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Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithologyby Edward H., Jr. Burtt
Synopses & Reviews
Audubon was not the father of American ornithology. That honorific belongs to Alexander Wilson, whose encyclopedic American Ornithology established a distinctive approach that emphasized the observation of live birds. In the first full-length study to reproduce all of Wilson's unpublished drawings for the nine-volume Ornithology, Edward Burtt and William Davis illustrate Wilson's pioneering and, today, underappreciated achievement as the first ornithologist to describe the birds of the North American wilderness.
Abandoning early ambitions to become a poet in the mold of his countryman Robert Burns, Wilson emigrated from Scotland to settle near Philadelphia, where the botanist William Bartram encouraged his proclivity for art and natural history. Wilson traveled 12,000 miles on foot, on horseback, in a rowboat, and by stage and ship, establishing a network of observers along the way. He wrote hundreds of accounts of indigenous birds, discovered many new species, and sketched the behavior and ecology of each species he encountered.
Drawing on their expertise in both science and art, Burtt and Davis show how Wilson defied eighteenth-century conventions of biological illustration by striving for realistic depiction of birds in their native habitats. He drew them in poses meant to facilitate identification, making his work the model for modern field guides and an inspiration for Audubon, Spencer Fullerton Baird, and other naturalists who followed. On the bicentennial of his death, this beautifully illustrated volume is a fitting tribute to Alexander Wilson and his unique contributions to ornithology, ecology, and the study of animal behavior.
"Before Audubon and Birds of America, there was Alexander Wilson and American Ornithology, a nine-volume work published between 1808 and 1814 that single-handedly transformed the study of birds in the wild and presaged the field guides of today. In addition to being the first to adopt the Linnaean system of binomial nomenclature to classify North American birds, Wilson was also one of the first to base his findings primarily on the 'observation and description of live birds.' By 1812, the Scottish poet had documented nearly 80% of bird species in the United States, and developed the discipline of 'economic ornithology,' whereby bird types are valued according to a kind of cost-benefit analysis (i.e. one that takes into account whether a bird is prone to destroy certain crops, whether they can be consumed, etc.). Burtt and Davis's text is largely uninspired and tedious, but what makes this book of such great value is the third chapter: 'Illustrating American Ornithology.' Composing over half of the book, this section features every illustration from Wilson's landmark publication. Alongside excerpts from Wilson's own commentary, the authors painstakingly detail how each sketch developed into its final iteration. A must-have for any serious bird-watcher. 146 color illus. & 6 tables." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
On the bicentennial of his death, this beautifully illustrated volume pays tribute to the Scot who became the father of American ornithology. Alexander Wilson made unique contributions to ecology and animal behavior. His drawings of birds in realistic poses in their natural habitat inspired Audubon, Spencer Fullerton Baird, and other naturalists.
About the Author
Edward H. Burtt, Jr. is Cincinnati Conference Professor of Zoology at Ohio Wesleyan University.William E. Davis, Jr. is Professor Emeritus at Boston University.
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