The Founding Birdman

Ernst Mayr Library, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University
Clockwise from top left, the head of a turkey vulture, the head of a black vulture, a peregrine falcon, black vulture, turkey vulture, and common raven; painting by Alexander Wilson, early nineteenth century

Most people would say without hesitation that the founder of American ornithology was John James Audubon. Audubon himself knew better. “The Ornithology of the United States may be said to have been commenced by Alexander Wilson,” Audubon wrote in Ornithological Biography, the long and animated text he wrote to accompany his famous engravings. “It is unnecessary for me to say how well he performed the task which he had imposed upon himself; for all naturalists…acknowledge his great merits.” Elsewhere he refers to “my predecessor Wilson.”

Edward H. Burtt Jr. and William W. Davis Jr. have had the excellent idea of publishing for the first time drawings and other work Wilson used to prepare his foundational American Ornithology, and of rescuing Wilson’s reputation from Audubon’s shadow. Wilson (1766–1813) and Audubon (1785–1851) actually met twice, neither time with much pleasure. One day in March 1810 Wilson was knocking on doors in Louisville, Kentucky, trying to sell subscriptions to his American Ornithology, an unprecedented project to illustrate and describe every species of bird known to exist in the United States. One store he entered belonged to the still-unknown twenty-five-year-old Audubon. According to Audubon’s own account, he was momentarily tempted to buy a subscription from Wilson until his business partner reminded him that $120 was a lot of money, and that his own bird drawings were better. Audubon showed Wilson a portfolio of his own early drawings, which, according to Audubon, put the older man in a sour humor.

Nevertheless the two men went bird-hunting in the countryside around Louisville the next day. Wilson’s later account of his visit to Louisville called Audubon’s drawings “very good” but did not mention receiving information from Audubon (to Audubon’s annoyance) and dismissed the city as an uncultivated backwater where no one subscribed to his work. Audubon remembered a later call on Wilson in Philadelphia where he found the older man not very eager for his company.1 Wilson died before Audubon had even thought of creating his own Birds of America, in what was almost certainly an effort to outdo Wilson’s American Ornithology.

Audubon evidently considered Wilson the man to beat. The five volumes of Ornithological Biography refer to Wilson well over a hundred times. Audubon often acknowledges Wilson’s achievement with respect and even affection. He describes a dawn hunt on a southern beach where he observes and shoots a Wilson’s plover:

I love the name because of the respect I bear towards him to whose memory the bird has been dedicated. How pleasing…it would have been to me, to have met with him on such an excursion, and…to have listened to him as he…

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