Vultures made me do it. That's my stock answer whenever people ask why I wrote a book about feathers. It was vultures that first got me thinking about plumage (or the lack thereof) in an evolutionary context — just how beautifully adapted a vulture's bare head is to a life spent poking around the insides of rotten zebras. I've been fascinated with feathers ever since: how birds use them for flight, insulation, waterproofing, and display, and how people have co-opted them for those uses and more. To have the book released this year is perfect timing, since 2011 is filled with all kinds of intriguing feather anniversaries.
It was exactly 150 years ago, for example, that a Bavarian quarryman chipped a small fossil from a slab of limestone and traded it to the local doctor. He only wanted advice for a chest cold, but that quarryman could have bought a lot more with what paleontologists would later call "the most valuable specimen of anything, anywhere." His bit of rock gave the world its first glimpse of Archaeopteryx lithographica, a fossil famously endowed with the snout and tail of a lizard and the feathered wings of a bird.
Though its Latin name was lucid, even poetic, "ancient wing, written in stone," there was nothing simple about its reception. Archaeopteryx and its feathers arrived at London's Natural History Museum in the heady years following publication of Darwin's Origin of Species. Evolution was the talk of the town — hotly debated everywhere from university lecture halls to coffeehouses to the daily papers. The fossil's combination of avian and reptilian features ignited a firestorm, with Darwin's supporters embracing it as a missing link, while his opponents attacked it as a fraud. One hundred and fifty years and a thousand research papers later the argument continues, and Archaeopteryx remains a linchpin of evolutionary theory known to many as biology's "Rosetta stone." Only now are people beginning to unite behind a common theory of bird origins, as more and more feathered dinosaurs emerge from the rich fossil beds of northeastern China.
2011 also marks the centennial of a year when demand for feathers in fashion spawned one of history's most unlikely adventures: "The Trans-Saharan Ostrich Expedition." A hundred years ago, no woman in America or Europe left home without a hat, and the vast majority of them were feathered. So valuable were ostrich plumes to the hat and fashion trade that they ranked as the most expensive cargo lost on the Titanic. At the turn of the century, it's estimated that one in 20 American workers were employed in the hat and feather trades. In modern terms, that's more people than the combined memberships of the United Auto Workers, the Longshoremen, the United Farm Workers, the Association of Flight Attendants, and the Writers Guild of America. It was a major industry.
Opposition to the feather trade, particularly to its devastating impacts on wild birds like the Great Egret, galvanized the first real conservation movement in America and led directly to the founding of the Audubon Society. Ostrich plumes, however, were harvested from domesticated birds, and no country kept more ostriches than South Africa. At the height of the boom, South African ranchers farmed plumes from more than a million captive birds and sold the feathers at huge auctions, where 60 distinct types and grades were traded. Great fortunes were made and the opulent mansions built in South Africa's ostrich country are to this day known as "feather palaces."
The most valuable plumes of all, however, did not come from South Africa. They entered the international market only occasionally, arriving in small batches from points unknown with the trade caravans that criss-crossed the Sahara Desert. Feather experts attributed them to a fabled bird called the Barbary Ostrich, whose luxurious "double-floss" plumes were more beautiful than any in the world.
In 1911, the Republic of South Africa had been in existence for only a few months, but the government decided it was worth risking an international confrontation with France for a chance to add Barbary birds to their breeding stock. Following a vague tip from a camel driver, they secretly launched the Trans-Saharan Ostrich Expedition, a grueling 10-month effort to find and procure 150 fabled Barbary ostriches from French West Africa and herd them by pen, railroad car, and steam liner 3,500 miles home to Cape Town.
South Africa's great ostrich quest symbolizes the depth of the human fascination with feathers, the lengths to which people will go to have them, to wear them, to study them, to use them in intriguing ways. Their incredible diversity of form and function in nature is matched if not surpassed by the countless ways that people have co-opted feathers for their own purposes. It was also in 1911 that the magazine Hunter, Trader, and Trapper published an article encouraging its readers to get involved in the lucrative feather industry. They noted the usual markets for hats and down, but also listed demand for "pens, featherbone powder puffs, trimming, boas, (artificial) ‘furs,' fans, jewelry sets, military and lodge plumes, fire screens, artificial flies for anglers, brushes, tooth picks, dusters, camel's hair brushes and even, though rarely, parasols."
One hundred years later, tastes and technologies have changed, but one still doesn't have to look far to find feathers. A search of recent patents reveals new methods for transforming plumage into everything from upholstery fabrics to biodiesel to an absorbent fiber that shows great promise for use in biodegradable baby diapers. And when American Idol judge and rock icon Steven Tyler began wearing rooster hackle woven into his hair, he set off a new feather fashion craze that has fishermen up in arms. The price of prime fly-tying plumes has skyrocketed from $150 to over $1000, if you can even find any to buy.
Throughout it all, the birds carry on flying, displaying, and preening with the casual grace of anything so naturally adorned with miracles. They remain the source of our wonder, as worthy of attention in this feathery year as in any other. Get outside and watch them any chance you get — you won't be disappointed.
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Thor Hanson is a conservation biologist, Switzer Environmental Fellow, and member of the Human Ecosystems Study Group. His first book, The Impenetrable Forest: My Gorilla Years in Uganda, won the 2008 USA Book News Award for nature writing. Hanson lives with his wife on an island in Washington State.
Books mentioned in this post