444 pages, 146 colour illustrations, 6 tables
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 In the first full-length study to reproduce all of Wilson's unpublished drawings for the nine-volume Ornithology, Edward Burtt and William Davis illustrate Wilson's pioneering and, today, underappreciated achievement as the first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.
"The book will be especially interesting to artists due to the detailed treatment of Wilson’s illustrations. This is a lengthy volume and there is some repetition of material between different chapters, which could have been edited more tightly. Although the extent of the coverage of species from eastern North America is clear, species found only in the ‘Wild West’ were unknown to Wilson, and I would have liked to know more about how his bird list fits into present continent-wide knowledge."
– Dorian Moss, BTO book reviews
"[...] The authors are to be congratulated for bringing together Wilson’s surviving artwork a nd giving him the honour he deserves as the Father of American Ornithology ."
– Richard Mearns, Ibis 156, 2014
"A definitive work on the history of bird art, ornithology, and nature writing. Volumes have been written on Audubon as though he were the dean of American ornithology, but Burtt and Davis reveal Alexander Wilson as providing the foundation."
– Bernd Heinrich, author of The Nesting Season
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Edward H. Burtt, Jr. is Cincinnati Conference Professor of Zoology at Ohio Wesleyan University. William E. Davis, Jr. is Professor Emeritus at Boston University.