allow not only birds but the human imagination to take flight.”
New Scientist
“[A] sparkling history…. Well-written science adds gravity to the more featherweight content of witty anecdotes – from interviews with feather-clad Las Vegas showgirls to plucking roadkill in the name of biology. The skilful way Hanson combines the two makes this book popular natural history at its best.”
Seattle Times
“[D]elightful…. [A] fascinating inquiry into one of those common things that are easy to overlook until someone shows what a miracle it is…. Birds, the only animals with feathers today, wear these magic coats of stunning variety whose forms so perfectly fit their functions. Hanson’s book reveals much about that marvelous magic.”
Library Journal (starred review)
“[E]njoyable, wide-ranging, and well-researched…. Highly recommended for birders and science buffs.”
“[E]ngaging…. For all the intriguing science, what really livens up Hanson’s passionate discussion of his ‘natural miracle’ are the stories he tells.”

“Thor Hanson’s storytelling is enhanced by his infectious excitement…. Hanson’s tale is comprehensive, accurate, timely and engaging…. Feathers is a compelling introduction to one of nature’s wonders.”

“Hanson writes in a colorful, conversational, and non-technical manner that conveys his enthusiasm for the subject…. The book offers a readable introduction to feathers and what they mean for birds and mankind.”

Bird Watcher’s Digest
“To read Feathers is to meet up with an enthusiastic old friend who simply cannot wait to tell you about something he just discovered. Deceptively conversational and fast moving, disguising the true depth of information it conveys with buoyant, good-humored prose, Feathers is a book not only intellectually accessible to anyone with an interest in the subject but also one that should be considered a must-read by bird watchers and naturalists of all levels of interest or experience.”

“[C]aptivating…. Beginning with the evolution of birds, Hanson, a biologist, explains competing theories with ease, and unfolds the human fascination with feathers in terms of science, commerce, tools, folklore, art, and aerodynamics with panache. Anecdotes infuse the fascinating survey.”

Montana Outdoors
“[A] delight. As the name makes clear, it’s all about feathers—their evolution, use by birds, and extremely high value to humans, from quill pens and trout flies to women’s hats and Aztec emperor headdresses.”


“From basic research about bird biology and the evolutionary origins of feather to falconry, couture, and bioinspiration in industrial design, the book treats us to a series of engaging essays about feathers, both on and off the bird…. Hanson weaves his prior encounters with birds and his experiences as a scientist into the text, offering lively anecdotes about his student days and subsequent life as a professional grant-seeking field biologist. He is particularly adept at portraying how science really works…. Hanson’s prose is polished, lively, and evocative. The outcome is a book that is easy and entertaining to read, yet one that is able to satisfy our intellectual curiosity.… In Feathers, Hanson is remarkably successful at offering something for everyone. Readers from young adults to professional ornithologists and from those interested in nature to those more interested in human culture will enjoy this book…. Ultimately, Feathers is a book to read for pleasure, but along the way, we gain knowledge and insight into nature and our relationship with it.”

“Part natural history, part portrait of human obsession that takes the author from a fly tier’s bench where beautiful salmon flies are created, to Vegas dancehalls, to the secretive world of feather dyers and costume makers, Hanson’s book shines with the evident love of an enthusiast…. Hanson sets out to make feathers as enthralling for the reader as they are for him—and succeeds…. Hanson’s excitement rubs off on the reader, and anyone who has watched a bird and marveled will find Feathers an informative delight.”


About the Author

Thor Hanson is a conservation biologist, Switzer Environmental Fellow, and member of the Human Ecosystems Study Group. His first book, The Impenetrable Forest: My Gorilla Years in Uganda, won the 2008 USA Book News Award for nature writing. Hanson lives with his wife on an island in Washington State.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Edition edition (May 31, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465020135
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465020133
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (85 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #809,839 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Craig Matteson HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on June 28, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I always enjoy books that teach me things I not only didn't know the answer to but also teach me to ask questions I didn't even know enough to ask. When I was a freshman in college in 1972 I had a science class where we discussed evolution and natural selection. It was in that class that I learned about the idea of retained traits and how a chain of natural selection can be seen by watching where traits appear first and what happens to them as natural selection works on them over tens of millions of years. I remember the question of feathers and how unsatisfying the notions then put forward were. And how did flight come about? From what?

Thor Hanson has given us a delightful and informative tour of feathers that zig zags through time, function, and use (by theropod dinosaurs, birds, and the uses other animals make of feathers). I enjoyed Hanson's stories from his field experience and what he set out to do versus what he actually learned from his work. The author also takes us around the world to meet scientists who have made important discoveries (all the feathered dinosaur fossils in China, for example) and those who have put forward theories about feather development - even opposing theories. For example, the dominant view is the present day birds descended from feathered theropods similar to those we see in the fossil record versus the BAND group (Birds Are Not Dinosaurs) who contend that there is an older ancestor that gave rise to the feathered theropods and later to the birds.

I really loved the way Hanson shows us how different birds are adapted to a certain use of feathers and configurations of feathers. How birds are insulated, waterproofed, adapted for high speed, adapted for silence when flying down on prey, and so forth.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderful book written by a true naturalist. Hanson includes plenty of hard science and theory, but explains it with simplicity and joy. I particularly enjoyed his anecdotes -- they added to a deeper understanding of the science, but also set a wonderful example of true curiosity and love of nature and conservation that should be awakened in us all. The only disappointment I suffered with this book was reading a great end-of-chapter paragraph, and continuing on to the next page to realize the appendices had begun and I had finished the book! I also wish the publisher had plumped for some full color illustrations -- while Hanson does an admirible job describing the color and iridescence of birds of paradise and Vegas showgirls, a few shiny pictures would have been great.
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Format: Hardcover
Let me start off by saying that I enjoyed reading this book. It was a fun and Hanson knows how to make the pages turn with his simple and elegant prose. However, I found the subtitle, "The Evolution of a Natural Miracle," to be a little misleading. There were a few interesting chapters dealing with feather evolution and their natural history, but the book seemed to focus more strongly on feathers' anthropological significance. That's not a bad thing, and it was quite interesting, but I thought the book would be more natural history and less about the myriad ways humans use and have used feathers in the past. Other authors, like Bernd Heinrich, tend to give more science and only tangent into things like anthropology as a short entertaining aside. I would have preferred that with Feathers.

I would lick my chops when Hanson assured that this-or-that scientific subject would be covered "in detail" in further chapters. But when the arriving at said chapters, Hansen only seemed to scratch the smooth outer surface of some real science over a few short pages; hardly "in detail".
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Format: Hardcover
"Feathers are a multipurpose marvel. Birds, ..., use feathers for flight, insulation and courtship displays. Feathers can conceal or attract. They can be vibrantly colored without using pigment. They can store water or repel it. They can snap, whistle, hum, vibrate, boom and whine." -- Thor Hanson

Thor Hanson, a conservation biologist, presents an elaborate natural and cultural history of feathers, bringing them to our attension, not just as a vital facilitator, but as an inspiring marvel taken for granted throughout history. Oscar Wilde saying, "The true mystery of the world, is the visible, not the invisible," is fitting here. Such miracle we watch too often, almost every day, but it's mystery we don't conceive any way. Hanson masterfully explores the many functions of feathers through colorful tales of people who, like him, are fascinated by them and Smithsonian experts who can identify the species of birds by examining tiny parts of feathers they left behind.

Hanson identifies feathers, in the likeness of human hands, among those natural features that dazzle us because we can't create anything quite similar. As a kid I was enchanted with ducks staying water-proof after splashing around in a pond all day long. I humbly learned the book that birds feathers are almost perfect airfoils, presumably the lightest, most efficient insulation ever discovered. In addition we are reminded, the book teaches us a great deal about evolution, archeology, biology, paleontology, engineering science, and feathers fashion. The great science popularizer explains feathers' amazing ability to keep birds warm and cool.
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