Perhaps you have not slowed down lately to consider the very real influence of feathers in your life. If you have not, you may want to pick up a copy of the book Feathers by Thor Hanson, the slightly obsessive conservation biologist who embarked on a mission to research and discover the many ways that feathers have influenced and affected human culture.
There are few subjects that so effectively illustrate the reality of evolutionary history. The book explores reasons why feathers evolved, and how. It is now very clear through study of high quality fossils excavated China that feathers emerged as an evolutionary feature several hundred million years ago. Their initial function is not yet well-determined, nor may it ever be. Yet there is very real evidence that fully feathered dinosaurs were a reality. It is even possible through comparative study of the molecular structure of fossilized dinosaur feathers to determine what color and even what patterns existed in early feathered creatures.
You heard that right: For all the theorizing about the appearance of dinosaurs ranging from early crude drawings based on fossils of specimens like archeopteryx to high-tech digital renderings of dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg movies, humans have long speculated on what dinosaurs really looked like. And as the paleontological community has uncovered new troves of transitional forms in dinosaurs and birds, many of them clearly feather-bearing, those depictions have become increasingly colorful. But now scientists have established clear genetic and structural links identifying feather colors in modern birds. This information enables scientists to determine specific colors in ancient bird and dinosaur feathers.
Author Thor Hanson also takes us on other evolutionary journeys, documenting the work of early evolutionary theorists like Alfred Russell Wallace, whose studies of New Guinea Birds of Paradise illuminated the relationship between dynamics of sexual selection and bird appearance. Of course Wallace's more famous contemporary Charles Darwin gets most of the credit for developing the theory of evolution, but in many regards Wallace was ahead of Darwin in determining the roots and patterns of selective traits in animal evolution.
Thor Hanson pairs these formative observations with modern studies of feather function in birds like manakins, a warbler-like genus of birds that evolved feathers to generate noise, much like many insects do. Some manakins literally play their own feathers like violins, using specially evolved feathers to create amazing sounds. These techniques differentiate manakin mating displays and help determine sexual selection. Manakins also have evolved brightly colored, strangely shaped feathers. And to show they off, they perform crazy dances, including the famous manakin moonwalk.
For reasons like these, the adaptations and function of feathers in birds have also inspired humans to vast arrays of animal mimicry. In some cases this has meant human imitation of birds as evidenced in the dances and adornments of Pacific and Central American tribes, whose rituals involve carefully prescribed dance routines resembling birds. They also adorn their bodies with thousands of feathers, a practice that in some cases has led to near extirpation of some bird species. But the fascinating truth is that Aztec and other Central American tribes held thousands of birds in sophisticated aviaries. Workers gathered insects, fruit and other food to nurture birds for harvesting of feathers. Of course thousands of other birds were killed and mined for feathers as well. These rituals were at the center of these ancient cultures, a fact later exploited by invaders such as the Spanish explorer Cortez, who banned the use of feathers in cultural rituals and burned the aviaries to the ground as a means to undercut the foundations of these societies. In many ways those cultures died with the birds they revered.
Feathers have so many uses and inspirations for humans we easily forget the degree to which feathers have been employed in the design and development of some many inventions from airplane wings to waterproof garments and insulation.
The implications of the insulation power of feathers to birds cannot be underestimated. At one point Hanson documents the fact that even one feather out of place on a seabird may lead to exposure and death. So birds take good care of their feathers, or they perish.
Feathers also presents a fascinating study of the “ground-up” versus the “tree-down” theory of the evolution of bird flight. Evolutionary scientists and ornithologists continue to argue over which method first enabled birds to fly, but the tree-down theory seems to be gaining the upper hand.
There are many debates about birds and evolution that remain to be settled. Reading them makes one realize how many people take for granted the existence of birds, ignoring their significant role in ecology and how they manage to survive in so many environments.
Feathers also provides an objective history of the popularity of bird feathers as adornments for hats and other human clothing. This summary leads us to learn more about the contributions of American Frank Chapman to conservation of birds the world over, beginning with his objection to use of birds to adorn the hats of women 100 years ago. His contributions to progress in conservation and society include formation of the Audubon Society and the legacy of the Christmas Bird Count.
Of course birds have also contributed mightily to man’s development of the ability to fly. But we learn as well that many people fascinated by early flying machines were also cynical toward their inventors, even to the point of beating unmercifully one hapless fellow whose flying contraption failed. Not exactly a feather in one's cap.
Feathers is a book that can lead one back to the well of inspiration for the study of birds. Next time you happen to study a live bird up close, captive or wild, having read this book you will not be able to look at that creature in the same way again. Every bird in the world is a miracle of evolution, demonstrating the amazing complexity and diversity of which evolution is capable. Feathers are definitely a worthwhile subject for human attention, right down to the down. Feathers also contains a succinct summation of the reasons it pays to be a birder, a gem that will not be revealed here. Look for it: you will be driven into the field with anticipation and wonder.
There are many feathery gems to be discovered in this book, from the secrets of iridescence to the construction of Vegas showgirl outfits. The science contained in Feathers is presented in palatable form, including methods for how birds regulate body temperature and the thrilling efficiency of a peregrine falcon in flight. Feathers is a book designed to be read, not skimmed, with every page revealing new layers of understanding. Just like feathers themselves.