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Alexander Wilson

Alexander Wilson

The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology

Edward H. Burtt, Jr., William E. Davis, Jr.

ISBN 9780674072558

Publication date: 06/24/2013

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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 In the first full-length study to reproduce all of Wilson’s unpublished drawings for the nine-volume Ornithology, Edward Burtt and William Davis illustrate Wilson’s pioneering and, today, underappreciated achievement as the first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.


  • [Burtt and Davis] are in no doubt that their man is the one to deserve the title of ‘Father’ [of American ornithology]… And it is a strong case, convincingly made… This will be a very valuable resource for scholars, and the drawings themselves are attractive and persuasive evidence for the authors’ claims about Wilson’s originality and importance. The authors and publishers have done full justice to these illustrations in this handsome volume and they are beautifully laid out and reproduced.

    —Jeremy Mynott, Times Literary Supplement


  • Edward H. Burtt, Jr., was Cincinnati Conference Professor of Zoology at Ohio Wesleyan University.
  • William E. Davis, Jr. is Professor Emeritus at Boston University.

Book Details

  • 464 pages
  • 6-3/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press