Make Your Own Dinosaur Out Of Chicken Bones: Foolproof Instruction For Budding Paleontologists

by Chris McGowan

Harper Perennial

144 pages, 1997





Imagine it's a Saturday afternoon and you -- lamentably -- have nothing to do. To make matters worse, the weather is yucky and so there's no sense in bothering to drag yourself outside. But wait! What's that you see in the kitchen? A nearly clean chicken carcass? Great! Time to make a dinosaur.

If this is not the natural course of your thoughts, then you perhaps haven't seen Make Your Own Dinosaur Out Of Chicken Bones: Foolproof Instructions for Budding Paleontologists. Written by Chris McGowan, a zoologist and paleontologist who is the author of five other books on the topic of dinosaurs, Make Your Own is a happy, forthright adventure for anyone who has ever been intrigued by the ancient creatures.

One of the reasons McGowan chose to write the book becomes apparent in the first few pages:

A few years ago the guards at the museum where I work reported that she had just discovered a distraught little boy in our dinosaur gallery. 'He was sobbing his eyes out,' she told me. 'Absolutely heartbroken. And when I asked him why he was so upset, he said it was because all the dinosaurs were dead.'

I hurried out to the gallery, hoping to console him, but when I got there, he was gone. If I had found him, I would have explained that the dinosaurs were not really dead: they live on today as birds.

Fortunately for us, McGowan's warm heart is combined with a lucid and essentially fun style. Even if you have no intention of hunting down the three young chickens he recommends as necessary to make Apatosaurus -- the dinosaur formerly known as Brontosaurus -- Make Your Own is a fun ride. There's a lot here to learn without ever sullying your hands with chicken grease. And while much of that sort of material is available in other volumes, McGowan's depth of knowledge as well as understandable and downright interesting explanations make the book worthwhile.

One of the reasons for the book's clarity are Julian Mulock's really excellent sketches. These illustrate not only how to transform a chicken's ulna into a dinosaur's tibia but also what some of the dinosaur's McGowan mentions in the book might have looked when they roamed our little blue planet.

Should you be of a particularly paleontological bent and decide to go ahead and make that dinosaur, McGowan stresses that you won't need any special materials: nothing that can't be found in the average home or picked up easily at the local supermarket.

The instructions are dealt with in a logical fashion: from locating the materials you'll need, through to finding and then preparing your chicken bones: cooked, uncooked. Separating the meat from the bones and so on.

Once you're done preparing and cleaning, you have to sort all of those bones: three chicken's worth, remember? That's a lot of bones. We're told we'll have extras:

You will have plenty of spare bones. For example, you need only one pair of femora, but you have three pairs. However, other bones, like the vertebrae, will be in shorter supply. The leftover bones will be kept together as spare parts, in case you have any accidents during the cutting and gluing stages.

McGowan doesn't miss any opportunities to instruct while he takes you through the building of your model. For instance, during the construction of your dinosaur's humerus he takes a little break to talk about flying muscles. These little tidbit boxes appear throughout the book: excellent information set in a different font than the rest of the type and mostly illustrated by one of Mulock's little drawings. Thus we learn that:

The deltopectoral crest of the bird's humerus provides an extensive attachment area for the pectoral muscles. These are usually the largest muscles in a flying bird's body and function to drive the wings downward during flight. Most of the white meat we carve from the breast of chickens and turkeys is the pectoral muscle.

And so we learn: even when we're barely looking. It's a delightful path.

If the book has one weak point it's in the recipe section near the end. After all, we might have three chicken's worth of meat to do something useful with. In a book that is largely intended for older children, it would have been nice to see some chicken recipes obviously aimed at that age group: something that the Chicken-Stuffed Squash recipe included doesn't really qualify as. How many kids do you know that like acorn squash?

In total there are three recipes that include some sort of chicken bits. Rather than having this section come up meager, I would just as soon have seen it not included. Three does not a recipe section make.

On the upside: an underwhelming recipe section does not detract from the excellence of this book. What we have here is a family project waiting to happen. Make Your Own Dinosaur Out Of Chicken Bones is a rare learning treat: especially for curious young minds with a lot of rainy afternoon stretching in front of them.


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.