Books  Zoology  Ornithology  Biology, Ecology & Behaviour 

The Unfeathered Bird

Art / PhotobookPopular Science
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

By: Katrina van Grouw (Author)

287 pages, 385 colour illustrations

Princeton University Press

Hardback | Dec 2012 | #198784 | ISBN-13: 9780691151342
Availability: In stock
NHBS Price: £34.95 $43/€39 approx

About this book

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 depicting 200 species,The Unfeathered Bird is a richly illustrated book on bird anatomy that offers refreshingly original insights into what goes on beneath the feathered 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 behavior typical of the species: an underwater view of the skeleton of a swimming loon, 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 to 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 bird books,The Unfeathered Bird is a must for anyone who appreciates birds or bird art.

Watch a short presentation by the artist, Katrina van Grouw


"[...] The Unfeathered Bird is visually arresting and utterly unique. But I had been expecting that. What really surprised me is how much I loved reading it. It’s fascinating, relevant, and will deepen your appreciation for these amazing creatures."
– Grant McCreary (09-02-2013), read the full review at The Birder's Library

"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 humor 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.'"

"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. Von 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

"Katrina van Grouw's new book The Unfeathered Bird from Princeton University Press is likely to be one of the most desired books on gift lists this holiday season. This exquisitely illustrated study of bird anatomy is captivating in both its insight and its originality of illustration from the very first page."
– John Riutta, Well-Read Naturalist

"[H]ere is a book with a wide appeal, a book which deserves to be studied by birders with a scientific and/or artistic bent, ornithologists, bird artists, bird photographers, biologists, natural historians, and artists of all persuasions. The author states that the original intention was a book aimed at artists and it was only during the early stages that she realized it could have wider appeal. In my opinion it was a realization which has come to fruition in a beautifully crafted, scholarly and ultimately fine book [...] "
– Phil Slade, Another Bird Blog

"Haunting, stunning, a schooling for any other scientific illustrator out there. Illustrations that go beneath the feathered surface of birds and explore how their internal anatomy functions in different settings – one impressively underwater – is a scientific feat in itself. Truly challenges the idea that art is separate from scientific inquiry."
Discover Magazine

"I challenge any reader to walk away from this book without being blown away by the remarkable and diverse nature of birds. Just when you think you have seen every trick Avian Anatomy has to throw at you, you turn the page and are greeted by the windpipe of Phonygammus keraudrenii (the Trumpet Manucode) or the tongue of Picus viridis (the Green Woodpecker)."
– Samuel Barnett, Palaeosam's Blog

"Turning each page [is] an adventure. Particularly welcome is the large size with which many images are so boldly presented [...] It's early in the year, but I doubt if 2013 will see a book published that is more interesting or fascinating or better done than Ms. van Grouw's. It is $49.95, worth every penny, a world-wide birding expedition like no other."
– Jim Williams, WingNut, Minneapolis Star Tribune

"A work of passion [...] [Katrina van Grouw] has used her experience in ornithology and taxidermy to draw, over the course of her career, 385 beautiful illustrations of birds – all, as the book's title suggests, without their feathers. Her work shows the skeletal and muscular systems of 200 different species, from ostriches to hummingbirds, parrots to penguins, in life-like poses."
– Megan Gambino, Smithsonian Magazine

"Part of the strength of this anatomical extravaganza is its breadth, spanning the entire range of birds from primping parrots to posturing penguins, all in lifelike poses. Every image is arresting, but several – like the great cormorant, grey heron and rook – are so vibrant that they seem to fly off the page."
– Tim Birkhead, BBC Wildlife Magazine

"[A] remarkable blend of science and art, informative and factual but at the same time an expression of the beauty and wonder of life."
– Andy Stoddart

"Katrina van Grouw's book The Unfeathered Bird is a unique wonder that has joined the bird book firmament and as soon as I saw it I recognized it to be a monumental achievement."
– Ceri Levy, Caught by the River

"If you are a birder with an interest in how birds do what they do, this is an excellent book [...] This would also make a great gift for a birding friend who seems to have every bird book in print."
– Penny Miller, A Charm of Finches blog

"While it's tempting to say that The Unfeathered Bird reduces birding to its bare bones, and, indeed it is full of detailed drawings of the skeletal structures of birds as well as the musculature and other layers normally obscured by feathers, van Grouw does not give us just a bare bones look at birds. She fleshes out and feathers a wide variety of bird species with rich detail of their behavior, anatomy, and evolutionary adaptations."
– Brad Sylvester, Examiner

"Van Grouw's text describing what she's showing in the artwork is equally wonderful and enlightening. The Unfeathered Bird reveals things about birds that you may never have imagined, like the coiled wind-pipe of the Trumpet Manucode. Amazing!"
– Robert Mortensen, Birding is Fun!

"An illuminating and meticulously illustrated look at the brilliance of birds at the intersection of art, science and history, covering such intricate mysteries as how the ostrich lost two of its four toes and why the vulture diverged into radically different Old World and New World varieties [...] Meticulously researched, gloriously illustrated, and absorbingly narrated, The Unfeathered Bird lives at the heart of that timeless temple where art and science meet to enrich one another with 'systematic wonder.'"
– Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

"This is a book that everyone interested in birds should own and in particular, every bird painter, sculptor, and carver should be required to have this book and study it well. Overall the level of detail in the text is well matched with the artwork resulting in a comprehensive whole that I think meets the authors goal of making this book a well done 'convergence of art and science; accessibility and erudition; old and new – without compromise and without apology.'"
– John Carlson, Prairie Ice

"A one-of-a-kind book [...] This book is like a marriage of a technical ornithology book and an artist's portfolio but even better because the text reads in an entertaining fashion for anyone that is interested in birds."
– Eva Matthews, Flying Mullet

"In a world where traditional science illustration is dying and being replaced by digital and other technologies, it's nice to see someone who has not succumbed – who still uses pencils and paintbrushes to create illustrations that are not only informative, but rise to the level of fine art [...] The Unfeathered Bird deserves its place in the center of the coffee table: not only a must-have for the libraries of science artists, but as a classic for all lovers of natural history."
– Christopher Sloan, Science Visualization

"Van Grouw's lifelong experience as fine artist and as a bird curator at the Natural History Museum, taxidermist and ringer have stood her in good stead in creating this hybrid marvel of history, art and ornithology. It is also readable, rather than filled with off-putting scientific terminology [...] This acts as both a fine reference and an expert artist's portfolio. It is an original work by a prodigiously talented bird artist [...] It deserves to be widely admired."
– David Callahan, Birdwatch

"This magnificent volume will not only delight your eyes, it will change the way you see the natural world."
– Bruce Fellman, Naturalist's Journal, Standard-Times

"[A] seductive guide to birds and their bodies."
– Rob Innes, Cage & Aviary Birds

"Remarkable, beautiful, unexpected, and you will never almost certainly have seen anything like it before. I've been fascinated by birds for most of my life, but after reading The Unfeathered Bird I'm looking at them in a slightly different way, seeing more than I did before, and I'm pretty sure that anyone – birder or non-birder – will react in much the same way. So get one for a friend too [...] "
– Charlie Moores, Talking Naturally

"The book is a precious thing that any fan of birds, especially scientists, really needs to have a hard copy of. While it claims not to be an anatomy text, its illustrations provide ample opportunities to use it for that purpose. But really the point of owning all 287-plus pages is to bask in the warmth of true, pure appreciation for classic ornithology, which I found infectious. It is a book by and for bird lovers, but also for those that find the interface of art and science to be fascinating."
– John Hutchinson, What's in John's Freezer

"[A] rewarding read, giving you a unique perspective on species that you thought you knew well."
– Matt Merritt, Birdwatching Magazine

"The Unfeathered Bird makes for a solid addition to a birder's library as well as an attractive coffee table centerpiece. Unlike the photo mosaics that frequently inhabit such furniture, van Grouw's work may spark more than passing conversation as your guests explore the inner world of birds."
– Steve Shultz, Carolina Bird Club Newsletter

"A world of skeletal pleasure."
– Donna Schulman, ABA Blog

"[Van Grouw] appraised her subjects through trained, perceptive eyes, subjected them to the workings of a selective, imaginative brain, and then let her interpretations flow out through her pencil. The results are minor miracles: A Great Spotted Woodpecker, skinless and featherless except for its long tail, braces against a tree trunk. A European Robin, with worm but sans skin, crouches on the handle of a spade. A skeletal European Nightjar hawks insects in mid-air. Each is an avian Lazarus, returned to life after consignment to the specimen drawer."
BirdWatching Magazine

"Superb [...] Ranging from ratites to tanagers, van Grouw's illustrations and accompanying explanations cut through the usual scientific jargon common to anatomy books and make the form and function of her subjects' bodies easily intelligible."
– John Riutta, Bird Watcher's Digest

"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."
– David Parkin, British Birds

"The illustrations are the undoubted highlight of the book, but the text is not to be overlooked. It is fluently written and I think happily achieves its aim of being accessible to the general reader [...] [T]his is overall an impressive book. It is also unusual, deeply individual and probably best enjoyed on its own terms – there is, after all, nothing else quite like it around."
– Joanne Cooper, Ibis

"I cannot help but draw some comparison with Leonardo da Vinci when it comes to van Grouw's amazing observation skills [...] This is a fascinating book that is written and prepared by an exceptional observer, who possesses a thorough understanding of the subject material."
– Jean Wilson, Biologist

"Rarely does a new bird book elicit the kind of excitement I felt when I first feasted by eyes on The Unfeathered Bird [...] The effect of van Grouw's art is astounding: beneath the feathers, diverse birds show amazing anatomical similarity, the result of a highly restrictive structural blueprint dictated by biomechanical constraints of flight in the form of aerodynamic adaptations, still present in flightless birds. One can learn a great deal of the avian design by this approach, and although some form of many of these anatomical drawings are present in the older books and literature, this is the first modern attempt to bring a wide array of varied avian anatomy together under one cover. The result is splendid!"
– Alan Feduccia, Emu

"A unique treatise on bird anatomy that should be in every natural history illustrator's library."
– Bruce Bartrug, Guild of Natural Science Illustrators

"You can open this gorgeous volume to any page and quickly get lost in the revelations of what magnificent and wondrous creatures we share this planet with. It's truly a magnum opus."
– Clay Christensen, Birdman of Lauderdale

"[W]hat sets this book apart for me is the [...] 250-odd pages that go beyond the generic to detail the form, function and evolution of different bird families, all illustrated with exquisitely detailed drawings that are the testament to many years of detailed study of birds, with and without flesh."
– Simon Cillines, BTO News

"This extraordinary book, The Unfeathered Bird, is not easy to categorize. Its hefty size and price, artful design, and beautiful sepia drawings make it suitable for the coffee table. But the accompanying text offers so much information on the anatomy, behavior, and evolutionary relationships of birds that it can also serve as a mini-outline of current scientific knowledge."
– Mary Jane Kaplan, Urban Audubon

"I have been looking for a book like this for a long time, and Katrina van Grouw's version is stunning."
– Jazmine Miles-Long, Taxidermist

"Every blue moon a bird book comes out that changes everything. Given the plethora of books published on the subject of birds it has become increasingly hard to produce something that truly breaks the mould. Enter The Unfeathered Bird. I think that this book is a work of art. Katrina van Grouw should be applauded."
– David Lindo, Urban Birder

"Solely considering emotion evoked by each image and its spare caption, unfettered by reading associated text, van Grouw's images flow across the page and show excellent anatomical detail [...] All in all, this is a great book: the illustrations are fun to browse, it provides a good introduction to avian skeletal anatomy and the major bird groups, and it is interesting to read. The illustrations speak for themselves as a springboard for further study."
– Donna L. Dittmann, Journal of Field Ornithology


"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,, 17-05-2013


"For most of us, a dead bird that the cat has dragged in is something to be shunned.

But for some people, death is only the beginning. Katrina van Grouw spent 30 years as a curator of ornithology at the Natural History Museum in London, where removing skin and mounting skeletons gave her an appreciation of the delicate complexity of birds' bones. In The Unfeathered Bird, her experience forges a text spiked with quirky humour and replete with arcane bird lore and nuggets of natural history.

Luckily for us, not only is van Grouw a dab hand with carcasses, but as a Royal College of Art graduate, she can draw as well. Her illustrations reveal how the giant construction kit that is a bird's skeleton slots together, and how every part is a compromise involving the stresses and forces it must bear: a sculpture in bony equipoise, honed by natural selection. Van Grouw's drawings show just how much of the posture and pertness of a species lies in the construction of its bones.

And although most depict nothing but bones, the illustrations burst with life and captured exactitude: a skeletal sparrowhawk pins a bone-bare blue tit under one spectral claw; cunning perspective enlarges the toucan's already big bill as, gut-free, it considers which fruit to pluck; and a featherless swallow still manages to ride the air currents convincingly.

Monumentally impressive, 25 years in the making, The Unfeathered Bird is simply superb."

- Adrian Barnett,, 12-03-2013


Acknowledgments viii

A Note about Names x

Introduction xii

Part One: Generic
The Trunk 2
The Head and Neck 8
The Hind Limbs 14
The Wings and Tail 19

Part Two: Specific

    I Accipitres 30
    Vultures 32
    Birds of Prey 35
    Owls 44

    II Picae 52
    Parrots 54
    Turacos and Others 58
    Kingfishers 62
    Hornbills and Allies 65
    Toucans and Barbets 70
    Woodpeckers 74
    Hummingbirds 80

    III Anseres 84
    Waterfowl / Domestic Waterfowl 86
    Penguins 104
    Loons 114
    Grebes 119
    Albatrosses, Petrels, and Storm Petrels 124
    Tropicbirds and Frigatebirds 132
    Pelicans 136
    Gannets 139
    Cormorants and Darters 144
    Gulls, Terns, Skimmers, and Skuas 150
    Auks 154

    IV Grallae 162
    Flamingos 164
    Herons 167
    Shoebill 173
    Storks, Ibises, and Spoonbills 174
    Cranes 181
    Rails 185
    Kagu 190
    Waders 192

    V Gallinae 202
    Gamebirds / Domestic Fowl 205
    Screamers 220
    Hoatzin 223
    Ostrich, Kiwis, and Other Ratites 226
    Tinamous 237
    Bustards 239
    Sandgrouse 242
    Dodo and Solitaire 244

    VI Passeres 248
    Pigeons / Domestic Pigeons 250
    Nightjars 258
    Swifts 263
    Passerines 266

Index 284

Write a review

There are currently no reviews for this product. Be the first to review this product!


Katrina van Grouw is a former curator of the ornithological collections at London's Natural History Museum, a taxidermist, an experienced bird bander, a successful fine artist, and a graduate of the Royal College of Art. She is the author of Birds, a historical retrospective of bird art, published under her maiden name Katrina Cook. The creation of The Unfeathered Bird has been her lifetime's ambition.

Bestsellers in this subject

Bird Brain

NHBS Special Offer Price: £14.99 £19.99 (Save £5.00) $18/€17 approx (ends 31/12/2016)

Handbook of Bird Biology

NHBS Price: £89.99 $110/€101 approx

Bird Populations

NHBS Price: £34.99 $43/€39 approx

The Genius of Birds

NHBS Price: £14.99 $18/€17 approx

Nests, Eggs, & Incubation

NHBS Price: £34.99 $43/€39 approx