Before I get into my review of The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw, I feel as though I should tell you that I am curious about everything. I buy and read textbooks for fun. I like to go beneath the surface of things to see what makes them tick. Going beneath the surface of birds is exactly what van Grouw does in The Unfeathered Bird.
As the former curator of ornithological collections at London’s Natural History Museum, van Grouw has spent years preparing bird specimens for exhibit. She is also a taxidermist and a trained artist. One might say both figuratively and literally that she knows birds inside and out. Her latest book puts that knowledge on display for the curious bird enthusiast.
The Unfeathered Bird contains 385 illustrations in its 304 ten by twelve inch pages. Despite the incredible number of pictures in the book, it is also quite full of textual information. Detailed illustrations of the head of a tawny owl (Strix aluco) sketched by the author from an actual specimen, for example, are accompanied by an in-depth discussion of the purpose for the various structures and their influence upon the bird’s behavior. The author notes that the owl’s eye position gives it a very narrow field of binocular vision, a feature that would normally limit its ability to judge distances. By bobbing the head to view objects from multiple angles, however, the owl is able to make up for this physical limitation and judge distances with extreme accuracy.
While it’s tempting to say that The Unfeathered Bird reduces birding to its bare bones, and, indeed it is full of detailed drawings of the skeletal structures of birds as well as the musculature and other layers normally obscured by feathers, van Grouw does not give us just a bare bones look at birds. She fleshes out and feathers a wide variety of bird species with rich detail of their behavior, anatomy, and evolutionary adaptations.
The Unfeathered Bird provides the information one would expect of a text, but is written in a style that is much more easily read and digested. I could not resist flipping through the book quickly for the illustrations when I first received it. As I did so, however, I was repeatedly caught up in the text and ended up reading it cover to cover in just two sittings.
The Unfeathered Bird is not a field guide by any means. Rather, it is what I like to call a bad weather birding book. When conditions make it difficult to get out into the field, books like Katrina van Grouw’s The Unfeathered Bird provide an opportunity for birding enthusiasts to increase the depth of their ornithological knowledge while being thoroughly entertained, all in the warmth and comfort of the great indoors.
The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw is scheduled to be released on February 13 at a suggested retail price of $49.95 for the oversized hard-cover. This review is based on a complimentary advance copy provided by Princeton University Press.