Shipman begins with the history of the Archaeopteryx fossils, including Ostrom's dramatic discovery of the fifth specimen while looking at what were supposed to be pterodactyls. She then looks at some engineering and functional issues — wing flips, power versus steering, and the history of human aviation — and describes some experimental studies of modern bird flight.
Arguments over the origin of birds and bird flight are manifold. Phylogenetically they have focused on whether birds are dinosaurs or not and where exactly they fit into the taxonomy of life. Ecologically, there are two major competitors: the "down from the trees" hypothesis, favouring a progression from parachuting through gliding to powered flight, and the "cursorial" hypothesis, starting with bipedalism and controlled jumping.
Shipman also covers the anatomy and morphology of hands, feathers, and wings: debates over the behavioural significance of Archaeopteryx claws and the ontogeny of its digits; wild claims that the fossil feathers are the result of forgery and serious arguments about whether the original function of feathers was for flight or for insulation; and competing theories of wing evolution, for parachuting, thermoregulation, or display. The last concentrates on insect wings, and Shipman also gives us a more general — ecological, evolutionary, and functional — comparison of bird flight with that of insects, bats, and petrosaurs.
Taking Wing concludes with the arguments about whether Archaeopteryx could fly. Reconstructions allow comparison with modern birds in aerodynamic properties such as aspect ratio, wing loading, take-off power and flight-muscle ratio. Here, as elsewhere, conclusive evidence has yet to be found, but new evidence is continually testing the various theories.