The Unfeathered Bird, by Katrina van Grouw, Princeton University Press (http://press.princeton.edu), 2013, 304 pages, $49.95
In The Unfeathered Bird, taxidermist and fine artist Katrina van Grouw breaths new life into avian anatomy, unveiling a beautifully imagined world where birds slip off their skins. But these never-before-seen glimpses of birds in their birthday suits are not what you might expect. Van Grouw’s world is not a peek into the sterile laboratory of natural history museums, but instead nature’s dressing room, a place where in spite of their nakedness, the subjects of van Grouw’s drawings preen and perch, flap and fly, strut and stalk their prey. Think of these as unusual natural history accounts of all things plucked.
Rather than morbid or macabre, however, van Grouw’s drawings are alive and animated. Here a Gentoo penguin erupts from the frigid Antarctic water, there a European robin alights on the handle of a shovel with a worm clasped in its naked beak. Comically-crowned Cornish broilers and English game Bantams cavort in their goose-pimpled skins as though, having just awakened from a bad hangover to find themselves plucked and sandwiched in an eggshell of plastic wrap and styrofoam, they’ve clawed their way free to explore the frozen food section of the butcher’s display case. The hindquarters view of a Eurasian oystercatcher – head craned to peer over its shoulder, one leg upraised in a calculated stride – reveals more about the character and behavior of this plover-like wading bird than you might otherwise glean from the individual bones.
Accompanying van Grouw’s fine drawings are narratives describing first the anatomical features of birds in general (Part One: Generic), followed by subsections devoted to related groups of birds (Part Two: Specific). Van Grouw’s writing is as illuminating as her illustrations are alive, full of facts and thoughtful observations at a clip appropriate for the layperson.
Whereas an amateur might need some background in osteology or physiology to understand what a jig-saw-puzzle-jumble of bones have to say about their previous owner, van Grouw’s re-assemblages are artfully all-telling through their purposeful poise and posture. Never has there been so much life in a still-life. The Unfeathered Bird is perfect for the bio-curious, for those who’ve ever wanted to peek under the hood of a hummingbird, and for those interested in seeing their cold-cuts come to life.