When a vulture feather accidentally dropped at his feet as he watched the birds fly overhead, field biologist and conservationist Hanson (The Impenetrable Forest, 2000) felt called upon to choose feathers as the subject of his next book.
In this wide-ranging study of our feathered friends, the author also looks at the many uses of feathers throughout history, from featherbeds and down quilts to arrows and pens, and as a fashion statement “in fans, dusters, boas, floral arrangements, and in the fringes of cloaks and shawls,” as well as women's hats. In fact, feathers were the highest-value cargo carried on the ill-fated Titanic. As far back as 30,000 years ago, our ancestors recorded their fascination with birds in cave drawings. The discovery of Archaeopteryx, a crow-sized fossil with feathers and the skeleton of a reptile, just two years after the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, was the beginning of a century-long controversy over the evolution of birds, with a consensus reach only recently. It is now generally accepted that birds have evolved from meat-eating dinosaurs. Hanson recounts the many disputes over the evolutionary development of feathers and conundrum of how landed creatures gained the ability to fly, and he explains how even half-formed feathers would have conferred an evolutionary advantage to winged dinosaurs (insulation, protection from insects and thorns, greater maneuverability and sexual display)—all of which play the same function for modern birds and have been adapted for human use.
A delightful ramble through the byways of evolution and the wonderful world of birds.