University of Vermont

College of
Agriculture and Life Sciences

Department of Plant and Soil Science

On Buzzard Heads and Feather Beds

UVM field naturalist's book wins John Burroughs Medal

Feathers book cover
Chasing the tail (feathers) of what he calls "a natural miracle," UVM graduate Thor Hanson won the nation's top prize for natural history writing. (image courtesy Basic Books)

One winter night in Maine, about fifteen years ago, the temperature dropped to seventeen degrees below zero. Thor Hanson, then a master’s student in UVM’s Field Naturalist Program, accidentally dropped a can of Budweiser in the snow. The beer froze solid before it could all drain from the can. But Hanson, a rather slender fellow, clambered into his tent, got into his sleeping bag, and felt warm.

It was the down — tiny goose feathers — in his sleeping bag that prevented him from suffering a fate similar to the beer. Amazing feathers.

On that cold night (one of many in Bernd Heinrich’s famed winter ecology course), Thor Hanson wondered about another feathered creature also sleeping nearby: the golden-crowned kinglet. This bird weighs five grams, “about the same as a nickel or teaspoon of salt,” Hanson writes in his book, Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle.

High over his head, in the crook of a fir branch, the kinglet kept its body about 120 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the surrounding air. Without the uncanny microstructure of feathers — the most insulating material in the world — the bird would have died in a few breaths. Amazing feathers.

This is just one of dozens of feather-fascinated, perspective-altering stories that led Hanson’s book to be selected as this year’s winner of the John Burroughs Medal. Given in the past to such luminaries as Rachel Carson and Barry Lopez, it is considered the highest award for American nature writing.

Hanson traveled to the American Museum of Natural History in New York to receive the medal on April 1.

Bird feathers, people feathers

Hanson credits UVM’s Field Naturalist Program, and teachers like Heinrich, for helping to shape this book. “This could have easily been a narrow ornithological textbook,” Hanson says, “and yet it’s the broad perspective that is encouraged in the FN program that allows this book to be something that touches on everything from fashion to golf history.”

As well as flying dinosaurs, quill pens, outrageous ostrich-plume hats, the myth of Icarus (who donned feathers and flew too close to the sun), the feather money of Santa Cruz Island, pillows at the Pacific Coast Feather Company, and electron microscope images of water droplets on the barbs of a pigeon — Hanson’s book travels gleefully on a headlong pursuit of the origin, meaning and uses of feathers for birds and people. It even tells why flamingos are pink. Go read it to find out.

Field naturalist

Hanson completed his UVM degree in 2000, studying under Heinrich and other professors, including David Barrington, then went on to get his doctorate in conservation biology. He’s studied Central American songbirds, nest predation in Tanzania, and, as he writes, “the grisly feeding habits of African vultures.” He now lives on the San Juan Islands as an independent biologist and writer.

“This book is a curiosity-driven enterprise, rather than doctrinal,” he says. Which may be why it has attracted a substantial popular audience, and glowing reviews from the New York Times, Economist, Science and many other outlets.

And Hanson is not alone as a publishing success from the Field Naturalist Program. “The book publishing output from graduates of our small program — we graduate only four field naturalists per year — is in a league of its own,” notes plant biologist Jeffrey Hughes, who directs the program. Over the last ten years, graduates of the program have published at least fifteen books, Hughes wrote, one of which won the 2010 National Outdoor Book Award — and now the John Burroughs Medal.

Broad views

Glued together intellectually by a fascination with the intricacies of evolution, the narrative in Feathers caroms back and forth over what Hanson described to me as “the imaginary but very significant boundary we put between the natural world and the human world.” We can’t make feathers, which may be why we love them, collect them.

“Every culture and every home has feathers in it somewhere,” says Hanson, “and we use these for so many purposes. You start asking: why? And then you realize that the answers are the very same answers for why these things are so successful in nature,” — like supreme aerodynamics, unbeatable insulation, glittering beauty, perfect camouflage, the freedom of flight.

In asking many questions, Feathers offers an unabashed defense of natural history, with its tradition of generous observation of plants and animals in their habitats. Partly under the eye-popping insights of molecular biology, natural history storytelling has taken some hard knocks for too-little rigor and quantitative force — and too much teleological sentimentality. Hanson understands these criticisms, but pushes back.

“Natural history is where you frame your questions,” he says, and shape your experiments; it’s the broad view that lets the careful observer see the real connections in the world. “In the Field Naturalist Program we studied about connectivity between all the layers of a landscape, from bedrock to the soil to the plants to the creatures,” Hanson says, and this hunt for connections pulses through Feathers.

Feathered rainbow

For this book, Hanson reports from a dusty plain in Kenya where he watches vultures, with their featherless heads, dipping into the rotting carcass of a zebra; from sober shrines to natural history, including Yale’s Peabody Museum — but also from Las Vegas.

A low cinderblock building, just a few blocks off the city’s glitzy strip, might not seem the most promising field site for a conservation biologist. But Hanson followed many paths toward the meanings and uses of feathers, including the supply house of showgirls: the Rainbow Feather Company.

“When you need ten thousand plumes died hot pink,” Hanson writes, this is the only place in the world to go. Rainbow Feather “takes orders from clients as varied as Jubilee!, Cirque de Soleil, and Victoria’s Secret,” Hanson writes, while its retail shop, “must be the only place in the world where burlesque dancers regularly rub elbows with fly-fisherman and bow hunters.” Thor Hanson’s book lets readers rub elbows with an equally diverse cast of feathered characters.