Review: The Unfeathered Bird

The Unfeathered Bird
Katrina van Grouw
Princeton University Press

My early anticipation of The Unfeathered Bird was that of a large book of beautiful works of art; a wonderful treat to page through in visual awe. The author’s background as “curator of the ornithological collections at London’s Natural History Museum” along with her expertise at taxidermy form the foundation for the book. Her ability to draw with minute and precise detail make the birds come to life, despite them being mostly skeletal.

The visual appeal of The Unfeathered Bird is immense: 385 illustrations of birds without their conventional beauty. Yet the book shows just how spectacular birds are and how their structure forms the basis for what we see in the field. “In fact, this is really a book about the outside of birds. About how their appearance, posture, and behavior influence, and are influenced by, their internal structure.”

I spent a great deal of time paging through the artwork and that alone makes this book valuable for birders. But the explanations of the “generic” bird parts along with sections specifically focusing on families of birds, makes The Unfeathered Bird an incredible learning tool.

I’ve often taken for granted why a certain bird behaves a certain way, hunts a certain way, or just lives a certain way. But Katrina deconstructs the birds in a poetic way with both prose and picture, that anyone with an interest in birds can read and understand the way avian creatures work. You won’t be bogged down with confusing terms but instead will eagerly flip to the next page or next family of birds.

The Unfeathered Bird belongs as an aid to anyone studying ornithology, biology, evolution, or art. And while the book is oversized, it isn’t some coffee-table book destined for periodic browsing. It beckons to be read in detail and studied intently.

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