Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology

Overview

Audubon was not the father of American ornithology. That honorific belongs to Alexander Wilson, whose encyclopedic American Ornithology established a distinctive approach that emphasized the observation of live birds. In the first full-length study to reproduce all of Wilson’s unpublished drawings for the nine-volume Ornithology, Edward Burtt and William Davis illustrate Wilson’s pioneering and, today, underappreciated achievement as the first ornithologist to describe the birds...

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Alexander Wilson

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Overview

Audubon was not the father of American ornithology. That honorific belongs to Alexander Wilson, whose encyclopedic American Ornithology established a distinctive approach that emphasized the observation of live birds. In the first full-length study to reproduce all of Wilson’s unpublished drawings for the nine-volume Ornithology, Edward Burtt and William Davis illustrate Wilson’s pioneering and, today, underappreciated achievement as the first ornithologist to describe the birds of the North American wilderness.

Abandoning early ambitions to become a poet in the mold of his countryman Robert Burns, Wilson emigrated from Scotland to settle near Philadelphia, where the botanist William Bartram encouraged his proclivity for art and natural history. Wilson traveled 12,000 miles on foot, on horseback, in a rowboat, and by stage and ship, establishing a network of observers along the way. He wrote hundreds of accounts of indigenous birds, discovered many new species, and sketched the behavior and ecology of each species he encountered.

Drawing on their expertise in both science and art, Burtt and Davis show how Wilson defied eighteenth-century conventions of biological illustration by striving for realistic depiction of birds in their native habitats. He drew them in poses meant to facilitate identification, making his work the model for modern field guides and an inspiration for Audubon, Spencer Fullerton Baird, and other naturalists who followed. On the bicentennial of his death, this beautifully illustrated volume is a fitting tribute to Alexander Wilson and his unique contributions to ornithology, ecology, and the study of animal behavior.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Before Audubon and Birds of America, there was Alexander Wilson and American Ornithology, a nine-volume work published between 1808 and 1814 that single-handedly transformed the study of birds in the wild and presaged the field guides of today. In addition to being the first to adopt the Linnaean system of binomial nomenclature to classify North American birds, Wilson was also one of the first to base his findings primarily on the “observation and description of live birds.” By 1812, the Scottish poet had documented nearly 80% of bird species in the United States, and developed the discipline of “economic ornithology,” whereby bird types are valued according to a kind of cost-benefit analysis (i.e. one that takes into account whether a bird is prone to destroy certain crops, whether they can be consumed, etc.). Burtt and Davis’s text is largely uninspired and tedious, but what makes this book of such great value is the third chapter: “Illustrating American Ornithology.” Composing over half of the book, this section features every illustration from Wilson’s landmark publication. Alongside excerpts from Wilson’s own commentary, the authors painstakingly detail how each sketch developed into its final iteration. A must-have for any serious bird-watcher. 146 color illus. & 6 tables. (May)
Bernd Heinrich
A definitive work on the history of bird art, ornithology, and nature writing. Volumes have been written on Audubon as though he were the dean of American ornithology, but Burtt and Davis reveal Alexander Wilson as providing the foundation.
Frank Gill
Our knowledge of New World birds stems deeply from the adventurous spirit of a talented rebel poet, Alexander Wilson. This richly illustrated, very special book brings him back to life as an engaging and influential character whose passion for birds primed ours. I couldn't put it down.
Times Higher Education - Tim Birkhead
One of the objectives of this book is to publish all of Wilson's previously unpublished illustrations...Wilson's artwork is superb...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.

Open Letters Monthly - Steve Donoghue
Wilson has more birds named after him than any other American ornithologist, including Audubon, and now, thanks to Burtt and Davis, he has a superb modern-day biography and critical assessment, one every scholarly birder should buy and read. It's entirely right that we regularly remember to give Alexander Wilson the credit for inventing the school and ethos of American bird-study.
Bird Watching - Chuck Hagner And Matt Mendenhall
Wilson was first to describe 26 species of North American birds, he has more birds named after him than any other American ornithologist, and John James Audubon, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, Thomas Nuttall, Spencer Fullerton Baird, and Elliot Coues all were inspired by him, yet most people, when asked who the father of American ornithology is, say, wrongly, Audubon. This well-illustrated study, the first to reproduce many of Wilson's drawings and draft plates from American Ornithology, his nine-volume masterwork, sets the record straight.
The Scotsman - Peter Ranscombe
It is as the author of American Ornithology—a nine-volume work that aimed to list every species in the U.S.—that Wilson will be remembered. Wilson's books were revolutionary. He wrote his descriptions of birds from observing them in the field, rather than looking at stuffed birds in collections. It was an approach that helped promote the adoption of the scientific method in the U.S. He also penned his narrative so that readers would be able to identify birds themselves, making it the first field guide...Wilson's life and his struggle to publish American Ornithology are fascinating.
Wall Street Journal - Karin Altenberg
Burtt and Davis argue convincingly for Wilson's contribution to modern scientific ornithology and celebrate Wilson as the man who inspired John James Audubon...This book...give[s] us Wilson's wonderful illustrations—and a sense of the spirit of an extraordinary man whose curiosity reached far beyond the man-made world.
Weekly Standard - Christoph Irmscher
Alexander Wilson, the Scotsman who came to the United States in 1794, ...more than Audubon, deserves credit for having founded American ornithology, as biographers Edward Burtt and William Davis rightly insist.
Times Literary Supplement - Jeremy Mynott
[Burtt and Davis] are in no doubt that their man is the one to deserve the title of 'Father' [of American ornithology]...And it is a strong case, convincingly made...This will be a very valuable resource for scholars, and the drawings themselves are attractive and persuasive evidence for the authors' claims about Wilson's originality and importance. The authors and publishers have done full justice to these illustrations in this handsome volume and they are beautifully laid out and reproduced.
Bird Watching - Chuck Hagner and Matt Mendenhall
Wilson was first to describe 26 species of North American birds, he has more birds named after him than any other American ornithologist, and John James Audubon, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, Thomas Nuttall, Spencer Fullerton Baird, and Elliot Coues all were inspired by him, yet most people, when asked who the father of American ornithology is, say, wrongly, Audubon. This well-illustrated study, the first to reproduce many of Wilson's drawings and draft plates from American Ornithology, his nine-volume masterwork, sets the record straight.
New York Review of Books - Robert O. Paxton
Burtt and Davis include brief essays on the ornithologists whom Wilson read or corresponded with, providing a valuable overview of the burgeoning natural sciences of the early nineteenth century...They establish Wilson's stature as a bird illustrator, and their handsome volume reproduces them beautifully...Burtt and Davis successfully make clear Wilson's importance in establishing American ornithology on two firm pillars: international Linnaean binomial nomenclature and close observation of living birds as well as specimens...Wilson's position as the founder of American ornithology was won with intense struggle from inauspicious beginnings, and it seems secure.
Choice - D. Flaspohler
The book includes many letters to and from U.S. naturalists and dozens of beautifully reproduced and previously unpublished line drawings and paintings of birds that contributed to Wilson’s greatest tangible achievement, the encyclopedic nine-volume American Ornithology. Unlike most of his contemporaries, such as Audubon, Wilson argued for the need for field observation to truly understand and illustrate the character of wild creatures, and he traveled thousands of miles across a wild continent to accomplish this. This book is full of delightful anecdotes and excellent detailed drawings; it will do much to elevate the reputation of Wilson among those with an interest in birds, illustration, and history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674072558
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 5/15/2013
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 631,596
  • Product dimensions: 6.70 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward H. Burtt, Jr. is Cincinnati Conference Professor of Zoology at Ohio Wesleyan University.

William E. Davis, Jr. is Professor Emeritus at Boston University.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



Nature: The Love of His Life


Wilson began his literary career as a poet in Scotland where he could draw on a rich literary tradition and participate in an active literary community that included Robert Burns, Robert Tannahill, other minor poets, and poetry contests. The infant United States had no such tradition, no such community. He was a citizen in a nation without a history, without an oppressive class system to protest, without legends or ruins to contemplate. What he had in abundance was nature. He continued to write poetry and prose after his immigration to the United States, but no longer did he write about working conditions, no longer did he write about interpersonal relationships, no longer did he write protest poetry. Wilson wrote about nature. However, unlike the naturalist-writers who preceded him, writers such as Cotton Mather, John Smith, Mark Catesby, even William Bartram, he did not write about nature as something to be feared, conquered and tamed. Instead Wilson wrote about the wonder of wilderness. He wrote as an observer of nature, an observer who was fascinated by what he saw. Even William Bartram who would figure prominently in Wilson’s achievement, even Bartram who described nature in loving detail, always had an eye on what excellent farmland it would be or how navigable the river was. Wilson wrote about the wilderness itself, about its aesthetic and spiritual value, about the wonder of birds and their lives. He established this theme in a wonderful anecdote in the Preface to volume 1:

In one of my late visits to a friend in the country, I found their youngest son, a fine boy of eight or nine years of age, who usually resides in town for his education, just returning from a ramble thro the neighbouring woods and fields, where he had collected a large and very handsome bunch of wild flowers, of a great many different colors; and presenting them to his mother, said, with much animation in his countenance, ‘Look my dear ‘ma, what beautiful flowers I have found growing on our place! Why all the woods are full of them! Red, orange, blue, and ‘most every color. O I can gather you a whole parcel of them, much handsomer than these, all growing our own woods! Shall I ‘ma? Shall I go and bring you more?’ The good woman received the bunch of flowers with a smile of affectionate complacency; and after admiring for some time the beautiful simplicity of nature, gave her willing consent; and the little fellow went off, on the wings of ecstasy, to execute his delightful commission.

The similitude of this little boy’s enthusiasm to my own, struck me; and the reader will need no explanations of mine to make the application. Should my country receive with the same gracious indulgence the specimens which I here humbly present her; should she express a desire for me to go and bring her more, the highest wishes of my ambition will be gratified; for, in the language of my little friend, our whole woods are full of them! And I can collect hundreds more, much handsomer than these.

Wilson clearly relates to the innocent pleasure of the little boy, to the delight the boy expresses in what he has found in the woods. Indeed, he uses the little boy’s own words to describe his collection of birds and its display to the reader. There is no hint of the terror of the woods so often conveyed by earlier authors. The theme is nature as a source of inspiration and joy, as it clearly is for the mother, her son, and Alexander Wilson. Such a theme as applied to the American wilderness was new, but Wilson carried the theme throughout his own journeys in search of birds and throughout his writing. A deep appreciation of wildness, a perspective of wonder at the natural world that was picked up by those like Emerson and Thoreau who came after him.

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