Book Review: Unfeathered Birds

The Unfeathered Bird CoverIn The Unfeathered Bird, Katrina van Grouw offers a unique treatise on bird anatomy that should be in every natural history illustrator’s library. Unique because she portrays her subjects in lifelike poses and includes examples from many bird orders and families -- two features most welcome to those with an interest in birds. Too, Katrina’s illustrations are superb and easily fulfill her wish to show anatomy, not describe it in an excruciatingly detailed text.

Katrina has been a self-employed artist, illustrator, and printmaker since earning, in 1992, a Master of Arts in Natural History illustration from the Royal College of Art. Her thesis was an illustrated treatise on bird anatomy, designed to aid artists in producing life-like drawings and paintings. So was born the idea for The Unfeathered Bird, a project which is, to date, a life work. She has also served as curator for the ornithological collections at the British Natural History Museum in London, a post which has provided the contacts she needed to continue her work.

Finding bird specimens in natural poses is apparently a task reminiscent of that of Diogenes, and so Katrina and her husband, also an ornithologist and museum curator, began mounting birds that had died from natural causes and were spirited to her by friends and colleagues. One can only imagine their home to be quite the tidy avian museum, considering that she has produced almost 400 detailed drawings of birds in various stages of undress. Katrina has even assembled disarticulated skeletons loaned her by museums, by starting with a drawing of a similar species, then erasing and replacing bones one by one. Whatever the source for Katrina’s work, she has obviously spent long hours producing illustrations with such striking detail and clarity.

Katrina’s work surpasses the high art of biological illustrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Leafing through The Unfeathered Bird, one finds a Eurasian buzzard in flight, showing only muscles and wing and tail feathers; a Gentoo penguin leaping out of the water sans feathers and skin; the bare bones of a Red-throated loon swimming overhead below pond weeds at the water’s surface; and the skeleton of a Wilson’s storm petrel skipping over the water, evoking strains from Saint-Saën’s Danse Macabre.

Katrina has formatted The Unfeathered Bird within the now ancient taxonomy of Linnaeus. Though simple compared to today’s phylogeny, this allows her to group birds that look alike, but have different origins, exposing the paleontologist’s primary headache, convergent evolution.

Unfeathered Bird InteriorWhen first leafing through Katrina’s illustrations, I realized that when drawing birds I imagined their wing and leg joints a bit too low. From a lateral perspective, these are at the level of the axial skeleton, which also puts the wings closer together across the back. Too, I was reminded of the long legs and necks of many birds, and the fluff that imbues them with their everyday appearance.

Katrina’s stated goal is to describe the way birds look by disclosing what’s underneath their coat of feathers. In this, she has succeeded marvelously and contributed a most welcome reference to bird artists.

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