Hear Thor's Feathers talk  . . . 

winner of the john burroughs medal

winner of the aaas/subaru prize

winner of the pacific northwest book award

nominated for the samuel johnson prize finalist for the washington state book award

Thor Hanson - Author & Biologist

Feathers are an evolutionary marvel: aerodynamic, functional, beguiling.  Their story begins in the Jurassic and leads through the development of flight, fluff, and high fashion.  In Feathers, Thor Hanson reveals the sweeping natural history of a common object with uncommon abilities to flutter, protect, adorn, attract, insulate, and more.

available in all formats:  hardcover, trade paperback, e-book, & audio

feathers: the evolution of a natural miracle

Basic Books, 2011.

Praise for Feathers . . . 

The Economist:

“Thor Hanson’s new book takes on the intriguing subject of
feathers. With infectious enthusiasm, he describes them, from their earliest known incarnations to their place in the modern world…. Hanson’s unpretentious style makes what is essentially an excellent scientific work into an enjoyable read for the ignorant and uninitiated….an illuminating study of an evolutionary marvel.”

Wall Street Journal:

“[Hanson] has produced a winning book about the
extraordinary place of feathers in animal and human history…. like all true
birdwatchers, Mr. Hanson knows it isn’t just the bird at the far end of the
binoculars but the human being at the near end that matters, and he is writing
as much about the human urge to understand, appreciate and appropriate the wild
world as he is writing about feathers, which he calls, in his subtitle, a
‘natural miracle.’…. Feathers is an earthbound book, but this does not keep the
author—or the reader—from looking up in wonder.”

New York Times:

“[A] fine book…. Mr. Hanson’s pleasure in feathers is
infectious…. [Feathers] is gracious, funny, persuasive and wide ranging.
Feathers, Mr. Hanson reminds us, teach a remarkable amount about evolution,
insulation, engineering, archaeology and fashion. Better still, as this book
shows, they allow not only birds but the human imagination to take flight.”


Peter Matthiessen, National Book Award winning author of The
Snow Leopard
and Shadow Country:

“A fascinating book about the most remarkable—and
beautiful—of all avian evolutionary adaptations, with wonderful accounts of
ornithological investigations and the solving of biological quandaries and
questions, all of it unusually well-written. Highly recommended.”

New Scientist:

“[A] sparkling history…. Well-written science adds gravity
to the more featherweight content of witty anecdotes – from interviews with
feather-clad Las Vegas showgirls to plucking roadkill in the name of biology.
The skilful way Hanson combines the two makes this book popular natural history
at its best.”

Seattle Times:

“[D]elightful…. [A] fascinating inquiry into one of those
common things that are easy to overlook until someone shows what a miracle it
is…. Birds, the only animals with feathers today, wear these magic coats of
stunning variety whose forms so perfectly fit their functions. Hanson’s book
reveals much about that marvelous magic.”

Library Journal (starred review):

“[E]njoyable, wide-ranging, and well-researched…. Highly
recommended for birders and science buffs.”


“[E]ngaging…. For all the intriguing science, what really
livens up Hanson’s passionate discussion of his ‘natural miracle’ are the
stories he tells.”


“Thor Hanson’s storytelling is enhanced by his infectious
excitement…. Hanson’s tale is comprehensive, accurate, timely and engaging….
Feathers is a compelling introduction to one of nature’s wonders.”


“Hanson writes in a colorful, conversational, and
non-technical manner that conveys his enthusiasm for the subject…. The book
offers a readable introduction to feathers and what they mean for birds and

Bird Watcher’s Digest:

“To read Feathers is to meet up with an enthusiastic old
friend who simply cannot wait to tell you about something he just discovered.
Deceptively conversational and fast moving, disguising the true depth of
information it conveys with buoyant, good-humored prose, Feathers is a book not
only intellectually accessible to anyone with an interest in the subject but
also one that should be considered a must-read by bird watchers and naturalists
of all levels of interest or experience.”


“[C]aptivating…. Beginning with the evolution of birds,
Hanson, a biologist, explains competing theories with ease, and unfolds the
human fascination with feathers in terms of science, commerce, tools, folklore,
art, and aerodynamics with panache. Anecdotes infuse the fascinating survey.”

Montana Outdoors:

“[A] delight. As the name makes clear, it’s all about
feathers—their evolution, use by birds, and extremely high value to humans,
from quill pens and trout flies to women’s hats and Aztec emperor headdresses.”


“From basic research about bird biology and the evolutionary
origins of feather to falconry, couture, and bioinspiration in industrial
design, the book treats us to a series of engaging essays about feathers, both
on and off the bird…. Hanson weaves his prior encounters with birds and his
experiences as a scientist into the text, offering lively anecdotes about his
student days and subsequent life as a professional grant-seeking field biologist.
He is particularly adept at portraying how science really works…. Hanson’s
prose is polished, lively, and evocative. The outcome is a book that is easy
and entertaining to read, yet one that is able to satisfy our intellectual
curiosity.… In Feathers, Hanson is remarkably successful at offering something
for everyone. Readers from young adults to professional ornithologists and from
those interested in nature to those more interested in human culture will enjoy
this book…. Ultimately, Feathers is a book to read for pleasure, but along the
way, we gain knowledge and insight into nature and our relationship with it.”


“Part natural history, part portrait of human obsession that
takes the author from a fly tier’s bench where beautiful salmon flies are
created, to Vegas dancehalls, to the secretive world of feather dyers and
costume makers, Hanson’s book shines with the evident love of an enthusiast….
Hanson sets out to make feathers as enthralling for the reader as they are for
him—and succeeds…. Hanson’s excitement rubs off on the reader, and anyone who
has watched a bird and marveled will find Feathers an informative delight.”

Science News:

“Hanson artfully explores the many functions of feathers
through the stories of people who, like him, are fascinated by them….

Seattle Magazine:

“Gracefully explores the evolutionary processes that led to
the development of avian plumage.” 

Seattle Weekly:

“[Hanson is] a conservation biologist, yet the book isn’t
too weighty a treatment of a very light subject. It’s popular science as he
travels from Wyoming fossil beds – in search of Archaeopteryx, the first
feathered dinosaur – to New Zealand, where he helps Maori hunters gather the
charmingly named muttonbirds during their flightless period of molt. We also
get a lesson on tying fly-fishing lures, hand-carving quill pens, and visit a
down feather broker right here in Seattle.”

Natural History:

“Hanson adorns his narrative with fascinating digressions on
such diverse topics as the ability of birds to selectively molt worn or damaged
feathers, the diving speeds of falcons…, and the great Trans-Saharan Ostrich
Expedition of 1911. In sum, Feathers is an impressive blend of beauty, form,
and function." 


“Few of us would connect the extravagant costumes of Las
Vegas showgirls to avian mating rituals, but that’s what biologist Thor Hanson
does in this natural and cultural history of the feather. He gives unexpected
substance to his nearly weightless subject, traveling from Chinese fossil beds
– which provide a fascinating look at the relationship between plumed dinosaurs
and modern birds – to a Seattle factory where duck and goose down becomes
insulation. He also shares delightful facts, such as why vultures have
featherless heads. You’ll want to pass these tidbits on.” 

Publishers Weekly:

“Conservation biologist Hanson takes readers on a
wide-ranging tour of the world of feathers, from Las Vegas revues, whose
performers wear thousands of dollars’ worth (and they’re heavier than you
think), to the world of fly fishing, where unscrupulous collectors illegally
seek out rare feathers for their lures…. Readers from science buffs to those
interested in cultural history will find this a worthwhile afternoon’s read.” 


“[A] fascinating and eminently readable exploration of
quills and plumes…. Hanson imparts a captivating and addictive story that is as
intriguing as the feathers themselves.” 

Kirkus Reviews:

“A delightful ramble through the byways of evolution and the
wonderful world of birds.” 


“Wow! Thor Hanson’s fun, wide-ranging romp through the world
of feathers covers feather science and evolution, plumed showgirls in Las Vegas,
quill pens, and a falcon feather that’s on the moon.” 

Robert Michael Pyle, author of Wintergreen and Mariposa Road:

“Feathers is simply a splendid book! Even for one biased
toward butterfly scales, their closest competitors in the animal raiment line,
feathers in all their glory can only be seen as astonishing. With elegance and
wit, Thor Hanson captures not only their awesome esthetics, but also the
astonishing evolution, historical and cultural impact, and sheer wonder of
avian plumage. Rendered in exquisite detail with delicate touch, like a
feather-painting of old, this is the best kind of natural history—quilled by a
real field biologist who is also a fine writer.”

Bernd Heinrich, Emeritus Professor of Biology, University of
Vermont; author of Winter World and Mind of the Raven:

“Feathers are truly remarkable. In this book Hanson shows
how they are the key to many of the most fascinating and diverse aspects of
bird biology, how they have affected our understanding of evolution, and how
they have and are enriching our everyday lives. This is science written in
clear and entertaining prose; a great read.”

Frank B. Gill, author of Ornithology:

“Thor Hanson has captured the wonders of feathers in
gripping prose that will likely change forever how you look at birds and their
colorful adornments. This is rich and engaging ornithology at its best.”

Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain:

“If you feel a sudden need to read about dinosaurs,
flyfishing, muttonbirds, and showgirls, this is your book! Absolutely
fascinating history, and a terrific read, Feathers is another Thor Hanson


“There are many feathery gems to be discovered in this book
. . . Feathers is a book designed to be read, not skimmed, with every page
revealing new layers of understanding.”

The Reader’s Review:

“His narrative excursions are so charming, you will hardly be aware of how much you’re learning while you read.  And the next bird you see – wow!”

Books and Beasts:

“At the risk of overusing the word, I have to say that the
book itself is a kind of miracle too.”

Cage & Aviary Birds (UK):

“Feathers is a historic and truly interesting insight into
how an every day object can be marveled at.”

BBC Wildlife (UK):

“Damn good book.”