Review of Thor Hanson's Feathers

feathers-140Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle
by Thor Hanson (Uganda 1993–95)
Basic Books
336 pages

Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993–96)

THOR HANSON, A CONSERVATION BIOLOGIST, has written a scientific treatise on a subject that most of us never notice — feathers.  But you don’t have to be an ornithologist to consider reading this book, you just have to be curious. Bird watching is not always “for the birds.” Hanson writes that it is “. . . a dangerous trap, because the true wonder of birding lies in the watching, soaking up the fine details of plumage, behavior and habit. Even common birds do uncommon things, and every sighting is worth more than a glance and a tick on a checklist.” You might see something like “Snowy Sheathbills striding about, bent forward like tiny professors lost in thought.”

The scope of this book would be daunting to anyone less dedicated to field biology and avian plumage. Of course Hanson is a member of the Audubon Society, who lives on an island in Washington State.  He “. . . likes to get his hands on things” not just read about them. He conducts odd experiments with chicken feathers and backyard birds, sometimes to the consternation of his family. He slept outdoors in the Arctic in a down sleeping bag to learned how birds stay warm in sub-zero temperatures. He also explored how birds stay cool in the world’s deserts and tropical jungles, and why water birds don’t get wet. And he tells us how birds serve as barometers of global warming. He questions why vultures have bald heads, and why certain feathers sound like a violin. He rhapsodizes about bird flight patterns, amazed that a falcon can withstand a gravitational force of over 27Gs while pilots risk losing consciousness at anything over nine.

Hanson faced his task knowing that “Any thorough exploration must span the sacred and the secular, the practical and the fantastic, from science to myth, culture and art.” He organizes his odyssey into chapters on Evolution, Fluffy, Flight, Fancy, and Function. Fantastic illustrations delight the eye, from prehistoric birds of prey to Las Vegas show girls, who wear headdresses that might use 2,000 feathers and weigh more than 20 pounds.

Would you guess that the feathers of 400 billion birds on the planet not only enable them to fly, but to store or repel water, conceal or insulate their bodies, attract the opposite sex, and inspire art and poetry since the dawn of man, as witnessed by cave drawings in France. (When Pablo Picasso saw the owl on the walls of La Chauvet he exclaimed, “We have not learned anything in 12,000 years!”)

Mayans and Incans revered birds and adorned themselves in the ornate feathers of Birds of Paradise and parrots. Montezuma kept an aviary with thousands of live birds cared for by three hundred servants. Hanson explains reasons for the rainbow of feather colors, what birds eat and rub against to achieve those colors, and their reasons and seasons of  molting.

In 1971 when man first landed on the moon, an astronaut dropped a feather there to measure the planet’s gravity.  It’s still there. The most valuable cargo on the Titanic was feathers, 40 cases of plumes worth more than $2.3 million in today’s currency.

Regarding human use of feathers, Hanson shares astonishing observations, such as the manufacture of down and feather products like jackets and pillows, blankets and mattresses at the Pacific Coast Feather Company in Seattle, the largest factory in the country, and explains why they are such good insulators for birds and humans. He lists an encyclopedia of fly-fishing lures.  “. . . fly-fishing embodies the metaphysics of feathers and water. . .).  He documents the history of quill pens from the original Italian penona, meaning feather.

Hanson devotes many pages to avian evolutionary beginning with the rare archaeopteryx fossil, which initiated perennial arguments among scientists about how birds first took flight, from the ground up or from the tree down.  He documents the history of  biomimicry of birds in the development of aircraft that goes on even today with every new idea in aerodynamics based on further investigation of feathers. In the wake of “bird strikes” which brought down airplanes in recent years, the U.S. Government created a Feather Identification Laboratory which Hanson visited, where 650,000 stuffed birds are examined and classified.

The “plume boom” around the turn of the 20th century responded to the fashion of extravagantly feathered hats. Multi-million dollar businesses sent entrepreneurs scurrying from South Africa, Europe and the United States to the Sahel for the elusive Barbary ostrich, and nearly decimated Florida’s snowy egrets.  (An ounce of plumes from six egrets fetched the modern equivalent of $2,000. Their fledglings, of course, died.) The National Audubon Society pushed for legislation against plume hunters and promoted a sense of shame in women who dared to wear upon their heads “. . . the blood of uncounted millions of slaughtered birds.” After the First World War women suddenly renounced feathers in favor of simpler, more austere fashions.  Fortunes were lost; birds were once again safe.

I read this book with fascination, finding new information and stories on each page. I was proud to identify a “flight feather” found on the ground to a real ornithologist, and to understand its composition. Towards the end of the book, Hanson writes “Warning: If you read this book, you may become a feather fanatic!” I did and now I am.

Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO,  for Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University.  She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years.  She retired in Florida in 2002.  Leita wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and is working on a memoir of Haiti.

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