January 24, 2013
Violet Turaco. One of the forest species; it can get where it needs to go by long leaps and short glides, seldom needing to fly. Notice the un-joined halves of the wishbone.
by Katrina van Grouw
“No. Not one of ours, I’m afraid. I wish it was.”
I had to smile.
The publisher in question – for it was a publisher whose tweet I was reading – was responding to the question: “Did you publish The Unfeathered Bird?” And of course, being a typical author, my radar homed in to eavesdrop on the conversation.
Unbeknownst to our publisher friend, long, long ago, when the Bird was still in an embryonic form and both the book and its author went under a different name, his very same company had proclaimed the book too specialized for a general audience and not commercially viable. In short, they rejected it.
I bear no grudge; it was just one among many – bird book publishers who said it was too ‘arty’, and art book publishers who said it was too ‘birdy’. The thing is, anatomical books are supposed to be illustrated with black and white, heavily annotated diagrams, plastered with words like ‘basipterygoid process’, ‘supracoracoideus’ and ‘tarsometatarsus’. They are supposed to be read by veterinary students and no one else.
Magnificent Frigatebird pursuing a White-tailed Tropicbird. Only the tropicbird skeleton was assembled; the frigatebird was drawn from individual disarticulated bones, using the position of the tropicbird as a model.
I was just a mere art student when I began taking birds to pieces and drawing them, and although at that time I might not have known, or cared, what a basipterygoid process was, I was certainly very interested in the appearance of every minute part of the avian skeleton. What’s more, I knew a lot of other people who were interested, too. Not necessarily in the naming of parts, but in movement, behaviour, evolution, adaptations – swimming birds, climbing birds – in short, living birds. No, I was suggesting something altogether different: an anatomy book for bird lovers in general and artists in particular.
I began by anatomical investigations on a dead Mallard which I found washed up on the beach, lovingly stripping off each layer of muscle, boiling up and reassembling the skeleton. Then, everything was drawn; from several angles. There were several mishaps: like when I glued a small bone to my hand with Superglue and couldn’t get it off. And the night when the electricity meter ran out at the worst possible time. Now, if you’re going to spend several months intimately involved with a dead duck, it’s got to have a name. So I christened her Amy. Her skeleton still stands in a glass case in my living room, and my book is dedicated to her.
After Amy I upgraded to a nameless White Pelican, and by then the seeds were firmly sown for the book that was to become The Unfeathered Bird. It didn’t take shape all at once, and to be fair to the publisher whose oversight begins this article, it remained a long while an ugly duckling before it finally developed into a swan. What I ultimately wanted to do was combine the beauty, the attention to detail and sheer artistry typified by the best historical illustrations, with up-to-date, jargon-free text that relates birds’ structure with their lifestyle and evolution. For example, to show how competitive pressure for survival has raised ostriches onto only two toes so that they can run faster, shaped penguin wings into blade-like paddles; how having an enormous breastbone has enabled sandgrouse to commute and how tinamous have risen above their disadvantaged background by sheer stealth tactics. (Fine birds, tinamous…)
Of course, there’s no point in producing an anatomy book about bird behaviour if the drawings don’t show birds engaged in that behaviour. Articulated skeletons in museum are usually ancient enough to have been prepared by someone who hadn’t a clue how the living bird should look and are rarely even in a posture that’s physically possible.
No, I needed freshly made skeletons made by someone, like me, familiar with the outside of birds, along with their internal workings. Someone who could assemble skeletons to order, in any position I chose, leaving me time to draw them and write the text. A search finally yielded just the right man for the job, a young, handsome museum curator named Hein van Grouw, from the Netherlands.
So I married him.
Preparing the subjects at home, from specimens donated by zoos and taxidermists led to some bizarre household scenes.
Now enter an interested publisher. Suddenly it was all systems go. I had a freezer full of road kill and oiled seabirds; corpses arrived in the post, donated or loaned by biologists, taxidermists, aviculturists and conservations charities. The boiling began and the house was transformed. After two months my china cabinet had been taken over by stored bones waiting to be reassembled and a pair of ostrich legs could be seen soaking in a tub. Six months, and a row of skeletons were lined up on the sideboard and several evil smelling buckets whose contents were best left to the imagination or denied altogether, appeared outside the back door. A year; and it was necessary to buy a set of glass fronted wall cupboards from Ikea. A flamingo head peered lifelessly from a ‘Pets at Home’ carrier back casually hung from an antler outside and there was a dead penguin in the bath. Two years, and it was barely possible to move without knocking off someone’s skull accidentally.
This was even more problematic due to my stubborn and impractical habit of working life-sized. While the bone factory chugged away downstairs, I’d be up in my study drawing the next subject on a seemingly never ending list, and craning my neck over an enormous sheet of paper to see close-up details on an equally enormous bird, well, skeleton of a bird, on the other side. Drawing the musculature of birds in lifelike positions brought a different set of difficulties and I was faced with the choice between having the moist and seeping carcass draped over my lap whilst endeavouring to re-animate it with reference to photos of living birds. Or, I could rig up some Heath Robinsonesque device of wires, pins, thread and blocks of wood – the same technique that Audubon used, with a few modifications – to make a faintly grotesque artist’s mannequin.
But the real challenge was drawing lifelike skeletons from bones that were not articulated at all. I’m talking about the scientifically important reference collections kept behind the scenes in major natural history museums. The people using these collections – mostly zoo-archaeologists – need to study the articulating surfaces of individual bones. So they’re not much use if they’re glued or wired together. Necessity spawned a quite brilliantly inventive solution. I would draw the skeleton of another bird already prepared in the position I wanted, then rub out and re-draw each bone in turn, with reference to the respective bone of the desired species.
In order to get the subjects in reliably lifelike, accurate postures it was necessary to prepare them ourselves.
I’ve often been asked whether I wrote the text for each species or family first and then did the drawings afterwards, or the other way around. A highly intelligent question. The fact is that I really needed to do both at once, as both the literature and the specimen would draw my attention to features not immediately obvious from the other. Both would throw up questions; both would reveal answers, and no matter how faithful your observation is, drawing (happily) is never, ever, completely objective. That’s why a book of drawings can show so much more than photographs.
Hein and I were also on something of a voyage of discovery. Now I’d never in a million years describe myself as an anatomist. In fact, I’d even feel a bit of a fraud to be called an ornithologist. No doubt all the curiosities we marvelled at have already been discussed ad nauseum by the bearded intelligentsia of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. But to give us our due, they were probably discussed only in the context of taxonomy – in an effort to ascertain the evolutionary relationships between groups – and probably not in the context of adaptation to their environment. Take turacos, for example. Turacos that live in forests leap around in trees and have very little cause to fly. In fact when it comes to flying, turacos suck. But that doesn’t matter much to the forest turacos, because they just don’t need to. Their lack of prowess in the air can partly be explained by the fact that the two halves of their wishbone don’t meet in the middle. But wait… the desert species have a bit more difficulty leaping from tree to tree. Trees are a bit thin on the ground in the desert. Desert turacos fly. And lo! – In desert living turacos the wishbone halves do meet.
Poutler Pigeon. A domesticated variety of the Rock Dove, selectively bred to stand almost upright.
There are some birds however, about whose skeletal anatomy virtually nothing is known. Irrelevant to taxonomists and too specialized even for most bird vets; ever-changing – shunted along an accelerated evolutionary pathway towards an impossible Platonic ideal at a flying pace – I am, of course, talking about domesticated varieties. And the king of them all: the humble pigeon. No other bird has been so altered in so many different ways and yet, beyond the stereotypic textbook diagrams (they’re always of pigeons or chickens) few have ever been illustrated before. Until now. The Unfeathered Bird has a generous handful of pigeons that can barely see over their breast; tall pigeons that stand completely upright; pigeons with a long, hooked bill; pigeons with barely any bill at all… the list goes on. Darwin kept pigeons, and relied heavily upon them to formulate his evolutionary theory. In fact the rapidly changing structure of domesticated animals is so compellingly cool that it’s the subject of my next book, Unnatural Selection.
Twenty years after that letter of rejection, and twenty five years since Amy, The Unfeathered Bird has fledged and is doing very nicely, thank you. Specialized? Well, I’m pleased to say that it has indeed attracted an audience of specialists; the sort of people you’d be thrilled to meet at a dinner party – painters, sculptors, vets, zoo keepers, airline pilots, poets, conservationists, archaeologists, falconers, textile designers and just plain old nature lovers. So far (and fingers firmly crossed) I’ve had only one disappointed customer. And yes, he was expecting to get a textbook.
About the Author:
Katrina van Grouw is an artist and writer. She is the author of The Unfeathered Bird.