The Birds of “The Unfeathered Bird”

Rebecca earned her master’s degree with a focus in avian ecology at Binghamton University, worked at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, has conducted international research on birds overseas, and completed her PhD in avian physiology the University of Memphis. She now teaches biology at the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science & Math.

After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well. – Albert Einstein

Birdsketch by Rebecca Heiss (All Rights Reserved)I became a biologist for a reason. It was not that I was particularly good at the sciences, but that I was terrible at art. My stick figures were never going to pay the rent. Perhaps lacking the drive to master any one trade, I’ve dabbled, becoming proficient in a smattering of largely scientific endeavors. It is little wonder then, that Katrina van Grouw’s mastery of multiple fields makes me feel a twinge of jealousy.

In The Unfeathered Bird, van Grouw combines talents in art, science, and history to create a masterful work that is both aesthetically pleasing and filled with the technical intricacies that appeal to the discerning ornithology expert. van Grouw surrounds over 380 technical drawings with informative and witty text, turning a topic usually reserved for the dullest of reference tomes into an entertaining coffee table book. The odds that The Unfeathered Bird will be the focus of a rousing game of “name that bird!” at my next cocktail party are pretty good. Sprinkled with fun facts and surprising humor The Unfeathered Bird lends itself to just such an occasion, such as the discussion of the relatedness of dodos to pigeons:

. . .one very subtle anatomical feature of pigeons is their two-compartmented crop. . .Bulging with food or with “pigeon milk” to feed chicks, this double swelling was lovingly described by Leguat as resembling “very marvellously  the beautiful bosom of a woman.”

Tasty trivia tidbits sure to get a party fired up. Accessibility reigns supreme in this book, appealing to a wider audience than bird-nerds like myself.

The Unfeathered Bird uses humor, gently poking fun at common mistakes made by “professionals who ought to know better”, to bridge the perceived gap between experts and non-experts. In her opening pages, van Grouw adopts an apologetic tone toward any hard-nosed scientists that might claim her work is merely for ‘the people.’ Formal apologies complete, she proceeds to brazenly ignore orthodox classification.

Nodding to Linnaeus, the godfather of modern classification systems, van Grouw charges into the meat of her book, pairing species by anatomical features that appear to be common between the species. As it turns out, many of these features actually evolved independently through a process known as convergent evolution. In recent years, we have tended to reject groupings based on morphology in favor of grouping that reflect a species evolutionary history determined by DNA sequence. The old school naturalist in me, celebrates this throwback to the days where morphology was king and features were classified and compared based on functional similarity. Apologies to all my molecularly focused colleagues, but van Grouw’s pairings simply work for a book of this nature. It may be my bias as an organismal biologist, but focusing on functional similarity is the “right” way to organize species when your goal is teach people about the mechanics of birds. It also allows van Grouw to highlight the interesting and confusing aspects of convergent evolution.

While van Grouw’s illustrations are anatomical, they also show the birds in their natural environments and engaged in common behaviors. I found myself immersed in a world of large beaks plucking tropical fruits, sternums allowing exploration of extraordinary altitudes, and forearms giving rise to fantastic sea voyages. The Unfeathered Bird is a pleasant departure from the sterile lab bench and formaldehyde-drenched specimens typical of this book’s genre.

The Unfeathered Bird book begins with a discussion of the anatomy common to all birds. Even within this broad context, the descriptions accompanying the detailed sketches give new appreciation for even the most common bits of bird anatomy. Take, for example, the attention given to the bill. For years I chalked up most of the perforations in the bills of study specimens to neglectful care and graduate student abuse. van Grouw enlightened this seasoned ornithologist. These same holes (most of them anyway) are depicted throughout van Grouw’s images as insertion points for nerves and blood vessels. Of course (I knew that…really)!

Secretary Bird by Katrina van Grouw - The Unfeathered Bird (Used with Permission)
Secretary Bird by Katrina van Grouw – The Unfeathered Bird (Used with Permission)

The second part of the book explores groups of birds in more detail, from common birds of prey to the not-so-common Common Cactus Finch to the even less common (in fact extinct) Dodo. The sketches come to life in this section with text that vividly illustrates the more exciting (and occasionally unsavory) habits of these birds. To me, the power of this section was represented by the Secretary Bird. An intimidating image of a majestic, tall, and powerful bird, glowering beneath overhanging “eyebrows”, dominates a page while the accompanying text details its unique hunting habits. Those long, powerful legs are not just for show. The Secretary Bird uses them to literally stomp and kick its prey to death. Of course it does. Just look at the picture.

Littered with such entertaining and informative anecdotes, van Grouw uses an evolutionary lens to effectively and beautifully expose avian adaptations and life histories. A copy of The Unfeathered Bird on your coffee table is like having one of the richest anatomical avian collections at your fingertips. The Unfeathered Bird may not be a true substitute for going into the field, collecting specimens, and examining them yourself, but it is a very good start. It can also be enjoyed from the comfort of your own couch with a cup of coffee and clean hands.


Michele Banks: The Art of The Unfeathered Bird
Josh Witten: The Layers of The Unfeathered Bird

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