From Prehistoric Times to Steven Tyler: Our Enduring Fascination with Feathers

Posted by Peter Smith

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Thankfully, it's not just Steven Tyler who’s nurturing an obsession with feathers this summer.

Field biologist Thor Hanson shares his infectious enthusiasm for the distinguishing feature of avian anatomy in his new book, Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle. Hanson has published scientific observations of duetting Olive-backed Euphonias, but he's more than just a binocular-toting bird nerd. He once took a trip that might be the adventure equivalent of reading Playboy for the articles: He visited showgirls in Las Vegas to check out their feathered costumes.

We've long been drawn to the wonders of birds. As Hanson told me, "This feathery fashion craze is the latest manifestation of something that’s been going on for thousands of years. People have been taking feathers from birds and using them for their own adornment, much like birds display to one another."

The human use of feathers dates back at least 35,000 years, when flutes were created from the wing bones of vultures and dyes contained material from the bones of other birds. "It’s almost inconceivable that they would have come up with these other uses and just left the feathers on the ground," Hanson says.

Perhaps as a reflection of bird biology, where a single male often competes to mate with several females, Hanson says that, in general, feathers tend to serve as symbols of male stature. In the last 100 years, though, there has been a switch-up in the culture of Western adornment, with feathers being used for showy female decoration.

Take the Moulin Rouge and its exotic, womanly plumage, which you can now find on the Strip in Las Vegas. The trend coincided with the incredible "plume boom" around the turn of the 20th century. South African explorers trekked across the Sahara in search of the double-plumed feathers of the elusive Barbary Ostrich to make fancy hats. When the Titanic went down in 1912, the most expensive cargo was 40 crates of luxury feathers, estimated at $2.3 million in today's currency. The ensuing slaughter of wild birds led to the formation of Audubon Societies, a cornerstone of modern conservation (and an early feminist stirrings, as Jennifer Price writes in her book, Flight Maps). Today, the silhouette of the once-endangered Great Egret with its feathery plume still adorns the organization's logo.

So if birds are living barometers for cultural and environmental trends, what does it mean to decorate our locks with the feathers of genetically-manipulated cocks? Why, as Natasha Vargas-Cooper writes, has "putting a bird on it" become a delicate "hipster talisman"?

Paradoxically, the resurgence of birds in fashion could be a sign of our detachment from the animal. "We used to be much more connected to all parts of the bird," Hanson says. "There was great effort to use as much of it as you could. In the 19th century, there was so many uses for geese: you ate the meat, you could sell the down, you could also sell the wing feathers to quill pen industry, plus you could eat the eggs."

In her review of Hanson's book, Amanda Katz points out that Hanson may be one of the only readers of the Joy of Cooking's section on plucking wild game. (A tip from Ms. Rombauer: "It is much easier to pluck and draw a bird that is thoroughly chilled.") Lots of Americans enjoy chicken wings or get feather hair extensions without much direct experience with, or knowledge of, the animals those products come from. Let's hope Hanson's book helps broaden our enduring fascination with birds.

Top image via Feathers/Basic Books. Illustration via "Rediscovering Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's 'At the Moulin Rouge'"