The Unfeathered Bird

There is more to a bird than simply feathers. And just because birds evolved from a single flying ancestor, doesn't mean they are structurally all the same. With over 300 stunning drawings representing 200 species, The Unfeathered Bird is the most richly illustrated book on bird anatomy ever produced and offers a refreshingly original insight into what goes on beneath the surface. Each exquisite drawing is made from an actual specimen and reproduced in sumptuous large format. The birds are shown in lifelike positions and engaged in behaviour typical of the species: a fish's-eye view of a swimming loon skeleton, the musculature of a porpoising penguin, and an unfeathered sparrowhawk plucking its prey. Jargon free and easily accessible to any reader, the lively text relates birds' anatomy with their lifestyle and evolution, examining such questions as, why penguins are bigger than auks, whether harrier hawks really have double-jointed legs, and the difference between wing claws and wing spurs. A landmark in popular ornithological literature, The Unfeathered Bird is a must for anyone with an appreciation of birds, bird art, or both.

  • A unique book that bridges art, science, and history
  • Over 300 beautiful drawings, artistically arranged in a sumptuous large-format book
  • Accessible, jargon-free text—the only book on bird anatomy aimed at the general reader
  • Drawings and text all made with direct reference to actual bird specimens
  • Includes most anatomically distinct bird groups
  • Many species never illustrated before

Review Highlights

"Unsettling and irresistible. . . . [The birds] are drawn and described in the text, with great skill and attention to the details—of their structure, their evolution and their lives—and with a slightly wicked sense of humour that appears often enough to lift the book beyond another compendium of bird life. . . . This is a coffee-table book, and compelling images are enough to sell such a volume, but The Unfeathered Bird delivers on the other promise of such books, not always fulfilled, that there should be something to read. . . . [I]f you love the natural world for its astonishments, for something as obvious but thrilling as the huge variety of shapes that birds and their parts have evolved, then The Unfeathered Bird won't disappoint."—James Gorman, New York Times

"Van Grouw's focus on the skeleton rather than on external appearance gives the book a special power. Van Grouw's book was 25 years in the making: surprisingly quick, considering the work involved. An international list of friends, colleagues, farmers, conservationists—and the occasional taxidermist—donated dead birds for her (and her taxidermist husband) to pluck, skin and boil down to their skeletons. And draw—exquisitely."—Alison Abbott, Nature

"Although her detailed drawings of bones, skeletons, muscles, and other internal tissues would not be out of place in a treatise on avian anatomy, van Grouw intends them to reveal how birds' 'appearance, posture, and behavior influence, and are influenced by, their internal structure.'"—Science

"I cannot recommend The Unfeathered Bird highly enough—it's sumptuous and wonderful and should be obtained by anyone interested in birds, in anatomy, or in zoological art."—Darren Naish, Scientific American

"The Unfeathered Bird is a treasure trove of 585 stunning anatomical drawings of 200 bird species in various states of undress. [Van Grouw] offers beautiful, enlightening illustrations of musculature and details of eyes, orbits, bills, ears, feet, skulls, wings, tongues, bones. Her drawings would be sufficient by themselves, but Ms. van Grouw has also provided a thorough, accurate, and accessible text which further explains anatomical details and evolutionary relationships. There is nothing in the literature of birds or bird art that is anything like The Unfeathered Bird. Anyone who loves birds and bird art will want this volume."—Wayne Mones, Audubon Magazine web site

"The 300+ drawings—of skinned birds, their muscular and skeletal anatomy exposed in lifelike poses—are extraordinary, a sort of 2-D bird 'Body Worlds.'. . . [The text is] lucid, colloquial, packed with information, and leavened with humor, it brings a grasp of bird evolution and adaptation within any reader's reach. . . . A magnificent—and accessible—monograph on biodiversity."—Annie Gottlieb, Scientist

"This fusion of art and science is a fascinating coffee table book that boosts that genre to another level. It invites you to browse but then catches your interest and when I intended to look through it as if waiting for the coffee to arrive I found myself slowing up to read about how the environmental niche needs skeletal variation and what makes for diving and what merely submerging. Pre-DNA taxonomy has relied on skeletal differences to reveal the phylogenetic tree so this look beneath the skin is not mere curiosity but science with a capital 'S'. On the other hand there is a beauty on the form. I've always loved scientific drawings whether of birds or botanical specimens as there is not just science in their accuracy but beauty too."—Bo Beolens, Fatbirder

"This coffee-table book would make a good gift for someone with an interest in bird or anatomy art."—Ian Paulsen, Birdbooker Report

"Gives us genuinely new insights into the behaviour of living species."—Stephen Moss, Guardian

Q & A

Q. What gave you the idea for The Unfeathered Bird?
A. As one book review begins, "This is the best book ever to be inspired by a dead duck." The story began in 1987 when I was an undergraduate Fine Art student. I did artwork of living birds and wanted to learn more about what goes on beneath the feathered surface. I found an excellent specimen on the beach, a female Mallard that had probably been accidentally drowned during copulation (it happens sometimes with Mallards...) so she was in perfect condition—apart from being dead. I spent months drawing the musculature and skeleton, which I cleaned and reassembled. During this time I decided that it would be a great idea to produce a book of anatomical drawings specifically aimed at other artists, to help them produce accurate visualisations of birds. It was only afterwards that I realised that such a book—about the structural adaptations of birds— would be of interest to many other people too. I produced the book because I believed it needed to exist, and knew I could do it better than anyone else.

Q. The Unfeathered Bird is dedicated to Amy. Who is Amy?
A. Lots of people ask that. It's quite funny because they often think they're prying and asking something terribly personal. Amy was the dead duck that inspired the book. After all, if you spend eight months with a dead duck it has to have a name!

Q. Why does The Unfeathered Bird follow such an antiquated taxonomic order?
A. Aha! That was one of my most inspired and original decisions, and the one that caused me the greatest anxiety. Lots of people asked me which taxonomic order I'd be following, assuming I'd be favouring either molecular or traditional taxonomy based on the chronological sequence of bird evolution. However, I wanted to discuss convergent evolution—how unrelated birds can acquire a similar appearance and internal structure through adaptations to a similar lifestyle. For example, I wanted to compare auks with penguins; and storks with cranes and herons. So I chose to use Linnaean taxonomy. It's pre-Darwinian, so it groups birds together simply according to their behaviour. (Another offshoot of this was that it lent itself to a discussion of birds generically in part one, and bird groups specifically in part two—borrowing the terms for the two taxonomic divisions introduced by Linnaeus). It was perfect for my needs, even though I did lie awake for many nights worrying about whether people would 'get it'! Thankfully they did.

Q. Why didn't you label the body parts?
A. I wanted to keep the focus as broad as possible, on adaptations in living birds—like looking through the binoculars from the wrong end— without putting readers under pressure to read and learn a lot of unnecessary long anatomical names. I also deliberately kept the text jargon-free in an effort to make it accessible to everyone, so annotating the drawings simply wasn't necessary. Annotate a drawing and it becomes a diagram, and that was something I absolutely didn't want. The Unfeathered Bird was intended as the antithesis to academic textbooks.

Q. How long did it take to produce The Unfeathered Bird?
A. From conception to publication, 25 years! However, much of that time was spent writing letters to publishers and receiving rejections (I have a big file full of them). The real work was at the beginning and, at the end. The problem was that most publishers have preconceived ideas about who would buy a book about bird anatomy. They considered the subject to be of interest only to academics, while I believed that it would be enjoyed by scientists, artists and general nature lovers alike, which had proven to be the case.

Q. Where did you get your specimens?
A. There's no substitute for preparing specimens yourself if you really want to learn about anatomy. All sorts of errors can be found in museum specimens, and even commercially prepared skeletons, so blindly drawing from these will just perpetuate the errors. I was lucky in that I had a lot of contacts who'd post birds to me they'd find dead. Bird hospitals, conservation charities and bird keepers would also pass corpses on to me and many were very happy to be able to give the unfortunate birds a 'life after death'. We also have taxidermist friends who usually have interesting things in their freezers that they could be persuaded to part with for a good cause. One thing I won't ever do is buy specimens; even if it is entirely legal. I don't think it's right to exchange money for dead wild animals.

Q. Did you use many museums?
A. Public museum galleries are seldom useful for accurate drawing as it's impossible to gain a three-dimensional understanding of an object without actually handling it. In most cases I used our own specimens. However, for some of the illustrations, particularly extinct or very exotic birds, some skulls, feet and individual bones, I needed to use museum specimens in scientific collections—the behind the scenes areas where the real treasure is kept. Sadly many museums are obstructive to artists visiting their collections unless they're illustrating a book for publication, and then they'll treat it as commercial and levy hefty bench fees. I guess they either don't know, or don't care, that most illustrators exist in a state of extreme penury, and publishers won't usually cover these costs for non-commissioned books. I refuse to pay museum bench fees out of principle; museum collections belong to the people, and are there to be used. Fortunately there are still some museums enlightened enough to realise that if the world wants good quality books, authors and illustrators require free access to use the material they need.

Q. Bird anatomy is a very specialised subject. I presume this book is mainly bought by veterinary students and academics?
A. This preconception was actually one of the main reasons why the book took 25 years to get published. No-one could imagine an anatomy book NOT being academic. But since its publication it's been used and loved by birders, naturalists, painters, sculptors, taxidermists, poets, mask-makers, aviators, falconers, bibliophiles, palaeontologists, puppeteers, zookeepers, creature-designers and animatronics-people (and a few academics and vets too). The pictures have been used in a trendy Berlin cocktail bar, on Diesel t-shirts, and tattooed onto several people's bodies, and I get letters of thanks from university professors and 12-year old boys and girls. Not bad for a specialised book, eh?!

Q. I prefer my birds with the feathers on! Why would I want to know about bones?
A. That's a sad question—and I'm afraid it deserves a blunt response. Why would anyone choose ignorance over enlightenment about a subject they claim to have an interest in? For me, understanding the way birds are structurally adapted to their lifestyle has increased my enjoyment of them a thousand-fold. And, for the record, I also prefer birds with their feathers on.

Q. Which of the drawings were most difficult?
A. Sometimes it was impossible to find dead birds of the species I wanted to include so I had to use mounted skeletons in museums. The drawback with this is that many historical skeletons have been mounted in dull or inaccurate postures, or have become damaged over time, so I'd need to do 'on paper' repairs. Sometimes, however, no mounted skeletons were available at all—just boxes of disarticulated bones in scientific collections—so I devised a clever technique for articulating them on paper, by drawing a different species in the posture I wanted, then replacing each of the bones with a drawing of one from the correct species. A technique a friend termed a 'total bone transplant'! It works remarkably well, but it is hellishly difficult.

Q. Are there any other editions of The Unfeathered Bird available?
There's a Kindle edition. Although I don't use a Kindle personally, I can see the attraction of this for illustrated books as it allows you to zoom in on the images. There's also a Dutch edition De Ontevederde Vogel, and a Chinese edition currently in production. I have been asked whether there'll be an audio-book though I think this highly unlikely as my books would lose half their charm without the illustrations.