Feathers

The Evolution of a Natural Miracle

by Thor Hanson

Feathers

Paperback, 336 pages, Basic Books, List Price: $15.99 | purchase

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Book Summary

A biologist presents the natural history of feathers, applying the findings of paleontologists, ornithologists, biologists, engineers and art historians to answer questions about the origin of feathers, their evolution and their uses throughout the ages.

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Excerpt: Feathers

Vultures made me do it. That's my stock answer now, whenever people ask me about this book. It was vultures that first spurred my interest in feathers, years ago on a research project in Kenya. Watching the great birds hiss and squabble around a carcass, I thought of how perfectly their feathers (and lack thereof) were suited to the lifestyle. Bare heads and necks provided for cleaner feeding as well as heat regulation, stretched out long to keep cool during the day and tucked back into a plush, downy collar at night. Their dark body plumage resisted bacteria and absorbed the hot African sun, helping them stay warm in the chilly high altitudes where they soared, searching for the next kill.

The vultures started me thinking about feathers, and I've never stopped. I've seen flycatchers and nightjars burdened with breeding plumes three times their body length and watched penguins plunge beneath ice floes, comfortably watertight inside their satiny coats. I've huddled in a goose-down sleeping bag on subzero nights, while the tiny kinglets I studied kept perfectly warm nearby, fluffed up against the icy winter wind. I've traced feather shapes in the stone of dinosaur fossils and seen them in flying machines, fishing lures, Victorian hats, shuttlecocks, fletching, and ancient Peruvian artwork. As ornithologist Frank Gill observed in his classic textbook, Ornithology, "The details of feathers have fascinated biologists for centuries; it is an enormous topic." Perfect for a book, I'd often thought, but it would take another vulture to set me on the path.

Let me explain. As a field biologist, I'm never at a loss for things to study or topics to write about: everything in the natural world is fair game. If I'm not intrigued and excited every time I step outside, it just means I'm not paying attention. Some people find it excruciating to go for a hike with me and my constant distractions: bird nests, butterflies, lichens, ant hills, soil types, bug frass, rocks — you name it. At home, my wife, Eliza, puts up with dead voles and songbirds tucked into the freezer; plant specimens filling the fridge; boxes of unidentified bees, old bones, and owl heads; and a big tank full of interesting grubs. (Our baby, Noah, puts up with a lot, too, but he's never known anything different!) I'm a fundamentally curious person, and it's never hard finding subjects of interest; the challenge lies in narrowing them down.

In the world of scientific research, competition for funding quickly eliminates most possibilities. Science takes money, and you need a timely, sexy topic to pick up grants. It's not surprising that whales and tigers get more attention than liverworts, click beetles, or mold. Basic field biology can be a tough sell, and I usually frame my work in the context of larger themes: habitat fragmentation, species conservation, population genetics, or even the ecological impacts of warfare. When my schedule finally opened up to start a new book, however, I found the range of potential topics almost overwhelming. On the first morning, I sipped coffee and stared at an empty page before finally starting a vulture story I'd been meaning to jot down for years (you'll find it in Chapter 15). I hoped it would at least get the creative juices flowing, and it might come in handy if I ever wrote "the feather book."

I'm not the world's fastest scribe, but I had a few rough paragraphs by the time I broke for a midday run. We live on an island, five miles from town on a country lane that slopes gently downhill through dense woods and out between two farm fields. As I jogged along, thinking about vultures and feathers, my nose registered the growing rot-and-copper reek of a dead animal. I entered a stand of trees, and there, sure enough, lay the upended rib cage of a road-kill deer, splayed out beside the ditch. Overhead, a young Bald Eagle kept vigil on a fir branch, and above him, higher in the same tree, sat four Turkey Vultures. They hunched together in a dark row, their red heads lowered, silent and staring.

I slowed, and the vulture on the end suddenly started up, flapping awkwardly, each wing beat a whistling strain for lift in the cool autumn air. It tilted and angled through the branches, banking sharply to gain the unobstructed sky above the roadway. As it passed overhead, I saw something drop from its left wing and drift, spinning, then wafting, then spinning again, to the ground at my feet. It was a flight feather — long, dark, and beautifully curved, lying there on the pavement like an open parenthesis.

Now, I'm a scientist and a bit of a skeptic. I don't read horoscopes, visit clairvoyants, or spend a lot of time worrying about fate. I do, however, have several friends capable of staging elaborate practical jokes. My first reaction was to look for the hidden camera, or listen for the sound of muffled laughter coming from behind a hedgerow. But of course there was nothing, just my breathing, the quiet woods, and the retreating flight noise of the bird. It really did appear that after spending the morning writing about vultures and their feathers, I'd gone for a run and bumped into a bunch of vultures, and that one of them had practically dropped a feather on my head.

"You don't choose what to write — it chooses you." I first heard that maxim intoned with great significance during an undergraduate creative writing seminar. At the time, it made me glad I had a double major in ecology, where I could balance such notions with a dose of comfortably prosaic tables, graphs, and data sets. Now, the phrase seemed less cliché than command. Ancient Egyptians revered vultures as far-seeing symbols of empire, truth, and justice, never to be denied. Fortunately, these birds had given me a mandate I was glad to fulfill. Decision made: I would write the feather book.

With a nod to the trio still perched in their fir tree, I picked up the feather and carried it home. It's here with me now, the vulture's benediction, token of an exploration just beginning, and a fascination that will never end.

Excerpted from Feathers by Thor Hanson. Copyright 2011 by Thor Hanson. Excerpted by permission of Basic Books.

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