Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Unfeathered Bird - today's dinosaurs, undressed

Katrina van Grouw's The Unfeathered Bird is undoubtedly the best ever book to be inspired by a dead duck. It's also been out there for a number of months now and has quite rightly been met with near-universal critical acclaim, so you could quite easily accuse me of lagging behind somewhat. Which I am, but rather fortuitously there is a special exhibition starting this very weekend at the Natural History Museum in Tring, dedicated to the book. Not only that, but Niroot and I were recently fortunate enough to meet Katrina, and the dino-talk that bored her rigid might actually be of interest to you lot. So it is timely, you see. Oh yes, and the book really is bloody marvellous, so it can't be praised anywhere near enough! (Needless to say, images are used with permission and aren't for printing out, carrying around in a dirty overcoat and selling on street corners.)

As you are no doubt already aware, The Unfeathered Bird is packed to bursting with sumptuous anatomical illustrations of birds. At the very least, they are missing their feathers; in many cases, they are reduced to their skeletons. Katrina worked as the curator of the bird collections at the Natural History Museum (in Tring, where they are based) for 94 years*, and one would be forgiven for assuming that the majority of the pieces in The Unfeathered Bird are based on pre-assembled, pristine, complete, mounted skeletons, the likes of which you might see on display in the museum. In fact, a great many of them are based on specimens that were quite literally in pieces - a bone here, a bone there, that Katrina had to painstakingly reconstruct. It makes the sheer achievement in putting this book together all the more astonishing.

Great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)

For the lay person such as I, this book serves as a beautiful reminder of the closeness of even highly derived modern birds, their skeletons often stretched and warped in fantastic ways, to non-avian theropod dinosaurs. Everyone who fancies themselves as a dinosaur artist needs to see this book - there are a great many lessons to learn. It also provides further proof, as has been so drilled home by what some would rather I didn't call the 'All Yesterdays movement', that soft tissue and integument can make an animal appear radically different to how one might guess it would look based on its skeleton. Of course there are the likes of owls, their gorgeous facial discs formed entirely by feathers. However, perhaps the most startling pieces in The Unfeathered Bird concern more everyday avian dinosaurs, the likes of which you might see flitting around your seed feeder...

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

For example, how many people would guess that a robin (above) has such long, elegant legs and feet under all that floof? Not to mention the fact that, shorn of feathers, its stubby wings look ridiculous. The Unfeathered Bird also contains a sojourn into the terrifying Twilight Zone of domestic fowl, in which the hand of humanity has warped nature's creations in ever more bizarre and twisted ways. It's not for the faint hearted.

The Unfeathered Bird is a rare book that can be appreciated equally from scientific and artistic perspectives; educational and insightful, it can also be enjoyed as art purely for its own sake. The animals are meticulously reconstructed, detailed down to the last suture and often posed as if engaging in intriguing behaviours, such as the (plucked) sparrowhawk plucking its pigeon prey, or the trumpet manucode displaying with its amazing coiled windpipe on view. The accompanying text naturally takes a back seat to the artwork, but is nevertheless a warm and informative read. We have a lot to thank Amy for.

Magnificent frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) chasing white-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus)

In short - buy it immediately. IMMEDIATELY! And if you get the chance, do pop down to Tring to check out The Unfeathered Bird exhibition at the Natural History Museum, which is free and runs from March 22 until May 5.

We're not finished yet, however - expect a treat from Niroot tomorrow...

*Sorry, it's a New Scientist/Private Eye referencing in-joke - it was actually seven years.


  1. I got it the week it came out on Amazon half price, I don't know if it's still that low. Not that she doesn't deserve the full price of the book, but it made it that much sweeter for a grad student who writes about dinosaurs and is taking ornithology right now. Wonderful book though.

  2. At last, other dinosaur-related blogs besides mine are reviewing modern bird stuff! Guess it took bones to do the trick.

    (Joking of course; it's been done before on both this blog and others. Keep it up though!)


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