(Cross-posted from The Nature of Things.)
Heft this book, open it at random, and your first reaction might be, "Ah, a coffee-table book." And it could well be, but this is much more than just a coffee-table book, even as birds are much more than just their feathers.
The birds in Katrina van Grouw's astonishing book have been defeathered, often skinned and disassembled right down to their musculature or their skeletons, but they are always fully recognizable as birds.
Their unfeathered selves are real specimens that are posed in the act of flying, walking, or standing, even as they would have in life. Ms. van Grouw has rendered them in monochromatic drawings that are remarkably detailed and absolutely mesmerizing.
The author hastens to assure us that "no birds were harmed" in the production of the book. She has taken specimens that were already dead and prepared them for her drawings.
If that were all there was to this book, it could pass as a beautiful art book, but it is really much more than that. The text is informative and is written with great good humor. It tells us much about the lives of these birds and how they go about making their livings. It is almost as riveting as the drawings, and it is the perfect accompaniment to them.
Now, I am an avid birder, so perhaps it is not surprising that I should find a book about how their bodies are put together and how they work to be a fascinating bit of work. But I really don't think that you need be even very interested in birds to be able to enjoy this book. If you simply possess a modicum of curiosity about the natural world; if you are charmed by art that depicts animals, especially birds; if you enjoy erudite and witty writing, then I think you are the perfect audience for the book.
Katrina van Grouw is a gifted writer and artist who obviously knows her birds. As a former curator of the ornithological collection at London's Natural History Museum, she also knows her bird art. She says that the creation of The Unfeathered Bird has been her lifetime's ambition. It was a worthy ambition and she has fulfilled it beautifully.
(A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher for the purposes of this review. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.)