‘The Unfeathered Bird’, Katrina van Grouw
Just last week I reviewed Ceri Levy and Ralph Steadman’s ‘Extinct Boids‘, a sumptuously large book that is part-art, part-story, part-history, a riot of colour and unfettered imagination that is (in my opinion anyway) a dazzling achievement, its 100 unique paintings born in a blaze of creativity. I adore it. I will return to it again and again, but for all the work that went into ‘Extinct Boids’ it’s difficult to say with any conviction that it is an essential buy. Given the budget constraints that many of us are living under, I would guess that if a birder had a choice between either buying ‘Boids’ or a field-guide to a newly-opened region of Africa or Asia the largely functional will probably take precedence over the largely pleasurable.
Anyone reading this may be wondering why I’m talking about ‘Boids’ and not ‘The Unfeathered Bird’ Katrina van Grouw’s sublime study of what birds look like when their skin and/or their feathers are peeled away, of how their skeletons have evolved to enable different birds to do what they do so differently (think hummingbirds hovering, albatrosses gliding, raptors being rapacious and so on). It’s because though clearly not the same, there are quite interesting parallels between both books. Like ‘Boids’ ‘The Unfeathered Bird’ is unique, will pull you into a world you may never have thought of visiting from the moment the first page is opened, and like ‘Boids’ the images in ‘The Unfeathered Bird’ are so powerful, beautiful, and original that the text seems almost an afterthought – until you read it when you realise it’s actually a perfect accompaniment. And of course, some birders may also wonder why they would want ‘The Unfeathered Bird’ in their library (or ‘on groaning bookshelves tucked away where they can’t get in the way of normal family life’ – though that may just be me of course…).
As with ‘Boids’ I suspect that many birders may need to be persuaded to give ‘The Unfeathered Bird’ a chance, because there has never been (if my experience is anything to go by anyway) a queue lining up to buy a book the size of a small car which – if you were to write an unfeathered description – is a collection of more than 300 drawings of the bones and bills, skulls and spines, of some two hundred birds. With no colour plates! There is plenty of sepia and shades of brown, but if you’re looking for rainbows then open ‘Boids’. But ‘The Unfeathered Bird’ deserves to be given far more than just ‘a chance’. It deserves to be savoured, treasured, dipped in and out off for years to come. No, there is no ‘first ever illustration of So-and-so’s Tyrannulet’ (and don’t get me wrong I’m all for illustrations of species I’ve never heard of) but Katrina van Grouw has created something marvellous that may have emerged from a less frenetic firestorm than Steadman’s boids (this book’s gestation period spans decades rather than months), but is just as characterful, thought-provoking and (in a very different way) as technically brilliant.
And brilliant it is. One of the most striking things about ‘The Unfeathered Bird’ is how Katrina has somehow captured that often elusive character of the living bird, jizz. Considering that these are all illustrations of dead birds, they are often incredibly (as in ‘unbelievably’) life-like and realistic. Flawlessly accurate, these are not just bare-bones drawings of specimens lying on an artist’s workspace. Many are drawn as if perched and looking around or feeding exactly as they would be in life (the sequence of a Rook in various states of undress landing then darting forward to pick up a prey item is remarkable). There is example after example and no doubt each reader will come away with their own favourite, but the illustration of a Wilson’s Petrel, a skeleton dancing across the water surface, head down and wings raised, is so real that the birder in me recognised the species well before I glanced at the caption below. It’s genuinely amazing.
And surprisingly ‘The Unfeathered Bird’ is actually quite amusing too. ‘Amusing’ isn’t a word I was expecting I’d ever be using to describe this book when I first heard about it some three years ago. The way the project was described to me (which was not a first-hand account of course) was that an artist who had worked at the Natural History Museum was busy collecting up carcasses and roadkill which she was stripping down using carrion beetles. She was then going to draw in fine detail what was left. It sounded kind of interesting, but a little on the dry and academic side for my tastes. Just shows what I knew…
So, ‘amusing’. Going back to that unfeathered – or bald – description of a book filled with drawings of bones, you (or me) might imagine that ‘The Unfeathered Bird’ might be tonally on the macabre side. Probably quite a lot macabre actually. But in Katrina’s dexterous hands ‘The Unfeathered Bird’ is not only a masterclass in shade and light, detail and scale, delicacy and precision but it displays a wonderful sense of humour too (and not the humour of the guillotine). It may not sound particularly funny, but I challenge anyone to look at the skeleton of a Budgerigar peering at itself in a mirror (below) and not smile. Or to look at the Red-and-Green Macaw, skin (and therefore feathers) removed, chewing on a pencil with a dangerous glint in its eyes without grinning back. It takes real skill plus knowledge of the subject to pull a trick like that off, but Katrina clearly has both in spades.
The temptation with a book like ‘The Unfeathered Bird’ is to just concentrate on the wondrous images and skip over the text. I haven’t worked it out exactly, but the text probably fills a third of this book. It’s not there just to fill space (I’ve a feeling that Katrina could have easily covered every inch of paper with sketches and drawings), and like Ceri Levy’s seemingly underrated text in ‘Extinct Boids’ is just as deserving of attention.
I won’t go into full details (they’re available on Katrina’s website and other reviews) but gratifyingly free of jargon or unnecessary technospeak, the writing is as deft as the artwork. To be an artist this observant is something in itself, but to be able to partner those observations with words as well is almost unfair! It is packed with information, explanations that follow the illustrations and tell why bills or keel bones are shaped the way they are, what the differences in the physical construction of New World and Old World Vulture skulls tells us about their lineages, how on earth a hummingbird is able to rotate its wings at such high speed without dislocating them. There are things in here that would make great pub quiz questions (eg ‘What is unique about the Ostrich? It only has two toes’, which I didn’t know): in fact each page helps to make sense of why birds are structurally the way they are (form follows function), and how they differ ‘under the skin’. There is also a sound conservation message throughout, which speaks volumes about how Katrina views her subjects (she is at pains to make clear that no birds were killed to create ‘The Unfeathered Bird’ which is good to know – I have to admit that some of the gloss would have been lost had she ‘collected’ specimens from the wild to make this book).
I’m going to make one more comparison with ‘Extinct Boids’ before I wrap this review, and that’s to give a grateful nod to the publishers. Katrina starts her book by acknowledging the debt she owes her publisher (and ends with a lovely and touching tribute to her husband incidentally), and I’d like to add my thanks to Princeton University Press too. Like ‘Boids’ this is a classy production from start to finish. It’s large, expensive-looking, nearly three hundred pages long, took years to finish – and will probably not sell in anything like the numbers it needs to make a substantial return on what’s been invested in it. For so long now the conventional wisdom has been that large and costly ‘deadwood’ books like these will fall victim to the accountant’s axe to be replaced by e-books and apps. No doubt the trend in publishing is in that direction, but it’s to the credit of everyone involved that books like ‘The Unfeathered Bird’ are still being made. Three cheers then to the decision-makers that okayed this project and allowed us all to revel in it.
So, to go back to where I started then, is this an essential buy? No, but it’s remarkable, beautiful, unexpected, and you will never almost certainly have seen anything like it before. I’ve been fascinated by birds for most of my life, but after reading ‘The Unfeathered Bird’ I’m looking at them in a slightly different way, seeing more than I did before, and I’m pretty sure that anyone – birder or non-birder – will react in much the same way. So get one for a friend too…
The Unfeathered Bird Katrina van Grouw | Hardback | 304 pages | 385 colour illustrations | 01 Dec 2012 | Princeton University Press | ISBN: 9780691151342