Alexander Wilson: The Scot who founded American Ornithology by Edward H. Burtt, Jr and William E. Davis, Jr

Tim Birkhead on the first comprehensive documenter of North American birds

May 2, 2013

Despite widespread promiscuity, an individual can have only a single biological father. Even so, in the literary contest to create scientific heroes, multiple paternity seems to be rather common. The starting point for this biography is the notion that while most people consider John James Audubon to be the father of American ornithology, that title would be best bestowed on the lesser known Scottish-weaver-turned-bird-man Alexander Wilson (1766-1813).

Leaving Scotland in 1794 to escape its oppressive class system, Wilson was struck, on arrival in the US, by how different the birds and other animals were from those at home. Working as a schoolteacher, Wilson became increasingly motivated to document this new ornithology and to dispel the idea - promoted by the great French naturalist Comte de Buffon - that the wildlife of the New World was merely a degenerate version of Europe’s fauna.

For 10 years starting in 1803, Wilson travelled through eastern North America, from Niagara to New Orleans, making observations on wild birds and those he shot, with a view to producing the definitive account of the birds of America. That he bothered to make any observations on live birds in their natural habitat was an innovation; prior to Wilson, almost all ornithological knowledge was based on dead specimens or on birds held in captivity.

All of Wilson’s previously unpublished illustrations are included along with his text relevant to that species. His artwork is superb

As he watched, collected and described birds, Wilson also taught himself to draw so that he could illustrate his accounts. And he did so remarkably well by the standards of the day. Indeed, one of the objectives of this book is to publish all of Wilson’s previously unpublished illustrations. In a 200-page section titled “Illustrating American Ornithology”, Edward Burtt and William Davis present each drawing along with Wilson’s text relevant to that species. Wilson’s artwork is superb, and I suspect that these images will probably be the main reason why people buy this book. In contrast, the text would have a greater appeal to a general readership if the chapters were better integrated, both in terms of content and style.

Wilson was remarkable in several ways, not least as an intrepid field biologist, but also because he described more than two-thirds of the bird species in eastern North America. Several species have been named in his honour, including a warbler, a phalarope and a storm petrel. While describing new species, he resolved some long-standing problems, like that of the bobolink and the rice bird, which were once considered separate species because they looked so different: the former gold, white and black, the later stripy brown. By keeping a bobolink in a cage through its autumn moult, Wilson discovered that it was the same species as the rice bird that so devastated the rice crop in the Carolinas. At the same time, he dissected hundreds of these birds, noticing - almost for the first time - the massive seasonal change in gonad size that characterises most temperate-zone birds. He also provided a vivid description of the immense power of the ivory-billed woodpecker (now thought to be extinct). He shot and wounded one of these magnificent birds and kept it in his hotel room, where in a matter of hours it demolished the mahogany table he had tied it to.

His efforts were consolidated in the nine-volume American Ornithology published between 1808 and 1814, the last two volumes posthumously. As the authors say: “American Ornithology established the United States as an equal partner with Europe in the study of natural history”, simultaneously dispelling the notion that America’s birds were “degenerate”. The scholarly quality of Wilson’s work is reflected in the comments of Elliott Coues, North America’s great 19th-century ornithologist, who said that science would lose little if everything written about birds (in the US) before Wilson were annihilated.

Coues was alluding to the fact that, despite being self-taught, Wilson behaved like a professional scientist. He was apparently the first to use the Linnaean system to classify birds; wherever appropriate he quantified his results; he thought about the economic value of birds; and he conducted the first bird census. The case Burtt and Davis make for Wilson being the true father of American ornithology is overwhelming, and in that sense they have succeeded admirably.

Alexander Wilson: The Scot who founded American Ornithology

By Edward H. Burtt, Jr and William E. Davis, Jr
Harvard University Press, 464pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780674072558 and 73739 (e-book)
Published June 2013

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