Below the Feathers

Artist Katrina van Grouw looks past the feathers to see the beauty in birds.

Thanksgiving dinner aside, the phrase “beautiful bird” might call to mind some flashy feathers. But for artist Katrina van Grouw, avian appeal is not always plume deep; it’s below the surface, in the form and structure of a bird’s muscles and bones.

Her new book, The Unfeathered Bird (Princeton University Press, 2013), unveils that hidden, sometimes haunting, beauty. It features hundreds of drawings depicting some 200 species of birds in various stages of “undress”—that is, stripped of their feathers and skin to reveal the structures below. Accompanying text describes the birds’ morphology as it relates to function and avian evolution.

Gentoo penguin (“Pygoscelis papua”). Skin removed. © Katrina van Grouw

Van Grouw, who is formally trained in art and once curated the ornithological collections at London’s Natural History Museum, says the inspiration for the book came when she was an undergraduate, working on drawings of living birds. “I wanted to do some background research about bird anatomy so I would get the living birds right. And I thought, hey, it’s really useful for artists to be able to actually understand the anatomy underneath the subjects,” she says. “That idea evolved into something much bigger—to make a book that would be interesting to all bird lovers and nature lovers, not just for artists.”

Woodpigeon (“Columba palumbus”). Upper side and underside of right wing with covert feathers removed to show attachment of flight feathers. Some inner secondaries were missing from this specimen. © Katrina van Grouw

In spite of that description, however, “this book is not an anatomy of birds,” writes van Grouw, who is also a taxidermy specialist. “This is really a book about the outside of the birds. About how their appearance, posture, and behavior influence, and are influenced by, their internal structure.”

Van Grouw created the drawings for the book—which include everything from great cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) to Cornish broilers (Gallus gallus)—by working with actual specimens of dead birds, including many that people collected and sent to her. She and her husband prepared the specimens in natural poses, and she sketched and painted them life-sized. While most of the drawings are in pencil, van Grouw says she changed the color digitally “to give the drawings that lovely sepia tone.”

Great spotted woodpecker (“Dendrocopos major”). Left: skin removed but tail left attached. Right: skeletal. © Katrina van Grouw

“Lovely” might not be the first word that comes to mind upon seeing skinned and skeletal woodpeckers pecking their way up a snag, but van Grouw bristles at the suggestion that her artwork might make viewers uncomfortable. “I always flinch when people say that it’s a bit gory,” she says.

“What I was trying to do visually was to make pictures that were reminiscent of the beautiful illustrations you had in the 19th century,” says van Grouw, such as Osteologia Avium by Thomas Eyton and James Erxleben’s illustrations of Moa bones. “You had some gorgeous under-the-surface drawings and engravings of bones and musculature,” she says. “I’m trying to put together the beauty of the best of 19th-century illustrations together with up-to-date text that’s more about evolution and adaptation of living birds, as opposed to dead ones.”

No birds were harmed during the making of the book, van Grouw notes. “I relied exclusively on the goodwill of birds dying naturally in places where they could be found and on the goodwill of a great many people who picked them up for me,” she writes. You can see more of van Grouw’s work (including her seascapes) at her website.

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About Annette Heist

Annette Heist is a former senior producer for Science Friday.