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Early Birdwatchers And the Birth of Ornithology (Part One) By Jon Friedman

(Author’s note: I use the term ornithology in the broadest sense. In this article, I use ornithology to refer to the watching and studying of birds, from prehistoric times to today. Normally ornithology is thought of as a narrow-focus, scientifically-generated study of birds, particularly their physical characteristics. Here I use it to illustrate all manner of bird study, including the making of paintings, engravings and other illustrations of birds. Even the casual observation of birds by non-experts, at least for this article, is included with my use of the term.)

Several newsletter issues ago I wrote about my favorite ornithologist, Alexander Skutch. Skutch died not that long ago, into his 90’s, and left a huge amount of published and non-published writings about New World birds found primarily in the North and Central America. He, like many before and after him, further studied what others had already known about birds. The historical record of humankind’s awareness of birds might logically begin with the cave paintings of early man. In these images of accurately rendered wildlife, we are able to learn which animals were important to their societies, for both practical and spiritual reasons.

Among the earliest representations of a bird we know anything about was the common, or European Crane (Grus grus), a drawing on a cave wall in the Upper Pyrenees in Northern Spain. It is estimated to be from the Paleolithic period of about 10,000 B.C. Cranes have held a position of special importance among many civilizations throughout history, both for their importance as food and their spiritual significance. The ancient Chinese, Japanese and Egyptians all revered the family of cranes.

Colonel Willoughby Verner, and others accompanying him, reported seeing, in 1913, Neolithic cave drawings made between 6000 and 8000 B.C. in the Spanish province of Cadiz. He identified twelve avian species, native to Spain, which included cranes, flamingos and several ducks. The artists who created these drawings included enough details so the birds could be identified by species. Pictured pursuing these birds were hunters armed with bows and arrows.

Birds were very important to the ancient Egyptians. Beginning around 3000 B.C., they gave some of their most important gods identifiable bird heads. Horus, the supreme sun god, looked down with the eyes and extremely good vision of a hawk. Toth, the moon god of magic and wisdom, spoke with an ibis’ bill. Many species of birds, like their important human counterparts, were preserved whole, as mummies. Hieroglyphics show that cranes played an important and revered role for both Egyptian royalty and society as a whole.

The Greek comic playwright, Aristophanes, was an astute observer of birds. In 414 B.C., he wrote a satirical play, called The Birds, based around their habits. Most ancient Athenians, like the Romans who conquered them, embraced watching birds, developing their flight and feeding patterns for omens. Our word “auspicious,” in fact, comes from the Latin avi-spez. It means “bird observer.”

Fifty years after Aristophanes, Aristotle tried to systematize what was known (and suspected) of birds. A determined naturalist, in his History of Animals he wrote, “We must not recoil from examination of the humbler creatures. Some may not charm the senses, even though they give pleasure to those inclined to philosophy, but every realm of nature is marvelous…” Aristotle’s greatness, unfortunately, extended to gullibility. Along with his own observations, he mixed accounts from birdcatchers and hunters, farmers, fishermen, commoners, even some nonsensical accounts from Aristophanes’ plays into his own writings. For example, it was believed at the time that domestic chicken hens could imitate the crowing of cocks, cock behavior and, ultimately, the growing of rooster feathers by the hens! For about 2000 years – through the Roman conquest, the Dark and Middle Ages, the Renaissance – scholars clung to Aristotle’s popular descriptions over accuracy.

In the first century after Christ, Pliny the Elder wrote 37 books about animals, and birds in particular. Lacking scholarly knowledge, he arranged fantasy, hearsay and observations in an airtight and orderly manner giving readers the impression of genuine expertness. The “facts” as Pliny the Elder laid them out, remained the leading theories about birds for almost 1000 years!

However, non-scholars who were keen observers left their marks as improvements on the knowledge humans were accumulating about birds. On our continent, near the Ohio River around 500 A.D., the Hopewellian Indians carved birds in the form of stone pipes. Their representations were so accurate that later ornithologists were able to identify them by specific species – the Common Raven, the (now extinct) Carolina Parakeet, the Northern Cardinal (one of America’s few crested birds) and the American Kestrel, our smallest falcon.

Some authorities believe that around 750 A.D., the Polynesians had learned enough about birds to follow Golden Plover migrations north from Tahiti to discover the Hawaiian Islands. Polynesian explorers were known to take frigatebirds with them on their journeys, as well, due to their ability to find land masses in the vast seas.

Falconry became known to royals by 1250 A.D., in the times of the Crusades. The Italian emperor Frederick ll had become adept in the sport of falconry, and its popularity spread throughout Europe. The sport of hunting game with falcons started in China around 2000 B.C., advancing to Persia in 1700 B.C. and then to Europe around 200-300 B.C. By Frederick’s day, falconry had become high art, pursued by royalty and commoners alike. Frederick’s love of the sport, and birds in general, led him to publish his seven volumes of De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus, The Art of Hunting with Birds. In these volumes, he lays out his conclusions about the relationships of body weight and wing surface to the number of wing beats and feather structure, correlating air speed to the size of the pectoral muscles of falcons and eagles. Additionally, Frederick loved to socialize with the menagerie of pelicans, cranes, wild geese and herons he kept in captivity.

Both Eric the Red and Christopher Columbus knew to look for terrestrial birds as a sign they were nearing a land mass. Columbus wrote in his daybook on Oct.8th and 9th, 1492, “There were so many small land-birds. The crew took one, which was flying southwest. There were jays, ducks, and a pelican. All night the men heard birds passing.” Undoubtedly, the bird sounds they heard were from a night migration. Three days later, he landed on the island of Guadahani. “The songs of birds were so pleasant that it seemed as if a man could never wish to leave this place.” When Columbus returned to Spain, he brought with him cages full of parrots and pigeons, species unknown to Spain and Europe at that time.

From the second expedition to Virginia in 1584, the English naturalist reported to Sir Walter Raleigh, “We have seen turkey cocks and turkey hens, partridges, cranes and herons. I have noted in the native (Indian) language the names of 86 kinds of fowls…Besides those named, we have caught and eaten, as well as made pictures of, several other birds.”

The English colonist William Wood in 1634 wrote, “I have seen them fly as if the ayerie regiment had been pigeons, with neither beginning nor ending, length and breadth of these millions of millions.” In addition, in 1621 the English colonist Thomas Merton wrote of the American Wild Turkey, “great flocks have sallied by our doors.”

Mark Catesby, by 1710, became America’s first painter/naturalist. He roamed from the Carolinas to the Bahamas, stalking birds, shooting, preserving and painting them. He was a trained botanist, and, as such, collected pressed flowers to be sold in England to fund his expeditions. He spent 17 years describing mammals, birds, plants and fish in a two-volume work, “The Natural History of the Carolinas, Florida and the Bahama Islands,” engraving and coloring illustrations himself. He pioneered the combining of birds and plants in a single print, creating an appetite for more of the same with rich patrons and the public alike.

Thomas Jefferson, in his 1784 Notes on the State of Virginia catalogued 93 Virginia birds in the Linnean Taxonomic system. That same year, Benjamin Franklin wrote to his daughter: “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly. Too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk (American Osprey); and, when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing to his nest, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him. For in truth, the turkey is a much more respectable bird. Eagles have been found in all countries, but the turkey was peculiar to ours. He is, besides, a bird of courage.”

Around this time, in America and in England, there was a movement afoot among naturalists and artists to portray birds as they are, even including important backgrounds that exemplified the plants and habitats they use and occupy. As early birders moved to more realistic depictions, shooting birds was the common method of enabling them to examine and study the birds in greater individual detail. This method of capture enabled both scientific and artistic advancements. However, as in most professions, charlatans and others tried to advance their reputations with phony accounts and actual hoaxes. This may be best illustrated by the example of the French adventurer Francois Levaillant. Initially, his “discoveries” turned European ornithology upside down. With funding from the noted German ornithologist Jacob Temminck, Levaillant traveled for three years throughout southern Africa collecting birds, many of which were new to European enthusiasts. He returned with over 2000 bird skins and enough written notes to write and illustrate his six-volume Oiseaux d’Afrique, a book that immediately made him famous and respected in the field. Two subsequent books brought him greater recognition and wealth. He squandered his wealth and died in a state of near poverty in a Parisian apartment in 1818. Only later did ornithologists discover that much of what Levaillant wrote were lies. He had gone so far as to glue feathers from three separate birds onto the skin of a fourth bird in order to claim a new species. Even though he did make legitimate discoveries, such as the Rosy-faced Lovebird for example, the public scoffed and rebuked his reputation. Like some before and after him, he piled lie upon lie to cover his deceptions. As a naturalist, he had praised himself on numerous occasions as an accurate and truthful observer of birds. “I have never let myself be deceived,” he wrote. “Never.”

Ten years after Levaillant sailed for Africa, Alexander Wilson – often called the father of American ornithology – sailed for America. He was a disgraced Scottish writer and poet (Robert Burns had praised his writing earlier in his career). His love poem, Watty & Meg, had sold more than 100,000 copies, bringing him to the forefront of Scottish writers of the time. However, later, he wrote bitter satires on the leading industries, particularly the textile manufacturers. After being sued by a leading manufacturer, he was forced to recant in public and burn his poetry at the town cross. Humiliated, in 1794, he left Scotland for America, with only the clothes on his back and his gun.

He settled in Philadelphia, had affairs with several women in quick succession, and ultimately met the rich Philadelphia naturalist, William Bartram. Wilson began drawing birds after being inspired by Bartram. Bartram published his own illustrated Catalogue of 215 bird species in 1791 and it was the most accurate ornithological listing prior to Wilson’s. Praised for the quality of his drawings by Bartram and his newfound engraver, Alex Lawson, Wilson was determined to gain fame not through poetry, but through bird watching.

In 1804, he wrote Lawson, “I am most earnestly bent on pursuing my plan of making a Collection of all the Birds of this part of North America. Now I don’t want you to throw “cold water,’ as Shakespeare says, on this notion, Quixotic as it may appear. I have been so long accustomed to the building of Airy Castles and brain Windmills that it has become one of my comforts in life, a sort of rough Bone that amuses me when sated with life’s dull drudgery.”

Armed only with a pack on his back and his sketchbook, he scoured the woods of the eastern regions in search of birds that had not yet been discovered. Of the 262 species he portrayed, 39 were new to science. This was a record number for new American birds discovered, both before and after his time. Five species were named after him – Wilson’s Petrel, Wilson’s Phalarope, Wilson’s Plover, Wilson’s (Common) Snipe, and the Wilson’s Warbler.

In Savannah, he shot, in order to color it in accurate detail, an Ivory-billed Woodpecker (now considered extinct on the continent, although a sub-species is known to still exist in the eastern mountains of Cuba). His nine-volume American Ornithology finally brought him the fame he wanted and felt he deserved. The following excerpt about this woodpecker is a good example of his writing style and enthusiasm for his subjects: “This majestic and formidable species stands at the head of the whole class of woodpeckers hitherto discovered. His eye is brilliant and daring; and his whole frame so admirably adapted for his mode of life, and method of procuring subsistence, as to impress on the mind of the examiner the most reverential ideas of the Creator…The sound and healthy tree is the least object of his attention. The diseased, infected with insects, and hastening to putrefaction, are his favorites; there the deadly crawling enemy have formed a lodgement between the bark and tender wood, to drink up the vital part of the tree…”

Like Audubon after him, Wilson had to solicit subscriptions to his work himself. The nine-volume set had 400 life histories, 76 full-page watercolor plates, and sold for $120 (which would be a bargain today.) However, the years-long effort cost him his health, and he died of dysentery at the age of 48. The internationally recognized ornithologist, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a nephew of famous French leader, completed the two final volumes of the nine-volume set.

Part Two will begin with the famous meeting between Wilson and John James Audubon, who later became the patron saint of birdwatching. Beginning with Audubon, I will describe some of the more advanced and respected birdwatchers of the modern era.

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