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Early Birdwatchers And the Birth of Ornithology (Part Two)


By Jon Friedman

Alexander Wilson was probably the most heralded ornithologist of his day when he met John James Audubon for the first time in a Kentucky tavern, in March 1810. Audubon documented this meeting in his personal notes and described it in detail:

“One fair morning I was surprised by the sudden entrance of Mr. Alexander Wilson, the celebrated author of the American Ornithology. How well do I remember him! His long, rather hooked nose, the keenness of his eyes, and his prominent cheek-bones, stamped his countenance with a peculiar character. His stature was not above the middle size. He had two volumes under his arm, and as he approached the table at which I was working (perhaps painting a spring migrant like the Great Crested Flycatcher from a recently-shot specimen), I thought I discovered something like astonishment in his countenance. He, however, opened his books, explained the nature of his occupations, and requested my subscription.”

Audubon was a rising star in the bird world but had no money. He was 25 years old at the time and Wilson was 44. Their statures would soon change, as four years later, Wilson died, and Audubon quickly assumed the mantle of America’s greatest ornithologist. Audubon, at that time, had not yet thought of publishing his own paintings of America’s birds, and upon Wilson’s request, loaned him several of his watercolors. Wilson quickly realized that Audubon was an unknown but better, more accurate artist than he was, and he acknowledged Audubon’s paintings of birds were far more realistic than his own. He realized he had a formidable rival, and the next four years left him feeling sad and alone, realizing Audubon’s reputation was quickly outpacing his own. Wilson died in 1814.

Audubon was born in French Haiti but brought up in France by his mother. His father was a seaman who spent most of his time traversing the oceans. Coming of mature age, his mother sent him to his father’s estate near Philadelphia, to avoid the French draft into the military. There he met and courted the 15-year-old Lucy Bakeman. They married three years later. Although he spent most of his early adult years in the woods, alone or with his two sons, shooting, mounting and painting birds – he was known to have stayed faithful to his wife. His faithfulness remained enduring, even when later in life he spent much time in European salons seeking $1000 subscriptions to his own masterpiece, The Birds of America. Most of the American birds were new to the Europeans, and while $1000 subscriptions for a publication were out-of-reach for most potential benefactors he met, he was successful in raising the funds he needed to have the well-regarded London-based Havell publish his large format prints.

Binoculars and field guides were a long time in coming during Audubon’s expeditions. Early birdwatchers depended on guns for collecting bird specimens. These specimens could be taxidermied to assume the postures and stances of living birds. With specimens in front of him, he could take his time in order to very accurately depict all the details of any given species and thereby render the most realistic portraits of birds ever painted.

Issued in four volumes over eleven years, The Birds of America contained 435 hand-colored large plates with 1,065 individual birds overall. Unlike Wilson, Audubon painted all his birds life-sized, making the page size of his book a huge 27” x 40.” Obviously, very large birds were not rendered in full size, but most were. This fact made the paintings and the volumes even more realistic and desirable. However, questions arose from other early birdwatchers as Audubon included some species that were totally unknown at the time, and failed to ever be seen by anyone else, ever! We will never know why he included some birds into his otherwise very professional and realistic presentation of America’s birds. His representations of the Townsend Bunting, Cuvier’s Regulus (thought to be a kinglet) and the Bemaculated Duck have never been observed outside Audubon’s “portraits” of them.

Bemaculated Duck, Plate from Birds of America, Audubon.org

Audubon also published a five-volume set of descriptions of both bird and human habits, calling it Ornithological Biography. The sixty “Delineations of American Scenery and Manners” that comprised the texts, became known for his vehement descriptions of average Americans, many of whose behaviors and appearances he detested and described in detail that he came across while watching birds.. Thankfully, his Birds of America have endured over the years and is what we best remember him for.

The public at large readily embraced this masterpiece, and reproductions of the bird images quickly abounded. It was probably the single most important reason that America began to wholeheartedly embrace birdwatching. In fact, it soon became a national craze, and Audubon found himself in great demand for public speaking, and in salons; and his name was becoming singularly attached to this new phenomenon. Ornithologists sought him out everywhere he went. He swiftly became a popular public figure.

His mind, it is said, “went soft toward the end of his 66 years.” During those final years, he worked himself into a frenzy, devoting most of his waking hours to the tremendous effort of putting out his final volumes, Quadrupeds of North America, which finally saw publication three years after his death.

Beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s influence and love of nature, and by Audubon a few decades later, official parties sent out to explore, research and document the American West began taking with them men formally educated in botany, mammology and ornithology. Two of the most avid of these professionals were John Townsend and Thomas Nuttall, both of whom have birds and plants named after them. Townsend was extremely enthusiastic and happiest in the field. Birds were his main focus. Nuttall was an extremely shy and private man who was trained primarily in botany. Yet, his Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada, published in 1832, was the first to accurately describe birds by their voices. This represented a giant step forward in the history of ornithology and in the identification of individual species. His description of the Baltimore Oriole provides a good example of how this material was presented to the public. He wrote, “The mellow whistled notes which they are heard to trumpet from the high branches of our gigantic elms resemble, at times, ‘tshippe-tshayia too too, and sometimes ‘tshippee tshippee (lispingly), too too, with the last syllables loud and full.”

Townsend and Nuttall went on several expeditions, singly most of the time and together at other times. It was on one of the shared expeditions, Captain Nathaniel Wyeth’s expedition to Vancouver, B.C., which gave Townsend the opportunity to discover a bird that was ultimately named after him – the Townsend’s Solitare. He also discovered that this thrush, unlike other thrushes, builds its nests on the ground. He was also first, on that same trip, to discover the Townsend’s Warbler. These two new species, along with 68 specimens of other birds, were sent back to Audubon to paint. There might also have been a Townsend’s Owl, but Nuttall and Captain Wyeth ate for breakfast the sole specimen Townsend had shot. The team had encountered hard times and hunger by the time they came to the Columbia River, and the owl was fast and easy food. The gregarious and talkative Townsend refused to talk to either man for days afterward. No one knows to this day what species of owl it was. John Townsend ultimately died in obscurity. Nuttall worked to the day he died, at age 73, while on his knees observing flowers.

The year Nuttall died, 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The world, it seemed, was ready to be introduced to newly discovered species and their place in the natural world. The entire first edition, 1250 copies, sold out in one day! A whole subfamily of finches, 13 in all, is named after Darwin. During his wide-ranging five-year voyage of discoveries, it was in the Galapagos Archipelago that he discovered the stub-winged cormorants and four-eyed fish. But more importantly, he discovered that each island was occupied by its own species of finch, apparently evolved from a single species blown long ago from the Ecuadorian mainland, 500 miles east. Some of these finches fed in trees, some on the ground, one fed on cactus, and another – now called the Woodpecker Finch – clamped a cactus thorn in its bill to secure insects hiding in their rock crevices. Darwin credited these finches with inspiring his first thoughts on the possibility of natural selection.

Darwin spent his last years in England writing about his life experiences, and died an agnostic in 1882. Those experiences shaped his belief that man does not have divine sanction to do what he wants in the world. That, in fact, man may not have any more elevated place in the scheme of things than a piece of granite, a bull thistle or a Trumpeter Swan.

In his earlier years, Darwin used a gun to collect specimens. Later, he kept live specimens so he could study them closely and observe their behaviors as well as their physical characteristics. The research he did in this manner resulted in his publication of The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. The drive behind earlier naturalists and ornithologists had been to collect, systematize, describe and display the specimens. What we now recognize as the Darwinian drive was his sincere efforts to link the world of nature to ourselves.

No one succeeded better in this than Henry David Thoreau. Part Three of this series will begin with Thoreau and touch on the efforts made by Dr. Elliott Coues, Spencer Baird, Frank Chapman, John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and Roger Tory Peterson.

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