The Unfeathered Bird

An up-to-date and comprehensive book of the skeletal anatomy of birds has been hard to obtain for decades now, and even professional ornithologists have had to rely on out-of-print or partial works or veterinary text books for reference when describing bird bones and fossils.

This sizeable tome is a welcome addition, then, to the bird anatomist’s shelf, containing accurately drawn illustrations of the complete skeletons of all the major bird groups. However, the bones are not named in all their Victorian verbose detail, instead being drawn unannotated with an introductory guide to the basic parts of the skeleton.

However, the real joy of this book is its ‘arty’ side. Van Grouw has assembled and posed a plethora of birds in life-like active poses, but stripped to their jointed skeletons. The results are by turn eerie, humorous, fascinating and informative, even haunting. The Swallow skeleton flying away from a telegraph line with three perched and de-feathered companions lingers in the mind, the foot detail of Pallas’s Sandgrouse intrigues, the perched White-throated Hummingbird skeleton amuses, while the two deconstructions of Great Spotted Woodpecker perched on a tree trunk are filled with tense life, despite having shuffled off their mortal coil.

Van Grouw’s lifelong experience as fine artist and as a bird curator at the Natural History Museum, taxidermist and ringer have stood her in good stead in creating this hybrid marvel of history, art and ornithology. It is also readable, rather than filled with off-putting scientific terminology.

Sitting on the fence between art book and anatomy textbook, this acts as both a fine reference and an expert artist’s portfolio. It is an original work by a prodigiously talented bird artist. I hope the book’s beguiling idiosyncrasies don’t make it fall through the cracks – it deserves to be widely admired.
  • The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw (Princeton University Press, Woodstock, 2013)
  • 287 pages, 385 illustrations
  • ISBN9780691151342. Hardback, £34.95. Birdwatch Bookshop from £31.95