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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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In the ninth, posthumous volume of American Ornithology, Wilson’s sparkling vignettes have been replaced by his friend George Ord’s plodding prose (“As it respects, in particular, the tribe under review .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.