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The Unfeathered Bird: A book like no other

  • Blog Post by: Jim Williams
  • January 17, 2013 - 10:29 AM

 

 

Here from the book are three views of a pigeon: skeleton, bones fleshed out, and bird with skin and feather sheaves.

You can't tell a bird by its feathers alone. 

Your Sunday chicken looks one way in the coop, another way when its plucked. Without feathers you have a better idea of how the bird is made. Roasted and eaten, the bones that remain tell the rest of the story (a story more easily read if you reassemble the bird).

In her amazing book "The Unfeathered Bird" artist and writer Katrina van Grouw has with great skill disassembled birds for us, and then reassembled them. Her drawings of dozens of species chosen from six orders and families show us birds from the inside out. It is a very different and informative perspective.

We are greeted by the image is a Southern Cassowary, bulky skeleton plodding out of its dark  Australian jungle habitat. Second largest bird in the world, this fruit-eater looks more reptilian than avian. Its feet are those of a dinosaur.

Then comes the trunk of a Common Moorhen, skinned, an egg-shaped mass. Cover the caption and it's hard to know just what this is. Clear text answers the questions.

Here is the breastbone of a Mallard, then its vertebral column and pelvis, long and snake-like. Here is the head of a Woodpigeon, head with skin removed, skull, tongue, a cross-section of its eyeball. Then more skulls, feet, legs, wings and tails presented in large, simple drawings, the beautiful sketches she worked for 25 years to produce.

"Five years of innocent research," she writes in the introduction, followed by 15 years trying to convince a publisher that this was a good idea, and then "several more years of very hard labor."

Fortunately, she found a home for the project, Princeton University Press. Princeton has put Ms. van Grouw's art and text in almost handsome book, 12 inches top to bottom, 10 inches wide, 287 pages, designed by the artist to offer an illustration on almost every page. This makes turning each page an adventure. Particularly welcome is the large size with which many images are so boldly presented.

Full skeletons, bones finely drawn are shaded to create three-dimensional images. Some appear unbird-like. This is not how we see these animals. Put flesh on them, draw individual muscles, and the need for feathers to complete the picture remains. Feathers are what we know, bones and flesh the entire story revealed.

Storks and herons have similar basic shapes -- long legs, long neck, long bills. Plucked, however, as Ms. van Grouw does, there are distinct differences created by the needs of each species. Herons have evolved to hunt with wet feet, sliding a narrow body between reeds as they hunt, lunging with bill. I've watched a Great Blue Heron stab into the water, rising with an impaled bullhead. Herons are musketeers of the marsh. Storks have evolved to hunt where bulky bodies work just fine, slimmness not a necessity. They snap at prey found.

Form has followed function, as Ms. van Grouw illustrates. Anatomy is destiny.

These drawings tell many stories, answer many questions. On the foot of a heron is a middle toe, its claw pectinated -- comb-like, a grooming tool. The feet of grebes, as big as a hand on the page, resemble baseball gloves, webbed to provide propulsion. The grouse drawing shows a very deep breastbone, its keel, large to accommodate attachment of the strong muscles that allow these birds to jump into rapid flight. 

And here is Willie Loman from "Death of a Salesman," a Little Penguin, its flesh removed, slouching home after a bad day at the office. The preen gland, something all birds have in common, plus tail and wing feathers remain, vague clues.

We began with a chicken. Here it is, on page 213, a Cornish Broiler, feathers gone, near oven-ready. It has the body and thighs of a bird two or three times its size, awkward looking, completely lacking the grace of other birds. We have created something grotesque. (That, however, does not affect flavor.)

It's early in the year, but I doubt if 2013 will see a book published that is more interesting or fascinating or better done than Ms. van Grouw's. It is $49.95, worth every penny, a world-wide birding expedition like no other.

 

 

 

 

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