Thor Hanson

What do our puffy Patagonia parkas and plumed Vegas showgirls have in common? Northwest writer Thor Hanson explains all in Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle. He’s 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. (Chinese geese keep your quilt poofy at night.) There’s a lot of protein (keratin) packed into feathers, we learn, one reason why the ground-up fluffy byproducts from poultry farms ends up in dog food and fertilizer. If you’re not an ornithologist or dedicated birder, it’s a novelty to consider the ground-up versus tree-down theories of flight: Did those first scaly/feathery ancestors run away flapping from predators in a bounding, hopping panic? Or did they awkwardly swoop down from tree branches to fall on their unsuspecting prey? The fossil record is unclear, but Hanson’s survey extends up to the present day, including the avian debris that gums up jet engines (recall the famous double bird strike of Capt. Sully Sullenberger’s Miracle on the Hudson). Never mind the Latin, aviators simply call it “snarge.” BRIAN MILLER

Sat., Oct. 15, 2 p.m., 2011

 
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