Ornithological Biography/Volume 1/Introductory Address

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Kind Reader,—Should you derive from the perusal of the following pages, which I have written with no other wish than that of procuring one favourable thought from you, a portion of the pleasure which I have felt in collecting the materials for their composition, my gratification will be ample, and the compensation for all my labours will be more than, perhaps, I have a right to expect from an individual to whom I am as yet unknown, and to whom I must therefore, in the very outset, present some account of my life, and of the motives which have influenced me in thus bringing you into contact with an American Woodsman.

I received life and light in the New World. When I had hardly yet learned to walk, and to articulate those first words always so endearing to parents, the productions of Nature that lay spread all around, were constantly pointed out to me. They soon became my playmates; and before my ideas were sufficiently formed to enable me to estimate the difference between the azure tints of the sky, and the emerald hue of the bright foliage, I felt that an intimacy with them, not consisting of friendship merely, but bordering on phrenzy, must accompany my steps through life;—and now, more than ever, am I persuaded of the power of those early impressions. They laid such hold upon me, that, when removed from the woods, the prairies, and the brooks, or shut up from the view of the wide Atlantic, I experienced none of those pleasures most congenial to my mind. None but aërial companions suited my fancy. No roof seemed so secure to me as that formed of the dense foliage under which the feathered tribes were seen to resort, or the caves and fissures of the massy rocks to which the dark-winged Cormorant and the Curlew retired to rest, or to protect themselves from the fury of the tempest. My father generally accompanied my steps, procured birds and flowers for me with great eagerness,—pointed out the elegant movements of the former, the beauty and softness of their plumage, the manifestations of their pleasure or sense of danger,—and the always perfect forms and splendid attire of the latter. My valued preceptor would then speak of the departure and return of birds with the seasons, would describe their haunts, and, more wonderful than all, their change of livery; thus exciting me to study them, and to raise my mind toward their great Creator.

A vivid pleasure shone upon those days of my early youth, attended with a calmness of feeling, that seldom failed to rivet my attention for hours, whilst I gazed in ecstacy upon the pearly and shining eggs, as they lay imbedded in the softest down, or among dried leaves and twigs, or were exposed upon the burning sand or weather-beaten rock of our Atlantic shores. I was taught to look upon them as flowers yet in the bud. I watched their opening, to see how Nature had provided each different species with eyes, either open at birth, or closed for some time after; to trace the slow progress of the young birds toward perfection, or admire the celerity with which some of them, while yet unfledged, removed themselves from danger to security.

I grew up, and my wishes grew with my form. These wishes, kind reader, were for the entire possession of all that I saw. I was fervently desirous of becoming acquainted with nature. For many years, however, I was sadly disappointed, and for ever, doubtless, must I have desires that cannot be gratified. The moment a bird was dead, however beautiful it had been when in life, the pleasure arising from the possession of it became blunted; and although the greatest cares were bestowed on endeavours to preserve the appearance of nature, I looked upon its vesture as more than sullied, as requiring constant attention and repeated mendings, while, after all, it could no longer be said to be fresh from the hands of its Maker. I wished to possess all the productions of nature, but I wished life with them. This was impossible. Then what was to be done? I turned to my father, and made known to him my disappointment and anxiety. He produced a book of Illustrations. A new life ran in my veins. I turned over the leaves with avidity; and although what I saw was not what I longed for, it gave me a desire to copy nature. To Nature I went, and tried to imitate her, as in the days of my childhood I had tried to raise myself from the ground and stand erect, before nature had imparted the vigour necessary for the success of such an undertaking.

How sorely disappointed did I feel for many years, when I saw that my productions were worse than those which I ventured (perhaps in silence) to regard as bad, in the book given me by my father! My pencil gave birth to a family of cripples. So maimed were most of them, that they resembled the mangled corpses on a field of battle, compared with the integrity of living men. These difficulties and disappointments irritated me, but never for a moment destroyed the desire of obtaining perfect representations of nature. The worse my drawings were, the more beautiful did I see the originals. To have been torn from the study would have been as death to me. My time was entirely occupied with it. I produced hundreds of these rude sketches annually; and for a long time, at my request, they made bonfires on the anniversaries of my birth-day.

Patiently, and with industry, did I apply myself to study, for, although I felt the impossibility of giving life to my productions, I did not abandon the idea of representing nature. Many plans were successively adopted, many masters guided my hand. At the age of seventeen, when I returned from France, whither I had gone to receive the rudiments of my education, my drawings had assumed a form. David had guided my hand in tracing objects of large size. Eyes and noses belonging to giants, and heads of horses represented in ancient sculpture, were my models. These, although fit subjects for men intent on pursuing the higher branches of the art, were immediately laid aside by me. I returned to the woods of the New World with fresh ardour, and commenced a collection of drawings, which I henceforth continued, and which is now publishing, under the title of "The Birds of America."

To these Illustrations I shall often refer you, good-natured reader, in the sequel, that you may judge of them yourself. Should you discover any merit in them, happy would the expression of your approbation render me, for I should feel that I had not spent my life in vain. You can best ascertain the truth of these delineations. I am persuaded that you love nature—that you admire and study her. Every individual, possessed of a sound heart, listens with delight to the love-notes of the woodland warblers. He never casts a glance upon their lovely forms without proposing to himself questions respecting them; nor does he look on the trees which they frequent, or the flowers over which they glide, without admiring their grandeur, or delighting in their sweet odours or their brilliant tints.

In Pennsylvania, a beautiful State, almost central on the line of our Atlantic shores, my father, in his desire of proving my friend through life, gave me what Americans call a beautiful "plantation," refreshed during the summer heats by the waters of the Schuylkil River, and traversed by a creek named Perkioming. Its fine woodlands, its extensive fields, its hills crowned with evergreens, offered many subjects to my pencil. It was there that I commenced my simple and agreeable studies, with as little concern about the future as if the world had been made for me. My rambles invariably commenced at break of day; and to return wet with dew, and bearing a feathered prize, was, and ever will be, the highest enjoyment for which I have been fitted.

Yet think not, reader, that the enthusiasm which I felt for my favourite pursuits was a barrier opposed to the admission of gentler sentiments. Nature, which had turned my young mind toward the bird and the flower, soon proved her influence upon my heart. Be it enough to say, that the object of my passion has long since blessed me with the name of husband. And now let us return, for who cares to listen to the love-tale of a naturalist, whose feelings may be supposed to he as light as the feathers which he delineates!

For a period of nearly twenty years, my life was a succession of vicissitudes. I tried various branches of commerce, but they all proved unprofitable, doubtless because my whole mind was ever filled with my passion for rambling and admiring those objects of nature from which alone I received the purest gratification. I had to struggle against the will of all who at that period called themselves my friends. I must here, however, except my wife and children. The remarks of my other friends irritated me beyond endurance, and, breaking through all bonds, I gave myself entirely up to my pursuits. Any one unacquainted with the extraordinary desire which I then felt of seeing and judging for myself, would doubtless have pronounced me callous to every sense of duty, and regardless of every interest. I undertook long and tedious journeys, ransacked the woods, the lakes, the prairies, and the shores of the Atlantic. Years were spent away from my family. Yet, reader, will you believe it, I had no other object in view, than simply to enjoy the sight of nature. Never for a moment did I conceive the hope of becoming in any degree useful to my kind, until I accidentally formed acquaintance with the Prince of Musignano at Philadelphia, to which place I went, with the view of proceeding eastward along the coast.

I reached Philadelphia on the 5th April 1824, just as the sun was sinking beneath the horizon. Excepting the good Dr Mease, who had visited me in my younger days, I had scarcely a friend in the city; for I was then unacquainted with Harlan, Wetherell, Macmurtrie, Lesueur, or Sully. I called on him, and showed him some of my drawings. He presented me to the celebrated Charles Lucian Bonaparte, who in his turn introduced me to the Natural History Society of Philadelphia. But the patronage which I so much needed, I soon found myself compelled to seek elsewhere. I left Philadelphia, and visited New York, where I was received with a kindness well suited to elevate my depressed spirits; and afterwards, ascending that noble stream the Hudson, glided over our broad lakes, to seek the wildest solitudes of the pathless and gloomy forests.

It was in these forests that, for the first time, I communed with myself as to the possible event of my visiting Europe again; and I began to fancy my work under the multiplying efforts of the graver. Happy days, and nights of pleasing dreams! I read over the catalogue of my collection, and thought how it might be possible for an unconnected and unaided individual like myself to accomplish the grand scheme. Chance, and chance alone, had divided my drawings into three different classes, depending upon the magnitude of the objects which they represented; and, although I did not at that time possess all the specimens necessary, I arranged them as well as I could into parcels of five plates, each of which now forms a Number of my Illustrations. I improved the whole as much as was in my power; and as I daily retired farther from the haunts of man, determined to leave nothing undone, which my labour, my time, or my purse, could accomplish.

Eighteen months elapsed. I returned to my family, then in Louisiana, explored every portion of the vast woods around, and at last sailed towards the Old World. But before we visit the shores of hospitable England, I have the wish, good-natured reader, to give you some idea of my mode of executing the original drawings, from which the Illustrations have been taken; and I sincerely hope that the perusal of these lines may excite in you a desire minutely to examine them.

Merely to say, that each object of my Illustrations is of the size of nature, were too vague—for to many it might only convey the idea that they are so, more or less, according as the eye of the delineator may have been more or less correct in measurement simply obtained through that medium; and of avoiding error in this respect I am particularly desirous. Not only is every object, as a whole, of the natural size, but also every portion of each object. The compass aided me in its delineation, regulated and corrected each part, even to the very foreshortening which now and then may be seen in the figures. The bill, the feet, the legs, the claws, the very feathers as they project one beyond another, have been accurately measured. The birds, almost all of them, were killed by myself, after I had examined their motions and habits, as much as the case admitted, and were regularly drawn on or near the spot where I procured them. The positions may, perhaps, in some instances, appear outré; but such supposed exaggerations can afford subject of criticism only to persons unacquainted with the feathered tribes; for, believe me, nothing can be more transient or varied than the attitudes or positions of birds. The Heron, when warming itself in the sun, will sometimes drop its wings several inches, as if they were dislocated; the Swan may often be seen floating with one foot extended from the body; and some Pigeons, you well know, turn quite over, when playing in the air. The flowers, plants, or portions of trees which are attached to the principal objects, have been chosen from amongst those in the vicinity of which the birds were found, and are not, as some persons have thought, the trees or plants upon which they always feed or perch.

An accident which happened to two hundred of my original drawings, nearly put a stop to my researches in ornithology. I shall relate it, merely to show you how far enthusiasm—for by no other name can I call the persevering zeal with which I laboured—may enable the observer of nature to surmount the most disheartening obstacles. I left the village of Henderson, in Kentucky, situated on the bank of the Ohio, where I resided for several years, to proceed to Philadelphia on business. I looked to all my drawings before my departure, placed them carefully in a wooden box, and gave them in charge to a relative, with injunctions to see that no injury should happen to them. My absence was of several months; and when I returned, after having enjoyed the pleasures of home for a few days, I inquired after my box, and what I was pleased to call my treasure. The box was produced, and opened;—but, reader, feel for me—a pair of Norway rats had taken possession of the whole, and had reared a young family amongst the gnawed bits of paper, which, but a few months before, represented nearly a thousand inhabitants of the air! The burning heat which instantly rushed through my brain was too great to be endured, without affecting the whole of my nervous system. I slept not for several nights, and the days passed like days of oblivion,—until the animal powers being recalled into action, through the strength of my constitution, I took up my gun, my note-book, and my pencils, and went forth to the woods as gaily as if nothing had happened. I felt pleased that I might now make much better drawings than before, and, ere a period not exceeding three years had elapsed, I had my portfolio filled again.

America being my country, and the principal pleasures of my life having been obtained there, I prepared to leave it with deep sorrow, after in vain trying to publish my Illustrations in the United States. In Philadelphia, Wilson's principal engraver, amongst others, gave it as his opinion to my friends, that my drawings could never be engraved. In New York, other difficulties presented themselves, which determined me to carry my collections to Europe.

As I approached the coast of England, and for the first time beheld her fertile shores, the despondency of my spirits became very great. I knew not an individual in the country; and, although I was the bearer of letters from American friends, and statesmen of great eminence, my situation appeared precarious in the extreme. I imagined that every individual whom I was about to meet, might be possessed of talents superior to those of any on our side of the Atlantic! Indeed, as I for the first time walked on the streets of Liverpool, my heart nearly failed me, for not a glance of sympathy did I meet in my wanderings, for two days. To the woods I could not betake myself, for there were none near.

But how soon did all around me assume a different aspect! How fresh is the recollection of the change! The very first letter which I tendered procured me a world of friends. The Rathbones, the Roscoes, the Traills, the Chorleys, the Mellies, and others, took me by the hand; and so kind and beneficent, nay, so generously kind, have they all been towards me, that I can never cancel the obligation. My drawings were publicly exhibited, and publicly praised. Joy swelled my heart. The first difficulty was surmounted. Honours, which, on application being made through my friends, Philadelphia had refused, Liverpool freely accorded.

I left that emporium of commerce, with many a passport, bent upon visiting fair Edina, for I longed to see the men and the scenes immortalized by the fervid strains of Burns, and the glowing eloquence of Scott and Wilson. I arrived at Manchester; and here, too, the Greggs, the Lloyds, the Sergeants, the Holmes, the Blackwalls, the Bentleys, and many others, rendered my visit as pleasing as it was profitable to me. Friends pressed me to accompany them to the pretty villages of Bakewell, Mattlock, and Buxton. It was a jaunt of pure enjoyment. Nature was then at her best, at least such was the feeling of our whole party; the summer was full of promise.

My journey to Scotland was performed along the north-western shores of England. I passed in view of Lancaster Castle, and through Carlisle. I had by this time much altered my ideas of this Island and its inhabitants. I found her churches all hung with her glories, and her people all alive to the kindest hospitality. I saw Edinburgh, and was struck with the natural pictorial elegance of her site; and I soon found that her inhabitants were as urbane as those whom I had left behind me. The principal scientific and literary characters of the ancient metropolis of Scotland received me as a brother. It is impossible for me to mention all the individuals from whom I received the kindest attention; but gratitude forbids my omitting the names of Professors Jameson, Graham, Russel, Wilson, Brown, and Monro, Sir Walter Scott, Captain Hall, Dr Brewster, Dr Greville, Mr James Wilson, Mr Neill, Mr Hay, Mr Combe, Mr Hamilton, the Withams, the Lizarses, the Symes, and the Nicholsons. The Royal Society, the Wernerian Natural History Society, the Society of Scottish Antiquaries, the Society of Useful Arts, and the Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, spontaneously and gratuitously enrolled me among their members.

In this capital commenced the publication of my Illustrations, and there it might have been accomplished, had not unexpected difficulties come in the way. My engraver, Mr W. H. Lizars, advised me to seek an artist in London. There, after many fruitless inquiries, I became acquainted with Mr Robert Havell junior, who has ever since continued to be employed by me, and who, I am happy in saying, has given general satisfaction to my patrons.

Four years have passed. One volume of my Illustrations, containing one hundred plates, is before the public. You may easily see, good-natured reader, that to Britain I owe nearly all my success. She has furnished the artists through whom my labours were to be presented to the world; she has granted me the highest patronage and honours;—in a word, she has thus far supported the prosecution of my Illustrations. To Britain, therefore, I shall ever be grateful.

Two objections have been made to the mode in which my work is published: the great size of the paper upon which the representations are offered to you, and the length of time necessary for their completion.

As to the size of the paper, which has been complained of by some, it could not be avoided without giving up the desire of presenting to the world those my favourite objects in nature, of the size which nature has given to them. As one of the first ornithologists of the age, who kindly reviewed a few numbers of the Plates, has spoken upon this subject in a manner which I cannot here use, I refer you to his observations. The name of Swainson is, doubtless, well known to you. Permit me also to lead you, for a defence of my resolution in this matter, to one, who, being the centre of zoological science, is well entitled to your deference in a question relating to Ornithology. You will readily apprehend that I allude to the great, the immortal Cuvier.

Secondly, As to the time necessary for finishing my Work, I have only to observe, that it will be less than the period frequently given by many persons to the maturation of certain wines placed in their cellars, several years previous to the commencement of my work, and which will not be considered capable of imparting their full relish until many years after the conclusion of the "Birds of America."

Since I became acquainted with Mr Alexander Wilson, the celebrated author of the well-known and duly appreciated work on American Birds, and subsequently with my excellent friend Charles Lucian Bonaparte, I have been aware of the keenness with which every student of Natural History presses forward to describe an object of his own discovery, or that may have occurred to travellers in distant countries. There seems to be a pride, a glory in doing this, that thrusts aside every other consideration; and I really believe that the ties of friendship itself would not prevent some naturalists from even robbing an old acquaintance of the merit of first describing a previously unknown object. Although I have certainly felt very great pleasure, when, on picking up a bird, I discovered it to be new to me, yet I have never known the desire above alluded to. This feeling I still cherish; and in spite of the many injunctions which I have received from naturalists far more eminent than I can ever expect to be, I have kept, and still keep, unknown to others, the species, which, not finding portrayed in any published work, I look upon as new, having only given in my Illustrations a number of them proportionate to the drawings of already known species that have been engraved. Attached to the descriptions of these, you will find the place and date of their discovery. I do not, however, intend to claim any merit for these discoveries, and should have liked as well that the objects of them had been previously known, as this would have saved some unbelievers the trouble of searching for them in books, and the disappointment of finding them actually new. I assure you, good reader, that, even at this moment, I should have less pleasure in presenting to the scientific world a new bird, the knowledge of whose habits I do not possess, than in describing the peculiarities of one long since discovered.

There are persons whose desire of obtaining celebrity induces them to suppress the knowledge of the assistance which they have received in the composition of their works. In many cases, in fact, the real author of the drawings or the descriptions in books on Natural History is not so much as mentioned, while the pretended author assumes to himself all the merit which the world is willing to allow him. This want of candour I never could endure. On the contrary, I feel pleasure in here acknowledging the assistance which I have received from a friend, Mr William Macgillivray, who being possessed of a liberal education and a strong taste for the study of the Natural Sciences, has aided me, not in drawing the figures of my Illustrations, nor in writing the book now in your hand, although fully competent for both tasks, but in completing the scientific details, and smoothing down the asperities of my Ornithological Biographies.

I do not present to you the objects of which my work consists in the order adopted by systematic writers. Indeed, I can scarcely believe that yourself, good-natured reader, could wish that I should do so; for although you and I, and all the world besides, are well aware that a grand connected chain does exist in the Creator's sublime system, the subjects of it have been left at liberty to disperse in quest of the food best adapted for them, or the comforts that have been so abundantly scattered for each of them over the globe, and are not in the habit of following each other, as if marching in regular procession to a funeral or a merry-making. He who would write a general ornithology of the world, and is possessed of knowledge adequate to such a task, is the only one by whom the ordination of birds could be made truly useful. When this work is completed, and when the results of my observations have been duly weighed and arranged, I shall reduce the whole to an order corresponding with the improvements recently made in ornithological science, and present to you a Synopsis of the Birds of the United States, including the ordinal, generic and specific characters, with the distinctive habits of each species, and references to the descriptions of other writers.

I shall therefore simply offer you the results of my own observation with respect to each of the species, in the order in which I have published the representations of them. Nor do I intend to annoy you with long descriptions, including the number and shape of the feathers, particularly in cases where the species are well known. Tables of synonyms I have also judged superfluous. Indeed, the technical descriptions and references you will find as appendages to the more generally interesting descriptions of the habits of each species; so that you may read them or not, just as you please. Yet, should you be inclined to enter into these matters, I trust you will find in these appendages descriptions constructed according to the strictest rules of science.

Should you, good-natured reader, be a botanist, I hope you will find pleasure while looking at the flowers, the herbs, the shrubs, and the trees, which I have represented; the more so, I imagine, if you have seen them in their native woods. Should you not, the sight of them in my Illustrations may, for aught I know, tempt you to go and partake of the hospitality of our brethren the Aborigines of America.

Permit me now to address a few words to the Critic, who I fervently hope is a good-natured reader too. This I do with much deference. He has seen my Illustrations, and has judged favourably of them; he has passed his keen eye over this page; he knows the very moderate strength of my talents; and I have only to add, with my compliments, that ever since I have known that such a person as himself exists, I have laboured harder, with more patience and with more care, to gain his good will, indulgence, and support.


March 1831.