The Unfeathered Bird: a review

During my curatorial traineeship, I was lucky enough to do my placement week at the Natural History Museum, Tring in the ornithology department. While there I met Katrina van Grouw, former curator of the bird collections there and her husband Hein van Grouw, who taught me how to prepare bird skins on my placement.

Katrina was busy working over a sketchpad, an avian skeleton placed in front of her. I knew from an article I had recently read that she was developing a book on bird anatomy. While I was at Tring everyone was warm, friendly and encouraging to me as a trainee curator.

Fast forward to just over a year. I now have a copy of that book -The Unfeathered Bird- in my hands and it is so much more than just an anatomy book.


A kiwi skeleton. Drawing ©copyright Katrina van Grouw

To begin with, I think a lot of people who picture birds in their mind immediately think of their striking feathers and colouration-attributes that are only seen in taxidermied museum specimens or bird skin preparations.
I remember when I skinned an owl for the first time for museum prep I was surprised at how SMALL the actual bird was. Under all those fluffy feathers, the bodies of birds are surprisingly little. However, it’s by looking at the internal workings of a bird that you can learn to appreciate how much variation in adaptation there is between bird families. Indeed, the book is laid out by grouping bird families by characteristics they share through convergent evolution rather than by the traditional method. For example, hornbills and toucans are placed together for ease of comparison.

The drawings are stunning. Rather than being the dry, labelled line illustrations often found in anatomy books, the illustrations are lovingly rendered and in some cases depict the unfeathered bird in its natural habitat- a Red-Throated loon glides on the surface of the water near some lilypads. A Greater Flamingo guards an egg on a mudflat. Each drawing was rendered by observing actual ornithlogical specimens.

Selected details of avian parts, such as the zygodactyl feet of woodpeckers or the tube of bones that surround an owl’s eyes are displayed in large format, and the text is easy to absorb and understand, even if you don’t know much about birds.

macaw skull

This book a labour of love spanning 25 years, and is a must if you are an ornithologist, artist or even someone who just appreciates beauty in the natural world. Illustration can still tell us much more than photography can, despite photography’s advances in technology. As a science illustrator myself, this book is just one more form of encouragement to keep studying the natural world and doing what I love. It has a happy place on my bookshelf.

An exhibition displaying some of the drawings found in the book and real specimens is on display at the Natural History Museum, Tring until May the 6th.

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