Alexander Wilson: American ornithology

Alexander Wilson: American ornithology

Philadelphia: 1808-1814
Sp Coll Hunterian Ab.2.11-19

Perhaps now lesser known than The Birds of America, this work actually predates Audubon by some years. It was the first bird book with coloured plates to be published in America, and was the most comprehensive and accurate to date.

Alexander Wilson was born in Paisley in 1766 and emigrated to America in 1794 where he eventually became a schoolteacher. Already interested in birds, he read the ornithological works of Catesby and Edwards in the library of his neighbour, the naturalist William Bartram. Aware of their shortcomings, he resolved to supplement them. With Bartram's encouragement, he began to collect specimens and make detailed observations.

The first volume of American ornithology appeared in 1808. The engravings were made from Wilson's original drawings; a sample proof of each was then hand coloured by him as a model for the colourists of the other copies, and he closely supervised their work. The accompanying text is written in a clear, natural style, presenting Wilson's own experiences with the birds and their characteristics as he saw them.

Seven volumes had been published by 1813, and the eighth was in the press when Wilson, weakened through overwork in his anxiety to complete his undertaking, died after a bout of dysentery. The work was completed by his friend, George Ord.

White Headed, or Bald Eagle


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