When I first approached the editor of The Finch and Pea about possibly reviewing The Unfeathered Bird, he suggested I send three copies and he would ask his colleagues to assist him with a new experiment — a review in three parts. The review(s) have just now published and they were well worth the wait. Calling upon experts in three areas — art; ornithology; and, well, book-reading and curiosity–The Finch and Pea has created a lovely, intertwined reading experience that (fortunately) is also positive about the book being reviewed.
“Daddy, what is this book about?”
“It’s a book about birds. It shows you the insides of birds so we can learn how they work.”
In the “layers” portion of the review (though it really is the curiosity, good-parenting, reading part of the review) Josh Witten describes his 4 year-old catching a first glimpse of The Unfeathered Bird. Subsequent conversations ranged over ostriches at the zoo, penguins, finches, robins, and every other bird a 4-year old might want to discuss. But, as Witten describes:
A book like The Unfeathered Bird is more than pretty pictures and informative prose. It is a resource – a bridge – to knowledge and curiosity. What let’s that hummingbird hover at your feeder? Page 80. How does that vulture find the roadkill? Page X. Our lives are filled with everyday events that make us wonder, “How does that work?”; and we so rarely get the answers. What could be more compelling than those creatures that have mastered the air?
Next up, Michelle Banks approaches the book from an artist’s perspective, which initially makes her a bit skeptical:
I approached this book as a visual artist and a decidedly non-expert reader, and I will admit an initial bias against it. I love color. I was convinced that a coffee-table book of birds drawn without their feathers was like producing a book on ice cream that featured only the cones.
Though after a few days with the book, skepticism is pushed aside:
The cream-colored pages, sepia-tinted pencil drawings, and hand-drawn fonts give the book the look of a timeless classic….The book is full of visual delights. If I had to pick a single image that sums it up, Van Grouw’s rendering of an ostrich skeleton (p 229) is a tour de force, both exquisitely detailed and powerfully dramatic. The Unfeathered Bird is itself a unique specimen. While it’s sure to be treasured by bird-lovers, it has much to offer to readers who don’t know a grebe from a loon.
Lastly, Rebecca Heiss puts her hefty ornithology education credentials to work assessing the avian content of the book — the devil is in the details after all. Early on, Katrina decided to use a rather traditional system to categorize and group birds, a departure that Heiss describes:
Nodding to Linnaeus, the godfather of modern classification systems, van Grouw charges into the meat of her book, pairing species by anatomical features that appear to be common between the species. As it turns out, many of these features actually evolved independently through a process known as convergent evolution. In recent years, we have tended to reject groupings based on morphology in favor of grouping that reflect a species evolutionary history determined by DNA sequence. The old school naturalist in me, celebrates this throwback to the days where morphology was king and features were classified and compared based on functional similarity. Apologies to all my molecularly focused colleagues, but van Grouw’s pairings simply work for a book of this nature. It may be my bias as an organismal biologist, but focusing on functional similarity is the “right” way to organize species when your goal is teach people about the mechanics of birds. It also allows van Grouw to highlight the interesting and confusing aspects of convergent evolution.
To me, the power of this section was represented by the Secretary Bird. An intimidating image of a majestic, tall, and powerful bird, glowering beneath overhanging “eyebrows”, dominates a page while the accompanying text details its unique hunting habits. Those long, powerful legs are not just for show. The Secretary Bird uses them to literally stomp and kick its prey to death. Of course it does. Just look at the picture.