A birding pioneer
His name is attached to a number of birds, mainly found in the Americas, but Alexander Wilson’s roots are much closer to home
Scottish-born Alexander Wilson is renowned for his birding discoveries in the Americas
BORN IN PAISLEY on 6 July 1766, Alexander Wilson spent more than half his life in Scotland before leaving for the USA. Poet, naturalist and illustrator, he rose to become one of the leading lights in the history of ornithology. Baptised at the Laigh Kirk by the Reverend John Witherspoon (prophetically, a signatory of the US Declaration of Independence), Wilson was educated at Paisley Grammar School, but received only five years of formal education. His working life started at the tender age of 10 and, at the age of 13, he was apprenticed as a weaver. From an early age, he read widely, since the relatively high cultural standard of Paisley made books readily available.
He also frequently walked to nearby Lochwinnoch (now an RSPB reserve) to watch birds. Like many weavers, and inspired by the dialect verse of Robert Burns, who was only seven years older, Wilson developed a serious interest in poetry, writing ballads, pastoral pieces and satirical commentary on the conditions for weavers in the mills. His most famous narrative poem, Watty and Meg, published anonymously and attaining great popularity, was generally thought to be the work of Burns. However, the writing of a poem in 1792 of severe personal satire against a mill owner resulted in his arrest for libel. Wilson was sentenced to burn the work in public and imprisoned. Incarcerated again two years later, over the distribution of radical propaganda, Wilson finally felt there was scant reason to remain in his motherland. After his release, he emigrated to the USA with his nephew in May 1794, arriving in the city of New Castle, Delaware, on 14 July. Opportunities there were scarce for weavers, so Wilson turned to teaching in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, eventually settling into a position at
Gray’s Ferry, Pennsylvania, taking up residence in nearby Kingsessing. It was here in 1802 when Wilson met the famous naturalist William Bartram, who began to teach him the rudiments of ornithology and illustration. Resolving to publish a collection of illustrations of all the birds of North America, Wilson travelled widely, collecting, painting and securing subscriptions for his work, the nine-volume ‘American Ornithology’ (1808–1814), the last two volumes of which were edited and published posthumously. Of the 268 species of birds illustrated within, 26 had not previously been described. Never forgetting his mentorship, his magnum opus includes many references to Bartram and the area around Bartram’s Garden. From 1804 to 1813 Wilson collected and described birds from most of the states and territories in the USA. He classified species according to Linnaean taxonomy, helping to promote the adoption of the scientific method in the country. Additionally, he illustrated all the species he described, defying 18th Century conventions of biological illustration and striving for realistic depictions of birds in their respective
Think for thyself one good idea, but known to be thine own, is better than a thousand gleaned from fields by others sown Alexander Wilson
habitats. Always the pioneer, Wilson introduced a genuinely scientific approach to ornithology – observing species in the field, writing their descriptions and illustrating birds in poses to aid their identification. His work provided the blueprint for modern field guides. He used specimens to scrutinise their physical form, enabling him to illustrate the anatomical features of each species, an attention to detail unprecedented in bird illustrations at the time.
‘American Ornithology’ would have been a major undertaking for a professional supported by an institution or benefactor, but Wilson was not in that position, nor was he independently wealthy. When discussing Wilson, it is inevitable that comparisons will be drawn with John James Audubon. The pair met in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1810, when Wilson was touring the Southern USA, collecting bird specimens and subscribers for his ‘American Ornithology’. Although Audubon confirms this meeting in his shop, Wilson, in his long and detailed letter to Alexander Lawson covering this period, does not even mention it. According to Audubon, Wilson showed him the two volumes of ‘American Ornithology’ already published and was prepared to subscribe when a friend pointed out that Audubon’s drawings were better. Apparently, at that time Audubon had a large portfolio of his own paintings and it may have been this encounter that encouraged him to publish his own work. Audubon presented Wilson drawings in turn but he appears to have scorned this and, after a later meeting at the home of Rembrandt Peale, Audubon
portrayed him as exuding “a strong feeling of discontent or a decided melancholy. The Scotch airs which he played sweetly on his flute made me melancholy too, and I felt for him.” Nevertheless, Wilson is noted for the accuracy of his descriptions and for his superior illustrations. It has been suggested, with good reason, that Audubon plagiarised some of Wilson’s illustrations for use in his own work. Whatever passed between the two men, there was clearly a competitive element and they rarely saw eye to eye. Other relationships were more fruitful and he certainly had friends in high places. Wilson corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, then President of the USA, enlisting his help with bird identification and exchanging ornithological information. Jefferson was a keen ornithologist and the first person to list the birds of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Jefferson subscribed to Wilson’s ‘American Ornithology’, the first volume of which Wilson delivered in person to the White House. The naturalist and writer George Ord was a friend and avid supporter of Wilson, accompanying him on several of his journeys. After Wilson’s death, he finished the eighth and ninth volumes of his ‘American Ornithology’, as well as issuing a biography of him in 1828. He was hostile to Audubon, whose drawings he disliked and who he felt was usurping the position of Wilson. In 1824, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, the French biologist and ornithologist (and nephew of Napoleon), tried to get the then unknown Audubon accepted by the Academy of Natural Sciences, but this was opposed by Ord. Wilson died from dysentery aged 47 on 23 August 1813, during the preparation of the ninth volume of his ‘American Ornithology’. He was laid to rest in Gloria Dei Church cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His friend Ord is buried not far away in the same cemetery. Identified by Ord as the ‘Father of American Ornithology’, Wilson is now regarded as the greatest American ornithologist before Audubon. Some would argue that his greatness was never eclipsed by the latter. In the decade after Wilson’s death, Bonaparte updated and expanded his ‘American Ornithology’, publishing four supplementary volumes between 1825 and 1833. These, together with Wilson’s original work, became the predecessor of the ‘Checklist of North American Birds’ published by the American Ornithologists’ Union and
From 1804 to 1813 Wilson collected and described birds from most of the states in the USA
established ‘American Ornithology’ as the point of origin for the adoption of scientific methodology in the United States. His contribution will never be forgotten. Wilson’s legacy is such that the Wilson Ornithological Society, founded in 1888, and its quarterly publication ‘The Wilson Journal of Ornithology’, are named in his honour. Its mission is to “promote a strong working relationship among all who study birds”. And of course, several species of bird are named after Wilson, including Wilson’s Storm Petrel (Bonaparte, 1823), Wilson’s Plover (Ord, 1814), Wilson’s Snipe (Ord, 1825), Wilson’s Phalarope (Vieillot, 1819), Wilson’s Thrush (Stephens, 1817) – now better known as Veery – and Wilson’s Warbler (Wilson, 1811). The Broad-winged Hawk (Bonaparte, 1824) and Least Sandpiper (Nuttall, 1834) once bore his name, while the American subspecies of Longeared Owl Asio otus wilsonianus (Lesson, 1830) still does. The now obsolete New World Warbler genus Wilsonia (Hooded Warbler is now included in Setophaga, while Wilson’s and Canada Warblers are included in Cardellina) was named to commemorate him by Bonaparte in 1838. A mammal, the Meadow Vole, was named after him by Ord in 1815.