American Ornithology

Library of Virginia

These hand colored engravings of North American birds are from American Ornithology by Alexander Wilson (1766–1813). This beautiful set of books, published from 1808 to 1825, is considered the first comprehensive work on American natural history and contains 76 full page illustrations.

Close Study
Alexander Wilson (1766–1813) was painstaking in his meticulous drawing, attention to detail, and accurate coloring of each bird. He was a writer and a poet who used engaging narrative prose to describe each bird species in scientific and artistic terms. This plate depicts a variety of Orchard Orioles as their plumage changes with age, and also the eggs of the Orchard and Baltimore Oriole.

Male orioles are shown here at two and three years old, with several changes to the coloring.

As noted by Wilson in the label below, he's depicted four birds on the same branch. From top to bottom they are the Wood Thrush, Red-breasted Thrush or Robin, White Breasted Black-capped Nuthatch, and a Red-bellied-black-capped Nuthatch.

Wood Thrush and the White-breasted, black-capped Nuthatch.

No detail too small!

Wildlife as National Heritage
Wilson considered his work a patriotic undertaking that would nurture and encourage a shared cultural heritage and identity for Americans. The Continental Congress had adopted the official United States seal in 1782, harkening back to the iconography of Rome with its central bald eagle figure.

Wilson hand-delivered the first printed volume to the White House for an early subscriber to the set--Thomas Jefferson. Together they spent an afternoon discussing birds in 1809.

This plate has male and female Cardinal Grosbeaks and Red Tanagers with their eggs. The cardinal is the state bird of Virginia.

Bird Songs
Listening can be almost as important as seeing when identifying bird species. Imagine Wilson tracking birds through the relatively undeveloped landscapes of the United States in the early 19th century, guided by their calls. 

The male and female Nighthawk are depicted. Learn about the unusual call and behavior in this video.

This plate depicts: a Red-breasted Snipe, a Long-legged Avoset (sic), a solitary Sandpiper, a Yellow Shanks Snipe and a Tell-tale Snipe.
Listen to the call of an American Avocet in this video.

This plate depicts: a Gold-winged Woodpecker, Black-throated Bunting, and a Blue Bird.
Listen to the call of the Eastern Bluebird.

Male and a female Whip-poor-wills, common to Eastern United States, are shown. The rarely-spotted nocturnal birds are named onomatopoeically, meaning the name imitates their call.

This plate depicts: a male and female Red-winged Starling, a Black-poll Warbler and a Lesser Red-poll. Flocks of starlings, known as murmurations, move in unison, creating an extraordinary sight.

Classification Nation
Alexander Wilson became known as the father of American ornithology. He the first American to describe and classify the birds of North America within the Linnaean system, a feat not taken on by earlier naturalists such as Mark Catesby. This plate depicts: a Roseate Spoonbill, an American Avoset, a Ruddy Plover, and a Semipalmated Sandpiper.

This plate depicts: an Ezquimaux Curlew, a Red-backed Snipe, a Semipalmated Snipe and a Marbled Godwit.

This water scene depicts: a Black-bellied Darter, a female Darter, a Great Northern Diver, a Black-headed Gull, and a Little Auk.

The distinctive Pinnated Grous (sic) is shown with two Warblers: blue-green and Nashville.

This plate depicts four types of woodpeckers: Red-headed, Yellow-bellied, Hairy and Downy.

Birds of Prey
The Linnean taxonomy placed all birds of prey into a single order, Accipitres, subdividing this into four genera: Vultur (vultures), Falco (eagles, hawks, falcons, etc.), Strix (owls), and Lanius (shrikes). Wilson depicted many of these, sometimes with their next meal.

This plate depicts a Great Horned Owl, a Barn Owl, two Meadow Mice, a Red Bat, and a Hawk Owl. The Small-headed Flycatcher was removed from this edition at some point before it reached the Library of Virginia.

This plate depicts: a Mottled Owl, a Meadow Lark, a Black and white Creeper, and a Pine-creeping Warbler.

This plate depicts a fantastic Snow Owl and a Male Sparrow Hawk.

A Rough-legged Falcon and a Barred Owl watch from above, as a Short-eared Owl captures a small mouse.

A Ring-tail Eagle and a Sea Eagle focus their predator gazes.

This plate depicts: a Black Hawk (two varieties), a Red-shouldered Haw, a female Baltimore Oriole, and a female Towhee Bunting.

A Turkey Buzzard, Black Vulture and a Raven, along with an unlucky sheep, are seen here.

There are also life-size sketches of the heads of the Turkey Buzzard and Black Vulture.

Extinct Species
Both the Carolina Parakeet and the Passenger Pigeon are now extinct. Wilson's detailed etchings provide a glimpse of these lost species.

The Carolina Parakeet, seen here with three types of flycatchers, was the only parrot native to the Eastern United States. While the exact date of extinction is not known, the last of these colorful birds is thought to have died out in the 1940's-50's.

The Passenger Pigeon, seen here with two warblers, was hunted across North America with the last known member, named Martha, passing away on Sept. 1, 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo.

Wilson's Legacy
Wilson's tireless effort to accurately portray the shape and vibrant colors of American bird species eventually led him to travel over 12,000 miles, within all the states and territories, to observe in nature, describe, and draw more than 268 bird species, thirty-six of which had never before been described. This plate depicts: a Mississippi Kite, a Tennessee Warbler, a Kentucky Warbler, and a Prairie Warbler.

The Tennessee Warbler was given its name by Alexander Wilson who saw it during its migration. Several other species were named after Wilson, as well as a now obsolete genus of warblers.

This plate depicts: a Virginian Rail, a Clapper Rail, a Blue Crane, and a Little Egret.

According to Audubon: "Like other rails, the Virginia Rail prefers to escape intruders by running through protective marsh vegetation rather than by flying. When it does take wing, it often flies only a few yards before slipping back out of sight into the marsh."

Wilson encouraged John James Audubon (1785–1851) to publish his own drawings, which Audubon eventually did, borrowing from a few of Wilson’s original engravings.

Wilson realized many of his aspirations during his lifetime, including his dream to publish this masterwork. During the preparation for the final volume, Wilson passed away at age forty-seven. The eighth and ninth volumes were published posthumously, with work completed by Wilson's friend, naturalist George Ord. 

The Library is proud to have the entire set of American Ornithology, which was included in the first catalog of the Library of Virginia’s collection to be published, A Catalogue of the Library of the State of Virginia, 1828.

Credits: Story

All Images from "American ornithology, or, The natural history of the birds of the United States: illustrated with plates, engraved and colored from original drawings taken from nature" by Alexander Wilson, 1808-1825.

Text by Audrey McElhinney and Mary Kate du Laney.
Additional text and arrangement by Sonya Coleman
for the Library of Virginia.

Imaging by the LVA Photo & Digital Imaging Services Department

For the Library of Virginia

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.