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Open Mic: Alexander Wilson, the Father of American Ornithology

At the Mic: Roger Bird

The great ornithologist Alexander Wilson died 200 years ago this month. Lifelong birder Roger Bird, a retired journalism prof who works as a freelance editor and writer, offers a remembrance. 

–=====–

Alexander Wilson, a Scottish immigrant who became the father of American ornithology, was just off the boat when he started his scientific career by “collecting” – shooting – a Red-headed Woodpecker.

This jarring note for a modern birder happened in July of 1794, when Wilson was walking from Newcastle, Delaware to Philadelphia, after emigrating from Scotland.

“The first bird that presented itself as he entered the forests of Delaware … was a Red-headed Woodpecker, which he shot, and considered the most beautiful bird he had ever beheld,” his friend and biographer George Ord recorded.

Wilson, then 28, would go on to research, write and illustrate (color plates which rival Audubon’s), and peddle door-to-door the multi-volume American ornithology; or, The natural history of the birds of the United States. He died 200 years ago this month.

He was, like many other new arrivals in that time, a failure in his homeland looking for a better future in America: a failed weaver (weaving bored him), and a failed pedlar who paid much attention to Scotland’s countryside and wildlife and little to the profit-and-loss ledger.

 

Wilson 1

Alexander Wilson, American Ornithology; or The natural history of the birds of the United States, 1808-1814, 1. Maryland yellow throat. 2. Yellow breasted chat. 3. Summer red bird. 4. Female. 5. Indigo bird. 6. American redstart, pp. 6 ff.

Along the way he supported himself by teaching school, editing an encyclopaedia, and travelling town to town and door to door to sell “subscriptions” – payments in advance for the expensive books coming off the press in Philadelphia.

The bulk of Ord’s biography consists of Wilson’s own words, mostly in letters (some topping 5,000 words) to colleagues, friends and family.

Ord and others who accompanied him in the field praised his focus: “When in the forests, in pursuit of birds, he was deliberate and attentive – he was, as it were, all eyes, and all ears.”

He traveled thousands of miles “from the shores of the St. Lawrence to the mouths of the Mississippi, and from the Atlantic Ocean to the interior of Louisiana,” he wrote in the preface to his life’s work. He did it on foot, horseback and rowboat (720 miles from the upper reaches of the Ohio to Lexington, Kentucky), shooting birds for study in an age without binoculars, spotting scopes or field guides. At first he drew birds by candlelight at home after a day as schoolteacher in a village on the Schuylkill River, learning as he went – “the face of an owl, and the back of a lark, have put me to a nonplus.” Later he did the same in a tent in the wilderness of Kentucky, the Carolinas, the Indiana and Mississippi territories, and all over the central and eastern states or soon-to-be states.

At first, in his home near Philadelphia, he just wanted to fill the gaps and correct the errors of European naturalists with “their caricatured  figures, fanciful theories, fables and misrepresentations” of North American wildlife.” By 1804 he was confident enough to write a friend about “my plan of making a collection of all the birds in this part of North America.”

Many of those birds were unknown to naturalists.

Wilson 2
Returning from a trip to Niagara Falls in late 1804 (two months, 1,200 miles), “I shot a bird of the size of a Mockingbird, which proves to be one never yet described by naturalists.” Later “I shot three birds of the Jay kind, ll of one species, which appears to be undescribed.” (Wrong this time: it was a Canada jay, already known to
naturalists.)

He sent some of his drawings to President (and scientist) Jefferson, who replied, “The jay is quite unknown to me,” but on the “general observation” that all North American  birds and mammals are different species from similar European ones, “I conclude with confidence that your Jay is not a European bird.”

In 1806 he proposed to Jefferson an expedition by boat “from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi, thence to New Orleans” down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers “and to continue my researches by land in return to Philadelphia.” No dice. Pike, and Lewis and Clark got the nod from the president.

Field work then and now could be frustrating. He wrote about a nuthatch hunt: “After jumping a hundred fences, and getting over the ancles in mud, (for I had put on my shoes for lightness,) I found myself almost at the junction of the Schuylkill and Delaware, without success, there being hardly half an acre of woodland in the whole neck; and the nuthatch generally frequents large-timbered woods. I returned home at eight o’clock, after getting completely wet, and in a profuse perspiration.” (Timberland was being converted to farms; loss of habitat was starting.)

He was critical of some names assigned to new species as naturalists tried to establish standard lists: “A name should, if possible, be expressive of some peculiarity in colour, conformation, or habit; if it will equally apply to two different species, it is certainly an improper one. Is migratorius an epithet peculiarly applicable to the robin? Is it not equally so to almost every species of turdus (Latin for “thrush”) we have?”

The first volume of American Ornithology came out in September 1808. Samples in hand, Wilson headed out on the first of many trips, “to exhibit his book, and procure subscribers.” At Princeton “the reverend doctors of the college” left him unimpressed, especially a professor of natural history, who “scarcely knew a sparrow from a woodpecker.” In Newark, people “repaid me with the most extravagant compliments [for showing them the printed book], which I would have very willingly exchanged for a few simple subscriptions.”

Later he went south, “visiting every city and town of importance” as far as Savannah, Georgia and met with Jefferson, who impressed him, in Washington. He found the South disagreeable, and was dismayed by slavery and its effects on its victims and their owners: “The extreme
servility, and superabundance of negroes, have ruined the energy and activity of the white population.”

And as he travelled, he continued “making excursions with my gun.” Some casualties would make us flinch: Near Wilmington, North Carolina, he killed two Ivory-billed Woodpeckers – which went extinct in the 20th century – and injured a third. “This bird I confined in the
room I was to sleep in, and in less than half an hour he made his way through the plaster, the lath, and partly through the weather boards; and would have escaped, if I had not accidentally come in.”

He studied bird behavior as well as anyone could without binoculars, webcams and sound equipment. A bird he called “Catesby’s Cowpen-bird,” likely a Brown Cowbird, “never builds itself a nest, but, like the cuckoo of Europe, drops its eggs into the nests of other birds … I have found
no less than six nests this season, with each a young cow-bird contained in it.”

As I entered the state of Tennessee … coursing along the rich valley of Manskers creek, where I again met with large flocks of paroquets … I made some interesting additions to my stock of new subjects for the Ornithology … many of the birds are altogether new.” Those “paroquets” were
the now-extinct Carolina Parakeet.

A letter from “Natchez, Mississippi Territory” in May 1810 asks whether drawings he had sent earlier had arrived. The drawings, which had taken months of work, were never found, a constant risk in an era of wobbly postal service. This loss came on top of an attack of malaria after too much time in swampy terrain.To sell subscriptions, he knocked on wealthy doors and talked his way inside to show his sample volumes. Often he
was welcomed. One householder wrote, “You seem to be travelling for the good of the world; and I cannot, I will not charge you any thing.  Whenever you come this way, call and stay with me, you shall be welcome.”

But not always. In Haverhill, Mass. during the 1812–14 war, the locals thought he was a Canadian spy and jailed him until the local magistrate “dismissed him, with many apologies for the mistake.”

In April 1813 he was elected to the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, published volume 7 of American Ornithology, and went to New Jersey to work on sea birds. By August, he had completed the text but not the plates for volume 8, but he died of dysentery and overwork on August 23.

Ord took over the almost finished project. Wilson had produced eight of an eventual nine volumes in just seven years.

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The ABA Blog's Open Mics offer an opportunity for members of the birding community to share their voice with the ABA audience. We accept all and any submissions. If you have something you'd like to share, please contact blog editor Nate Swick at [email protected]