Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology: Books

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Alexander Wilson: The Scot who founded American Ornithology. By Edward H. Burtt, Jr and William E. Davis, Jr. Harvard University Press. 464pp, Pounds 25.00. ISBN 9780674072558 and 73739 (e-book). Published 27 June 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.

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 Indeed, one of the objectives of this book is to publish all of Wilson's previously unpublished illustrations.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. …