The Unfeathered Bird

frontcoverThis remarkable book goes well with chicken and, I would think, a nice dry white wine that hasn’t seen the inside of an oak barrel. Because a chicken is the closest most of us ever get to a featherless bird. Or, given the season, you could go with a turkey. Both of these birds are served upside down, which has always disorientated me. But, with the legs, thighs, wings, breastbone, back, wishbone… if you’re a poultry eater, you’re half-way to being an avian anatomist. It’s still hard to imagine these cooked carcasses as a bird, though, isn’t it? They have been manipulated by domestication to become ridiculously breast-heavy. Plucked, they look like that old union-busting troll Frank Perdue. But the basics are right there on your plate.

And yet, how astonishingly plastic those basics turn out to be….

Katrina van Grouw’s book is a labor of love, an epic, illustrated — indeed, hand drawn — examination of the variety of forms found underneath feathers, skin, and organs. She is mostly, but not solely, concerned with the skeleton: in birds, these are generally light and airy structures on a chickeny plan, but with an astonishing number of variations. The breast bone, for instance; strong fliers need a deep keel to attach those breast muscles to, weak fliers not so much; flightless birds look completely different again. Then there are the number and placement of toes (those tiny, scaly, graspy things most people call bird feet are actually just the toes). We classify the song birds, passerines, not only because of their syrinx, but by their three forward toes/one backward toe plan, good for grasping branches to perch upon. The location of the legs, too: for instance, out on the sides for loons, who are excellent swimmers but unable to do anything much on land but awkwardly crawl.

Did you know that, in categorizing birds, Linnaeus commented on the taste of their flesh?

Van Grouw also draws some interior views of pigeons: the so-called fancy pigeons (I think some of them are Frankenstein-fancy, if you know what I mean), bred for generations for certain characteristics like tiny or enormous bills, or enormous crops as in the case of the “English Pouters.” Yet all are Columba livia, the “same” rock dove/feral pigeon we see on our streets (and sidewalks and awnings and bridges and…). Darwin was another person amazed by the variety of manipulations unnatural selection could wrought on the shape, form, skeleton of a species — something we can also see in domestic dogs, where breeds and mutts span a mind-bending gamut. The very bones, which seem so solid, can change, and rather surprisingly quickly, too. There is much in this book about evolution, taxonomy, and the always shifting ground that are species, which all goes to illustrate the illustrations.
vanGVan Grouw will be speaking tonight at the Linnaean Society of New York and on Thursday at the Brooklyn Bird Club. The Princeton University Press, which has a very impressive natural history line, published this book. Ardea herodiasA Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias, with its long neck folded, and standing on one long leg.

3 Responses to “The Unfeathered Bird”


  1. 1 Ms. Carol Gracie November 12, 2013 at 8:28 am

    Yes, a fascinating book. Artist friends tell me that it’s most helpful for assuring that their drawings/paintings of birds are accurate. What a wonderful review written with intelligence and humor. I’ve been enjoying your blog since Rebecca introduced us at BBP in Sept.

    Carol Gracie

    http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9668.html

    amazon.com/author/carol.gracie

    Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast A Natural History By Carol Gracie With a foreword by Eric Lamont


  1. 1 Books | Backyard and Beyond Trackback on December 18, 2013 at 8:06 am

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