Monday, 12 December 2011

Review – "Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle" by Thor Hanson

Looking for a last minute Christmas gift for the birder in your life?   “Feathers” will not only fit the bill nicely but is also an excellent read for the casual naturalist or mildly “bird-curious”.  Conservation biologist Thor Hanson guides readers through the history of feathers in culture, recreational birding and ornithology.  This journey necessarily involves many detours and diversions but Hanson kept me engrossed in two ways.

Firstly, he begins and ends the book with personal anecdotes and then keeps all of the material framed within his own exploration of the topic.  Most memorably, discussing the numbers and types of feathers on a bird (2,000-4,000 on a typical songbird, 25,000 on a swan if you were wondering!) begins with Hanson’s attempt to pluck a roadkill Pacific Wren.  It’s messier than you might imagine for such a little bird and provides a natural segue into the finer details of feather types and evolution.

A Pacific Wren seen in Ucluelet BC this past summer.  Tougher and messier to pluck than you might imagine!  (By the way, what's coming out of that beak sounds much nicer than this picture looks!)
Secondly, I was impressed by the way that Hanson conveys the more technical details of feather evolution in engaging and entertaining context.  Much of the book outlines the story of how birds got their feathers, in other words it portrays the continuing uncertainty around the origin of dinosaur feathers.  Hanson interviews most of the key players and explains the concepts by telling the story of the researchers’ work.

Dinosaur feathers embedded in amber
Of course there’s an important Alberta connection here as University of Alberta researchers announced the discovery of the first fully preserved (three-dimensional) dinosaur feathers back in September.  Here's a good summary of this science news if you aren't familiar with it:

While this development occurred well after the publishing date of “Feathers”, it only makes the book more relevant and timely.  Feathers are an obvious but surprisingly complex aspect of birds and this book was a great read that taught me much about them.

I'm taking this great idea from several other bird book sites because 1) most birders have a copy of "Big Sibley" and 2) it's irritating opening up the mail to find an unexpectedly tiny book (or an unexpectedly huge one!)
"Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle" by Thor Hanson is published by Basic Books as a 352 page hardcover.  A paperback edition is coming in June.  The book is available on Amazon or Chapters for about $20.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read this one, yet, but the more reviews of it I read, the more I want to!

    And I'm glad someone finds those kind of comparison photos useful.