Book Review: “The Unfeathered Bird”

The book I am going to review here is not about sabertooths, but it is very pertinent to the basic theme of this blog; the combination of research and artistry as tools to investigate the nature of animals, either living or extinct.

unfeathered bird cover3

Many years ago, in a review of Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”, C.S. Lewis wrote: “This book is like lightning from a clear sky”. I think it is no exaggeration to say the same about Katrina van Grouw’s “The Unfeathered Bird”. This book makes the secrets of bird anatomy available to the general public like never before, with a rare combination of masterly draftsmanship and clear, unpretentious prose.

There is nothing out there that can remotely compare to this gorgeous volume. The “East African Mammals” series of books by Jonathan Kingdon are an egregious precedent but of course they do not deal with birds. And yet these two authors have something very important in common: they are not using the illustrated book format just as a vehicle to offer the general reader a more or less simplified version of standard knowledge. On the contrary, their books give shape to, and share with us, the authors’ first-hand discoveries in the natural world.

This “firsthand-ness” (sorry for the invented word) makes Von Grouw and Kingdon part of a selected group of artists-naturalists that have taken to heart the marriage of Art and Science that we so often hear about, but so rarely see. There is a thread leading from the Ice Age painters of Altamira and Chauvet, to Leonardo da Vinci, to Charles Knight and a few others, who have looked at Nature with an eye that is at the same time keen, unforgiving, humble and admiring. They have all been researchers in their own right, and their well-honed drawing tools are used for depicting their findings in a thoroughly faithful way.

That is what gives Leonardo’s sketches their undying appeal: they are inseparable from his study subjects, a point that is missed by the countless imitations that only seem to notice the superficial “style”. And that appeal is every bit as vigorously present in Von Grouw’s drawings. They are accurate chronicles of her journey of many years in search of the secrets of birds, of the unseen relationship between internal structure and external shape. And that is the reason why it is fully justified to say that “you will never see the birds the same way again” after reading and admiring this book.


There is so much in this book that you will not find anywhere else. van Grouw knows her subject in depth and has written a thoroughly readable text that is sure to tell you things you didn’t know about birds’ anatomy and adaptations, whatever your previous level of knowledge. But of course the core of the volume is the stunning collection of drawings that show the birds as the unfeathered creatures that the book title promises, or as clean skeletons in life poses, or anything in between, plus many drawings that show close-ups of details of a skull or a feet that reveal some striking adaptation.

If you have any interest in birds, or in anatomy, or in Nature, or in Art as the most honest expression of human creativity, you cannot miss “The Unfeathered Bird”: it celebrates all these things with contagious joy, but you cannot help noticing that this triumph has not been lightly attained. It has obviously taken blood, sweat and tears, and we have to be grateful to the author for that. I certainly am.


Go grab  your copy FAST, for instance follow this Amazon link:


Posted on 06/07/2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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