The Unfeathered Bird, by Katrina van Grouw

Published on 17 May 2013 in Book reviews

M21377Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford; hbk, 304pp; many colour illustrations, ISBN 978-0-691-15134-2

Subbuteo code M21377, £34.95

This is a remarkable book! Large format, well presented, well written, beautifully illustrated with the authors own line-drawings. But (and it’s a big ‘but’), it is all about birds with their feathers off! Effectively, it is a textbook of avian anatomy, covering musculature and skeletal structure, with a detailed commentary on the adaptive significance of the various characteristics defined in the drawings.

It starts with a brief ‘generic’ section that details the basics of avian anatomy, with sections on the trunk, head and neck, wings, and legs. This describes and illustrates the commonality of the avian body and serves as an introduction to the rest of the book, which is a description of the structure and adaptations of individual orders and families. The taxonomy is a mix of ancient and modern, with major groups that follow Linnaeus and include Accipitres, Picae, Anseres, etc. These are often based upon external appearance rather than true evolutionary relationships, but serve to bring together groups with common adaptations. For example, Accipitres includes owls, vultures and diurnal raptors (all ‘hooky-beaks’), while Anseres encompasses waterfowl, penguins, divers, grebes – and just about everything else (more or less) that has webbed feet. A slightly bizarre taxonomy to the modern eye, but it serves to allow the author to pull together some excellent illustrations of convergent evolution.

The bulk of this book takes each of the major groups of birds and illustrates their (featherless) anatomy with a series of superb drawings supported by an authoritative text. Some illustrations are fascinating, including a Gentoo Penguin’s Pygoscelis papua tongue showing the barbs that help it hang onto its fish prey! I found the section on penguins particularly interesting. The author points out that Common Guillemots Uria aalge are the largest of the auks, and are about the same size as the smallest of the penguins, arguing that you can’t get any bigger if you want to fly. And, of course, in the northern hemisphere, most auks need to fly to avoid terrestrial predators. The flightless Great Auk Pinguinus impennis is (or rather was) convergent upon the larger penguins, and Katrina van Grouw shows how this convergence is based upon a rather different body plan. I also found in these pages one of the better explanations of why woodpeckers do not do themselves serious self-harm when hammering on a tree trunk – again with beautiful illustrations to support the argument.

All in all, this is a fascinating book, with masses of detailed description of birds’ structure, and the author relates this to their function and ultimately ecology. I doubt whether there really is such a beast as a ‘typical’ BB reader, and I wonder whether this book would appeal sufficiently to encourage them to part with £35. However, for three years at Durham in the 1960s, my undergraduate studies in zoology included a weekly dissection. My final examination included the dissection of the wing musculature of a pigeon. How I wish that I had had this book alongside me during that traumatic two hours!

David Parkin

Buy this book from the British Birds bookshop which is run by Subbuteo Natural History Books