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

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: ED HUTCH­INGS

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.

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