The Magazine

Birdman of America

Before Audubon, there was Alexander Wilson.

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By CHRISTOPH IRMSCHER
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For years now, I have been showing the gorgeous four volumes of Audubon’s Birds of America to visitors and students at Indiana University’s Lilly Library. Each time, I take pleasure in the sumptuous colors of Audubon’s plates, still luminous after almost two centuries, and the dramatic stories of avian life the plates tell, with their fancy botanical backgrounds. I like even the sound the pages make when we turn them, slowly, gently, one at a time. I tell my students that Audubon’s volumes are called “double elephant folios” because they are so large, and sometimes I have to assure them that no elephants were harmed in the making of them. 

Common snipe and partridge from ‘American Ornithology’ (1808-13)

Common snipe and partridge from ‘American Ornithology’ (1808-13)

mary evans / natural history museum / everett collection

“But what about the birds?” someone will inevitably ask. Yes, he did kill those—so many of them that the experience seemed gruesome even to him. “A two-legged monster armed with a gun,” he once called himself. Occasionally, I will show Audubon’s plate of the white egret, which does indeed feature the tiny figure of a hunter stalking the bird, clutching his matchstick-sized gun. And then I find myself mentioning Alexander Wilson, the Scotsman who came to the United States in 1794, who did not kill birds as a default option, and who, more than Audubon, deserves credit for having founded American ornithology, as biographers Edward Burtt and William Davis rightly insist. 

Wilson’s plates were smaller, and his birds often seem clumsier and less artistically posed than Audubon’s. But then he had wanted them as his friends, not as art objects. Wilson readily shared his life with hawks, owls, and crows, inviting them into his rented rooms, a hospitality he never seems to have extended to any human companion. When describing, in a letter to his mentor William Bartram, the sacrifices he had to make for his American Ornithology—eight marvelous volumes of plates and bird essays published between 1808 and 1813—Wilson lamented that he had to give up “the pleasures of social life.”  

But I suspect that he would not have wanted it any other way. During his travels south in search of new birds—as well as new (human) subscribers for his great book—Wilson kept a parakeet named Poll as a pet and would pull her out of his pocket or cage to demonstrate to astonished spectators that she would accept food right out of his mouth. Such tricks, he thought, won him the respect of the Chickasaw, although it’s possible that all it really did was assure people that Wilson was a harmless nut. (It appears that Poll saw their relationship a little differently, too, and seized the first opportunity to escape. Unfortunately for her, that happened in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.)  

Wilson drew his birds from life—if at all possible—making numerous sketches, which Burtt and Davis have assembled here for the first time. He also took copious notes. Back in Scotland, he had been a poet as well as a weaver and was good enough with his pen to enrage the authorities when he satirized a local mill owner. His fine literary sensibility is evident in every page of the ornithological essays he produced in America, many of which are excerpted here. 

They are quite wonderful indeed. For example, we’re right there with Wilson when, one cold winter’s day on the banks of the Roanoke River, he sees “armies of grackles” arise from the bare fields with a loud, thunderous sound, and then descend on a cluster of leafless trees nearby, making them appear as if they were “hung in mourning.” Wilson’s metaphors are nearly always memorable (the kingfisher, he tells us, sounds like “the twirling of a watchman’s rattle”) and his anecdotes are funny. Who could forget the German farmer sharing his dislike for the purple martins? They eat his “peas,” he complains to an uncomprehending Wilson. Pea-eating martins? But the man assures him that he has, indeed, seen those blasted birds “blaying about the hifes and snapping up my pees.” Now Wilson gets it; the birds have been eating the farmer’s “bees.”

Equally entertaining is the quick math Wilson performs for us in an attempt to rehabilitate the red-winged blackbird, so often maligned by American farmers. Beginning with the average amount of “noxious insects” consumed by a pair of red-winged blackbirds, Wilson multiplies that figure by the millions of such pairs that “enter” the United States each summer. Then he adds to that figure the estimated number of young red-winged blackbirds that each year join their parents in the feast. His grand total: Red-winged blackbirds eat as many as “sixteen thousand two hundred million” noxious insects annually. Think of how much farmland they save each year. At this point in Wilson’s argument, only the dumbest peasant would still want to shoot a blackbird. 

Wilson’s keen eye for literary detail manifests itself throughout American Ornithology. It allows him to watch a group of Carolina parakeets getting their talons stained as they are munching on mulberries and to conclude (though now in the voice of the dispassionate scientist) that, like humans, some of these birds prefer to use their right foot whereas others are more inclined to use the left. And his interest in storytelling leads Wilson to show amused sympathy for the American widgeon, a bird that never does its own diving but instead hangs out around the more enterprising canvas-back duck, waiting for him to do the job. As soon as the canvasback returns from his forays into the deep, his eyes not yet “well-opened” (a lovely detail which tells us how close Wilson must have been to the bird, his breath virtually stirring the feathers on its neck in these pre-binocular days), the eager widgeon is right there, and the canvasback has lost his food before he knows what hit him. 

In the ninth, posthumous volume of American Ornithology, Wilson’s sparkling vignettes have been replaced by his friend George Ord’s plodding prose (“As it respects, in particular, the tribe under review .  .  .”), and one can’t help but think that more was lost here than stylistic grace.

If Wilson’s texts are stellar, his plates have their own, quieter beauty. The birds he drew and then, often, hand-colored seem to delight in their difference from humans. In one of my favorite plates, we see a green-winged teal, its bill tucked lightly into its back, drifting motionless on the shimmering water, while above him a mallard, his wings unfolding and his resplendent neck stretched out like an arrow, is taking off to who-knows-where, as if to prove what Wilson had celebrated in the accompanying essay:  that this duck, once domesticated, has shed the abominable “shackles of slavery” and regained its “native spirit of independence.” 

Some faint signs of human activity do show up in some of the plates: a barn or a farm or a fence, or even two or three people working in a field. But all are dwarfed into insignificance by the glittering bodies of the birds in the foreground: a crow or a sea eagle or a magpie, proud and seemingly self-sufficient despite the fact that they have been crowded into the same plate with species they would never associate with in real life.    

During my last visit to the splendid Audubon Museum in Henderson, Kentucky, the curator Alan Gehret allowed me to take a look at Audubon’s well-used personal set of Wilson’s American Ornithology. The great bird painter was no book collector, to be sure: He lugged these heavy volumes around with him when he was in the field, occasionally dropping or even losing them; and when he saw (or more likely shot) a bird and found that it was different from the corresponding plate in Wilson’s work, he scribbled his outrage right onto the plate. 

Admittedly, Audubon was jealous that Wilson had beaten him to the finish line as the father of American ornithology. But even Burtt and Davis agree that Wilson’s drawings are often more accurate than his finished plates. And that’s precisely why it’s so good to have those sketches collected here: large and small, ragged and neat, cut into many pieces, or pasted onto other sheets of paper. Taken together, they allow us to trace the evolution of Wilson’s art, from the early birds simply depicted on the conventional sticks and stumps to the later ones lovingly embedded in increasingly intricate landscapes and ecologically correct habitats.   

Wilson was not interested in gallery art, the authors say. But the compelling examples they provide of him using and reusing material, drafting ornithological details on every available shred of paper, and creating fascinating collages out of fragments bespeak a commitment to his profession many of his more artistically minded colleagues lack. Here, on these pieces of paper, we see Wilson getting down next to his birds, caressing them with his pencil, tenderly recreating their shapes, eyes, beaks, and feet. No wonder he felt hampered by the Linnaean system and the taxonomic categories it supplied, so inadequate for a world in which (as he put it in pre-Darwinian fashion) species appeared to be constantly passing into each other by “fine gradations.”

One of Wilson’s last drawings shows a tundra swan, drawn on a mere scrap. Floating into the picture from somewhere else, with its head elegantly twisted back, this infinitely graceful bird, acknowledging our presence, extends to us something like a final gesture of farewell. Not much later, on August 23, 1813, an exhausted Wilson died, a mere month after his 47th birthday.  

Christoph Irmscher, provost professor of English at Indiana University, is the author, most recently, of Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science.