The Magazine

Birdman of America

Before Audubon, there was Alexander Wilson.

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By CHRISTOPH IRMSCHER
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.