Ornithologist as Georgia O’Keefe

[Michael discovers a kindred spirit in an author who lovingly, painstakingly dissects and illustrates hundreds of bird species. –the Artblog editors]
I first saw Katrina van Grouw’s “The Unfeathered Bird” (Princeton University Press; Princeton and Oxford, 2013 ) in the window of Princeton’s only bookstore. I was surprised. After all, had I not definitively nailed the subject of unfeathered birds in my poem with that title? She was not only stealing my title, but had expanded it into a coffee table art book.

Beaks, bones, and beauty

Front cover - "The Unfeathered Bird" by Katrina
“The Unfeathered Bird,” by Katrina van Grouw, front cover

Birds crash into glass windows. I was sitting, typing some essay off in a cottage in northern Ontario, when a grackle crashed into the window. I finished the paragraph and went outside to see what happened to the bird. It was not merely dead; it had been half-consumed by ground-dwelling bugs and mites. The skeleton was starting to emerge.

Whole flocks of migrating birds crash into New York skyscrapers. At dawn, walking downtown to the Staten Island Ferry, I encountered a flock of dead migrating warblers. I’m a mediocre birder, and I did not recognize the species. Warblers are the butterflies of birding. You have to know them. I scooped up one little corpse, wrapped it in paper and went back to my apartment on Staten Island. I still didn’t know what it was, but decided to postpone leafing through my bird books. Leaving the birdie in his wrapper, I put him the freezer and completely forgot about him.

And a month later, a new girlfriend said she was hungry and went to the kitchen and started puttering and–screamed.


Katrina van Grouw, a former curator of the ornithological collections at London’s Natural History Museum, filled her freezer, and her mother’s freezer, and a sizable number of the freezers of friends with dead birds from the world over. She then dissected them and made wonderful and instructive paintings. Van Grouw’s “The Unfeathered Bird” is a lively and enjoyable anatomy for birders. I’m pretty sure that the author, before embarking on this project, did not read my book proposal, “Anatomy for Sports Fans”. Man, if she did, I’d start to get pissed.

If Katrina van Grouw did happen to come across my poem, and took the title unconsciously, I am honored. Perhaps I myself came across the phrase somewhere else and unconsciously plagiarized it.

Van Grouw’s bird bones are as exquisite as Georgia O’Keefe’s skulls. “Unfeathered” is a word that occurs naturally to anyone wondering what makes birds fly, or swim, or sing–or lay eggs. Feathered birds are the matter of field guides. You can tell a bird’s species by her colors and arrangement of feathers. Birds don’t dress up their feathers for birders only, however.

Two of van Gruow's illustrations from the book
Two of Van Grouw’s illustrations from the book

Seabirds, for instance, are countershaded. The feathers of the shearwater and albatross are white on their undersides. Fish looking up see nothing but the sun. They are dark above. Airbound predators lose them in the wine-dark waves.

Warblers feed at dusk and dawn. They die at day, at night. Their hours are brief.

“The Unfeathered Bird” by Katrina van Grouw (Cloth, 2013, $49.95, ISBN: 9780691151342, 304 pages, 10×12; 385 duotones/color illustrations) is available from Princeton University Press.