Magazine article Natural History

The Unfeathered Bird

Magazine article Natural History

The Unfeathered Bird

Article excerpt

The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw Princeton University Press, 2012; 301 pages, $49.95

Take away the feathers from a bird, and what is left? To a birdwatcher, I suspect, not much, because plumage plays such an important role in distinguishing one rara avis from another. But leafing through this unique book by Katrina van Grouw, a former curator of ornithology at London's Natural History Museum, you will come to a very different conclusion. Van Grouw sees birds not as bearers of pattern and color, but as ingenious structures, articulated assemblages of bone, sinew, and muscle, organized to mediate the challenges of gravity and buoyancy in a variety of environments.According to van Grouw, the concept of The Unfeathered Bird was to create a resource for artists, like the books on human anatomy that are required references in figure drawing classes. No such book existed before this, and her book surely will become the go-to anatomy text for aspiring Audubons. But as her drawings began to accumulate, van Grouw realized that the book she was creating could attract a wider audience: nature lovers who were unaware of the marvels of avian anatomy.

And so she added explanatory text, conversational descriptions of the drawings that avoid Latinate terminology. She organized the book into two parts, a short "generic" section highlighting the overall structural features that distinguish birds from other vertebrates, and a much longer section devoting a few pages each to a generous selection of taxa, demonstrating the specific anatomical modifications that help each species exploit its particular environmental niche.

The result is an eye-opener. In place of the dazzling color and finely etched detail of most bird books, The Unfeathered Bird features handsketched sepia drawings, whose bare-bones structure draws the reader to look more closely at the function of each distinctive piece of the organism. …

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