A feather enthusiast’s bookshelf

When it comes to learning about feathers, sometimes you just can’t beat a book in terms of quality and convenience. With summer reading season in full swing, it seems like a fitting time to share some of my favorite books from my overstuffed bird bookshelf. I’ve linked each book’s Amazon page in case you want a copy for yourself!

Bird Feathers by S. David Scott and Casey McFarland

A compact and sturdy field guide, Bird Feathers contains a wealth of information about feathers, including accessible and well-researched explanations of topics ranging from the origin of feathers to their role in flight. The rest of the book contains reference specimens for 379 North American species replete with range maps and measurements. I used this book as a beginner and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who’s just getting started, particularly if you’re interested in the birds of North America.

Bird Tracks & Sign by Mark Elbroch with Eleanor Marks

As the title suggests, this guide covers the broader subject of tracks and sign in North America. I’ve turned to it to identify a variety of signs, from owl pellets to woodpecker holes. It contains a section on feathers that illustrates a variety of species, some of which normally reside outside of North America (i.e. Common Snipe, Northern Lapwing). I did notice that a few owl species were erroneously represented by Long-eared Owl feathers, so I would tread cautiously when referencing the Strigids. Otherwise, it’s a fantastic reference that puts feather identification into a broader context.

Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson

I adore this book. It delves into the complex relationship between humans and feathers, all the while building a fascinating narrative that I’m sure would engage even the normally bird-averse. And for anyone who already works with or appreciates feathers, this is a must-read. An adapted excerpt can be found in this Audubon article.

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

Regarded as a thrilling true-crime story even by mainstream book critics, The Feather Thief delves into the illegal bird feather trade and the characters involved in it. From a unique angle, the book portrays the reality of those who would consume nature destructively for their gain alone rather than conserve it for future generations. A fascinating read as well as an opportunity to reevaluate one’s motivations regarding the enjoyment of nature.

What It’s Like to Be a Bird by David Allen Sibley

Newly published this year, this book offers innumerable insights into the traits and processes that make up a bird. Between gorgeous full-page illustrations, treasure troves of information await discovery. I’m certain that not even the most hardcore research ornithologist could read this book without learning something new. This book is such a breath of fresh air; much of the conventional wisdom on birds (and especially feathers) is stale, overused, and hopelessly anecdotal–this book is anything but that.

Below, I have listed two books that I own that are written in French and German, respectively. I’m only competent in French, but both books contain useful reference specimens and diagrams that can be appreciated despite the language barrier.

Reconnaître facilement les plumes (Easily recognize feathers) by Cloé Fraigneau

Vogelfedern an Flüssen und Seen (Feathers of rivers and lakes) by Hans-Heiner Bergmann

Know one that I missed? Let me know in the comments!

Happy reading!

3 thoughts on “A feather enthusiast’s bookshelf”

  1. I loved Casey and Mark’s books. They are both great trackers and naturalists. Does the Hanson book talk about feather biology? Would it be useful to a tracker learning feather identification? I want to learn about things like blood feathers, pin feathers, fault bars, etc. They sort of things trackers look at. Indicators of bird health, etc.


    1. The Hanson book centers around the relationship between humans and feathers, and I would consider it pleasure reading more than a serious reference source. For information on feather development and pathology, I would look at pages 33-38 in Bird Feathers by S. David Scott and Casey McFarland if you have a copy on hand. I would also suggest the Peterson Reference Guide to Molt in North American Birds–I do not own a copy, but judging by the preview on Google Books that I have linked below, it contains some good information on the molting process in general. Otherwise, here are a few online articles (as well as the Peterson Guide) that you may find helpful:


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