The Layers of “The Unfeathered Bird”

The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw

My copy of Katrina van Grouw‘s The Unfeathered Bird demanded to be placed on my coffee table. In the same way that everything about a cheetah says fast, everything about The Unfeathered Bird says coffee table book. There are 385 illustrations of 200 bird species. It is 287 pages long and weighs a couple of kilograms. When a book like that asks space on your coffee table, you ask “how much space?”. Fortunately, I have a sturdy coffee table.

I also have two small children (hence the sturdy coffee table). As a result, my first encounter with the content between the covers was not the orderly perusal with wine I had been planning for that night. Instead, it started with my 4-year-old, The Frogger, opening The Unfeathered Bird and asking, while staring at an immaculate illustration of a skinned bird foot, “Daddy, what is this book about?”

“It’s a book about birds. It shows you the insides of birds so we can learn how they work.”

“Like these?” She immediately produced an issue of National Geographic Little Kids focused on polar animals. Buried within was a section about puffins. She blew by the puffins. After the puffins, there was a page of similar birds that could both fly and swim in pursuit of fish. For a budding reader like The Frogger, the appeal of these birds over the puffins was obvious. They had funny names, like auklet and cormorant. The Frogger really liked the cormorant. She also knows penguins can swim, but cannot fly.

My knowledge of cormorants is limited to the following five things: they can fly, they can swim underwater, they are cool (based off points 1 & 2), it takes me 1.67 seconds to remember how to pronounce cormorant, and items 1-3 are also true of puffins. And, puffins are very cute.

Katrina van Grouw, however, knows a lot about cormorants. The mutually supportive informative text and illustrations had us fully endorsing the unusual lifestyle of the cormorant in minutes. In the illustration below, you can see the stiff tail used as a rudder for steering, the webbed foot, and the powerful leg muscles used for propulsion. We even learned that fishermen in Asia use them to help catch fish.

Muscles of a Cormorant (Katrina van Grouw - Used with Permission)
Muscles of a Cormorant (Katrina van Grouw – Used with Permission)

There are a lot of birds around our house, which means my kids have a lot of opportunities to ask questions about birds. Sometimes we start there. Maybe a robin in the yard (in South Carolina there are already robins in the yard, lots of them). Maybe a finch at the bird feeder. Soon, The Unfeathered Bird is opened and we learn about the biological engineering that makes that bird special.

Sometimes we start with The Unfeathered Bird. An illustration catches their eye and we spend the next half hour talking about the ostrich they saw at the zoo.

A book like The Unfeathered Bird is more than pretty pictures and informative prose. It is a resource – a bridge – to knowledge and curiosity. What let’s that hummingbird hover at your feeder? Page 80. How does that vulture find the roadkill? Page X. Our lives are filled with everyday events that make us wonder, “How does that work?”; and we so rarely get the answers.  What could be more compelling than those creatures that have mastered the air?

Making those observations, finding resources to allow us to delve deeper and ask better questions based on those observations is great practice in adults, it is invaluable in children. The Unfeathered Bird provides a resource to foster that spirit of creative discovery in learning based on the observation of creatures that are almost impossible to ignore – the bird. Or, as The Frogger sometimes likes to call them “little dinosaurs”.


Michele Banks: The Art of The Unfeathered Bird
Rebecca Heiss: The Birds of The Unfeathered Bird

Author: Josh Witten

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