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AVES: A Survey of the Literature of Neotropical Ornithology


About Aves

The online exhibition Aves: A Survey of the Literature of Neotropical Ornithology was adapted from the exhibition catalogue of the same title, written by Tom Taylor, with contributions by Michael L. Taylor, and published by LSU Libraries in 2011. All text on the online exhibition reflects text printed in the catalogue. Aves debuted online in August 2012. This site is best viewed in Firefox.

Image: Black-faced cotinga (Conioptilon mcilhennyi) by John P. O’Neill.


Birds and books have a way of stirring people’s passions. The combination of the two has led to the creation of some of the most treasured and sought-after books in existence. This survey of four centuries of works about ornithology in the Neotropics – Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean – brings together the stories of men and women whose enthusiasm for birds resulted in the creation of many books, some beautiful, some useful, some both. How did this survey come to be? Why here, why now? The genesis of Aves, similar to the works it surveys, lies in the enthusiasm of three particular men for birds and books.

The first is Edward Avery McIlhenny (1872-1949), scion of the prominent Louisiana family that, since 1868, has produced the world-famous hot pepper sauce Tabasco®. Born March 29, 1872, “Ned” McIlhenny showed an early interest in the natural world. “Birds, plants, shooting, and fishing . . . For all my life these subjects . . . interested me more than any others” (Bernard 2007, 99). He dropped out of Lehigh University in 1894 in order to serve as the ornithologist on an Arctic expedition led by Frederick A. Cook. The expedition was short-lived. Its members departed from New York aboard the steam freighter Miranda on July 15 of that year, but the ship struck a reef off the Greenland coast and sank on August 7 (Mills 2003, vol. 1, 155).

Disappointed in his bid for Arctic adventure, McIlhenny returned to Louisiana that fall. Living on the family estate on Avery Island in the Atchafalaya Basin, he was struck by the great decline in the number of snowy egrets that nested in the surrounding swamplands. Millions of the birds were being slaughtered for their plumes, which were so prized for ladies’ hats that a pound of egret feathers was, at the time, worth more than a pound of gold (Bales 2010, 52).

A decisive man with considerable organizational skills, McIlhenny took action, first setting up a private refuge on the family estate and subsequently working to secure thousands of acres of south Louisiana marshland as federally protected wildlife refuges. While successfully advocating for bird conservation in the United States, McIlhenny was also running the family company that made Tabasco®, as well as breeding and selling varieties of azaleas, iris, camellias, bamboo, and other plants in Jungle Gardens, the 170-acre botanical garden and bird sanctuary on Avery Island. He authored four books, oversaw the publication of several translations, and wrote a number of articles on natural history topics. In addition, he collected books, especially those about birds and plants, many of which reflected his penchant for exploration and discovery.

When Ned McIlhenny died, in 1949, his natural history books were passed on to his nephew, the second man whose enthusiasm has been key to the creation of Aves. John Stauffer McIlhenny shared his uncle’s bibliophilia, as well as his commitment to the cause of wildlife conservation. After enjoying and adding to the collection for more than two decades, “Mr. Jack” decided that his treasures should be shared. He donated the collection to the LSU Libraries in 1971 and provided financial support for its continued development until his death in 1997.

Today, the collection includes more than three thousand titles. Among the more notable works in the collection are the elephant folio edition of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Edward Lear’s Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots, and Banks’ Florilegium. With particular strengths in New World botanical and ornithological illustration, the McIlhenny Collection is well suited to support an exhibition and book focused on the history of Neotropical ornithology. Moreover, LSU is home to another collection that offers resources to explore current work in the Neotropics. The LSU Museum of Natural Science’s ornithologists have for decades concentrated on the Neotropics, conducting ornithological field research in South America every year since 1962 and amassing one of the larger collections in the world of bird specimens from the region.

With those resources at hand, the stage was set for the enthusiasm of a third man, Tom Taylor, to result in the book you hold and the accompanying exhibition, mounted in Hill Memorial Library on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge, May 23 – September 10, 2011. Tom Taylor first approached the LSU Libraries in late summer 2007 with the idea of doing an exhibition and catalogue about Neotropical ornithology, based on the holdings of the McIlhenny Collection. Discussions of his proposal among library colleagues led to immediate approval. We were rightly confident that Taylor’s knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm would lead to a successful production. Over the next two years, Taylor continued to develop and refine his ideas for the exhibition and catalogue, enlisting the help of J. V. Remsen, Donna Dittmann, and César Sánchez, of the LSU Museum of Natural Science, to write about current developments. However, as planning moved forward, the Great Recession began to take its toll. In a time of major budget cuts, funding such a project began to look difficult if not impossible. Fortunately, another of Mr. Jack’s legacies, the Coypu Foundation, came to the rescue with a grant to underwrite the exhibition and book production.

Thus has the work of three enthusiastic men, none of them an ornithologist, resulted in the publication of a new book about birds. The LSU Libraries is grateful to them all for their diligence, tenacity, and generosity. It is a librarian’s dream to partner with enthusiasts who use the library’s resources to create new knowledge and the opportunity for new insights. Birds and books are a special combination. We hope that this new book about birds will be both beautiful and useful, and that the exhibition will delight and instruct – and perhaps inspire a new generation of bird lovers and bibliophiles.

Elaine Smyth
Assistant Dean, LSU Libraries


A young English naturalist named Ernest William White, sojourning in Argentina in the late 1870s, described being in a wealthy doctor’s house and witnessing “a literary sacrilege.” “The floor of the drawing room,” he said, “was strewn with the wreck of Gould’s magnificent work on the Toucans; and I trembled lest that the Trochilidae, which was at hand in a bookcase, should share the same fate: these splendid tomes . . . leaving their natural use, had degenerated into nursery playthings” (White 1881, vol. 1, 394). To a bibliophile this is an appalling story, but truth be told, those heedless children may have derived more pleasure from Gould’s “splendid tomes” than anyone before or since. Bird books – especially the famous ones – are generally treated as monuments, looked at a page at a time, a few pages only, hands in white gloves, with due admiration. Superlatives are used and exhausted, but the viewer is often left wondering just what the fuss is all about: The books are lovely and expensive, but do they still have anything to say? Wouldn’t a field guide do as well?

This exhibition and catalogue attempt to do, in a way, what the doctor’s children did: cut out pictures from famous books. Verbal as well as visual pictures, pasting them together into a narrative that tells a story of exploration and adventure, discovery and science. It will be seen that there are, in fact, connections between the famous illustrated books of previous centuries and today’s field guides, and that we can discern those connections by learning something about the life and times of the people who produced the books of each era. The old books do have something to say – if we pay to them a different kind of attention. Because this is an exhibit of books, there is an inevitable bias toward people who could write and who published accounts of their travels in the Neotropics.

There are a number of people whom I suspect were quite interesting, and who certainly did work as significant as some of the people written up in this catalogue, but for whatever reason they were silent about their experiences. So as a survey, Aves is representative, not comprehensive. Also, many early travelers in the Neotropics were polymaths, and most of those who were accomplished in other fields still collected and investigated birds as part of their mission. It is a somewhat arbitrary matter to include one and exclude another. In the modern era, there are simply too many significant people to include them all, and the omissions are, alas, as arbitrary as the selections for the earlier period. The accounts presented here of individuals, and of their times, draw heavily on published secondary sources, which are credited in the text. Furthermore, I am an avocational birder, not an ornithologist, so my assessments of scientific importance rest largely on the judgment of others. With these caveats, the contribution I hope this catalogue makes is to bring together in one place a wealth of material, from many sources, to create for the first time a history of the discovery and description of Neotropical birds, and to present it in a manner that is informal and anecdotal, allowing those who discovered the birds to share the spotlight.

Tom Taylor
Author of AVES: A Survey of the Literature of Neotropical Ornithology


Miguel Alvarez del Toro
Félix de Azara
William Beebe
Hermann Burmeister
M. A. Carriker, Jr.
Francis L. de Laporte, Comte de Castelnau
Frank M. Chapman
George K. Cherrie
Charles B. Cory
Charles Darwin
Jean Théodore Descourtilz
Eugene Eisenmann
Claudio Gay
Frederick DuCane Godman
Phillip Henry Gosse
John Gould
François Haverschmidt
Carl Eduard Hellmayr
Francisco Hernández
W. H. Hudson
Alexander von Humboldt
Maria Koepcke
Georg Markgraf
Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee
Leo E. Miller
Juan Ignacio Molina
Robert Cushman Murphy
Johann Natterer
Elsie M.B. Naumburg
Alcide d’Orbigny
Ted Parker
William Phelps, Jr.
William Phelps, Sr.
Robert Ridgway
Osbert Salvin
Richard Schomburgk
Robert Schomburgk
Philip Lutley Sclater
Helmut Sick
Alexander Skutch
Emilie Snethlage
Johann Baptist von Spix
Johann Jacob von Tschudi
Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot
Alexander Wetmore
Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied
John T. Zimmer

Birds in the New World

Bright green with a red throat and white forehead, the Bahamian subspecies of the Cuban amazon parrot (Amazona leucocephala bahamensis) is now extirpated on the island of San Salvador. But when Christopher Columbus landed there in October 1492, it was still common and was the first land bird he encountered. He was alert to these birds, as well (Read more…)


Biography: Although his focus was on medical botany, Hernández was encyclopedic in his interests, and he did not ignore the wonderful array of exotic birds encountered on five journeys from Mexico City that took him west and south along the Pacific coast, over to Oaxaca, and northwest as far as Guanajuato. (Read more…)

Image: “The early naturalists,” wrote Henry Walter Bates, “having seen only the bill of a Toucan, which was esteemed as a marvellous production by the virtuosi of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, concluded that the bird must have belonged to the aquatic and web-footed order, as this contains so many species of remarkable development of beak, adapted for seizing fish. Some travelers also related fabulous stories of Toucans resorting to the banks of rivers to feed on fish . . . Toucans, however, are now well known to be eminently arboreal birds . . . On the Amazons, where these birds are very common, no one pretends ever to have seen a Toucan walking on the ground in its natural state, much less acting the part of a swimming or wading bird” (Bates 1863, vol. 2, pp. 338-39). This image is from Hernández, Noua plantarum, animalivm et mineralivm Mexicanorvm historia, (Rome, 1651).

Noua plantarum, animalivm et mineralivm Mexicanorvm historia. Romae: sumptibus B. Deuersini & Z. Masotti, typis V. Mascardi, 1651. Folio. 800 woodcuts (165 of birds). First collected edition. (Wood 384; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Although Philip II had Hernández’s manuscripts handsomely bound, to the explorer’s bitter disappointment the king declined to have them published. However, copies of the manuscript were made – one Hernández’s own, another at the king’s command by his physician Nardo Antonio Recchi. Those manuscripts, following complicated paths, became the basis for printed books long after the author’s death. First was a selection from the texts, Quatro Libros, published in Mexico in 1615; then bits and pieces appeared in various compilations of natural history and exploration; and finally this complete edition, issued under the auspices of the Accademia dei Lincei, the Italian scientific society, was issued in 1651. The Lincei, founded in 1603, intended Hernández’s book to be its inaugural publication; but in the end it took forty-eight years to get the work published.

GEORG MARKGRAF (1610-1644)

Biography: The Dutch East India Company was chartered in 1621 for the purpose of “colonization and commerce through conquest” (Boxer 1973, 7). Its first target was the northeast Atlantic coast of the Portuguese colony of Brazil, an area rich in sugar production. The company wrested control of the area around Recife but was forced to wage a nearly (Read more…)

Image: A nicely composed page of Brazilian birds from Georg Markgraf’s Historia naturalis Brasiliae, (Leiden and Amsterdam, 1648).

Historia naturalis brasiliae . . . Leiden: Franciscus Hackius; Amsterdam: Elzevir, 1648. Folio. 500 woodcuts, 55 of birds. (Borba de Moraes 675; Wood 520; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

After Markgraf’s death his papers were gathered for publication by his great patron Johan Maurits, who spared no expense to publish a monument to the young scientist’s work (and, not coincidentally, to his own tenure as ruler of the colony). Added to Markgraf’s descriptions of plants and animals was a work on medical botany by Willem Piso, another scientist supported by Maurits in Brazil (the book is generally listed with Piso as the main author, even though most of the text is by Markgraf). The posthumous assembling and editing of Markgraf’s texts was done by the geographer and historian Johannes de Laet, who first had to decipher the manuscript, written in code by Markgraf to prevent it being appropriated by someone else (perhaps Piso). He also arranged for woodcuts to be made from Markgraf’s field drawings and from other sources, but a comparison with modern reproductions of some of the original sources used by de Laet emphasizes how inadequate the woodcuts are, especially those of the birds, even though they make for beautiful page layouts, accomplished by the great printing house of Elzevir in Amsterdam. As an opening flourish, the book commences with a most beautiful, engraved, allegorical title page. Because the Portuguese reconquest of Dutch Brazil effectively ended scientific exploration of the region, Markgraf’s work had a long shelf life: “Until the publication of the results of the great nineteenth century expeditions the Historia Naturalis was the only illustrated work on Brazilian natural history” (Borba de Moraes 1983, 675).


Among Neotropical birds there are a good number that show unusual patterns of distribution. Populations are isolated from one another by hundreds of miles, or thousands of feet in elevation, with no obvious explanation. Theories have been advanced to account for this, most involving recurring changes in habitat over long periods of time. Recently, (Read more…)


Biography: “For his time, however, he was an eminent man.” That was Alexander von Humboldt’s appraisal of Molina as a naturalist (Ronan 2002, 194); if it is faint praise, it is probably a useful corrective to the more laudatory assessments that came later. The usually hard-headed Elliott Coues, for instance, calls Molina’s Saggio sulla storia naturale del Chili (Read more…)

Saggio sulla storia naturale del Chili. Bologna: Stamperia di S. Tommaso d’Aquino,1782. Small 8vo. Folding map. (Wood 469; Zimmer 440; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)The first edition of this work was published anonymously in Bologna in 1776. Molina compiled this revised edition after the fortuitous return of his notes on natural history that had been confiscated when he left Chile in 1767. He made no revisions to the bird section, however, which remained unchanged until the last revised edition appeared in 1810. Whatever the book’s shortcomings, it is the earliest reliable source of information about the region’s natural history. The bird accounts were exceeded by those in Friedrich Heinrich Kittlitz’s Über einige Vögel von Chili, published in 1830, and completely superseded by A. O. Des Murs’s description of over 250 species of Chilean birds, incorporated into Claudio Gay’s Historia fisica y politica de Chile (1844-71), which draws from all earlier accounts of the region’s birds.


Biography: Vieillot is hardly a household name, unless one happens to be deeply involved with avian taxonomic issues, in which case the abbreviation “Vieill.” after a bird’s binomial name, denoting Vieillot as the first describer of the species, will be familiar. In the brief time he was active – roughly 1800 to 1825 – he described 387 currently valid species, (Read more…)

Image: Image by Jean Baptiste Audebert, published in Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot’s Oiseaux dorés ou à reflets métalliques (Paris, 1800-02). French color printing of this period was technically brilliant, but the formal style – resembling that of Napoleonic portraiture – is not well suited to birds. Also, with little knowledge of the habitat or habits of the birds he drew, Audebert could do little more than pose them on sticks.

Oiseaux dorés ou à reflets métalliques. Paris: Desray, 1800-1802. 2 volumes. Folio. 190 color-printed engraved plates. (Anker 14; Mengel 93; Wood 206; Zimmer 17; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

This splendid folio, “one of the most beautiful books of its era” (Sitwell, Buchanan, and Fisher 1990, 15), features hummingbirds, jacamars, dacnises, chlorophonias, and euphonias from the Neotropics, plus sunbirds from Africa and birds of paradise from New Guinea. Indeed, a more apt title might be “Fancy Birds from Around the World.”

Vieillot created the book in collaboration with the artist Jean Baptiste Audebert, who had mastered a special technique for printing in reflective colors. Audebert died in 1800, before the work was complete, so Vieillot was responsible not only for the text, but also for printing the plates according to Audebert’s methods. The results are stunning if a bit stiff. Sometimes the French Napoleonic style cannot capture the evanescent nature of darting birds; they are perched, in erect poses, as if frozen (or, as was more literally likely, stuffed) in place.

FÉLIX DE AZARA (1746-1821)

Biography: Félix de Azara had a fairly conventional upbringing, which culminated with his enlistment in the Spanish army at age eighteen. His military career was likewise ordinary, with occasional promotions as he worked on various engineering projects. In 1781, however, his life changed abruptly. The Spanish government ordered him to South America (Read more…)

Image: “Surucua” appearing in Azara’s Voyages dans l’Amérique Méridionale.

Voyages dans l’Amérique Méridionale . . . depuis 1781 jusqu’en 1801 . . . publiés d’après les manuscrits de l’auteur, avec une notice sur sa vie et ses écrits, par C. A. Walckenaer; enrichis de notes par G. Cuvier . . . Suivis de l’histoire naturelle des Oiseaux du Paraguay et de La Plata . . . traduite . . . et augmenté d’un grand nombre de notes, par M. Sonnini. Paris: Dentu, 1809. 4 volumes: 3 volumes, 8vo, plus 4to atlas volume. 35 plates, 4 of birds; some copies (as at LSU) have hand-colored plates. (Wood 214; Zimmer 28; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Azara’s account of Paraguay’s birds was first published, in Spanish, in Madrid in 1802-05, then reprinted, in Sonnini’s French translation, as volumes 3-4 of this Paris edition. The Spanish edition is quite rare. There was no contemporary Spanish edition of the narrative portion of Azara’s work, and none appeared until an obscure edition was published in Montevideo in 1846. Basically, the Spanish were not much interested in Azara, and, although his work was published in Paris, “Azara was not French, and the French had no stake in furthering his reputation” (Beddell 1975). Beddell (1983b) has carefully worked out the significance of Azara’s efforts: “Azara described 448 birds . . . This number is reduced to 381 when duplications of sex, age, and plumage are taken into account (8 remain unidentified), and 178 of them are the types upon which the scientific names are based, the large majority having been named by the ornithologist Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot, who had supervised the illustrations of birds for Sonnini’s translation” (p. 228).

Opening Scientific Exploration

Although they did bring back zoological specimens, living and dead, to show off the wonders of the New World to their monarchs and backers, the earliest European explorers were more interested in riches (and survival) than in the exotic wildlife they encountered. Subsequent scientific interest was mostly limited to knowledge that could lead to profits, (Read more…)

Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied (1782-1867)

Biography: In the eighteenth century, non-Portuguese explorers were prohibited from traveling in Brazil without an official escort. This changed in 1808 when, in the wake of Napoleon’s conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the prince regent of Portugal (the future King João VI) temporarily moved the royal court to Brazil. (Read more…)

Image: This image, titled “Schiffahrt über die Felsen des Rhéos,” from Wied’s Reise nach Brasilien, illustrates the environment that he encountered in Brazil.

Reise nach Brasilien in den Jahren 1815 bis 1817. Frankfurt am Main: H.L. Brönner, 1820-1821. 2 volumes. Folio. 19 plates. (Borba de Moraes 544; Wood 627; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Wied wrote three books about his experiences in Brazil. The first, Reise nach Brasilien, was funded by subscription and printed in 1820 and 1821 in two large volumes featuring nineteen full-page plates. Upon publication, the book sold for 1,000 francs, “an extravagant sum at that time” (Borba de Moraes 1983, 544). Despite the expense, the book was a huge success: Over nine hundred subscribers are listed in volume 1; just under three hundred were added in volume 2. Many of the illustrations are of historical significance for their depictions of Indian villages and modes of dress. Although there are no ornithological illustrations, several images reveal how Wied and his companions traveled. One image, for example, shows specimen cases being loaded onto the party’s mule train. The majority of Wied’s collection, including many specimens new to science, was acquired in 1870 by the American Museum of Natural History in New York and was one of the acquisitions that put the museum on the road to greatness. Wied later published two accounts of the animals observed and collected during his trip to Brazil: Beiträge zur Naturgeschichte von Brasilien (Weimer, 1825-33), four volumes of scientific descriptions, and Abbildungen zur Naturgeschichte Brasiliens (Weimer, 1822-1831), an atlas of 89 hand-colored plates of South American fauna, “a magnificent publication . . . very rare today” (Borba de Moraes 1983, 545). Two separate English translations of the first volume of Wied’s travelogue appeared in 1820, one published by Henry Colburn, the other by Sir Richard Phillips. The latter, however, contains only eight of the volume’s original eleven chapters. The illustrations differ significantly in all three editions. Although Phillips’s edition, published in May 1820, stated that the remaining chapters would be translated as soon as the second installment of the German original was received, it appears that neither that nor any other translation of the second volume of Wied’s work was ever completed.


Biography: Johann Baptist von Spix was born to an impoverished doctor in the small Bavarian town of Höchstadt an der Aisch. A precocious student, he studied philosophy, theology, and medicine at the universities of Bamberg and Würzburg and was awarded his PhD at the tender age of nineteen. (Read more…)

Image: It is fair to say that illustrations in nineteenth-century German books devoted to Neotropical birds were not of the highest quality. They have neither the formal brilliance of French bird art, nor the naturalness and subtlety of the best English bird art. The German artists seem content to portray a stuffed object, without attempting to impart the spark of life. This is regrettable, because the work of Germans was crucial to the progress of Neotropical ornithology. This image is from Spix, Avium species novae (Munich, 1824-25).

Avium species novae, quas in itinere per Brasiliam annis 1817-1820 jussu et auspiciis Maximiliani Josephi I Bavariae Regis. Munich: S. Hubschmann, 1824-1825. 2 volumes. Folio. 222 hand-colored lithograph plates. (Anker 483; Borba de Moraes 828; Sitwell 109; Wood 580; Zimmer 600; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

These descriptions and illustrations of the birds collected by Spix “represent the starting point of modern Brazilian ornithology” (Soffer 2010). However, the work is not without its problems. The taxonomy was confused, and Carl Hellmayr’s first important work, published in 1905, was devoted to revising Spix’s descriptions, based on a careful study of the original specimens. Also, for such a lavish book the plates are not very attractive – they have neither the formal elegance of images found in other French books of the period, nor the easy naturalness of English bird art at a slightly later time. Like most collectors in the Neotropics, Spix collected living things of all kinds, resulting in other publications devoted to Brazilian primates (1823), snakes (1820), lizards (1825), freshwater shells (1827), fish (1832), insects (1834), and turtles and frogs (1840).

Beginning of Collections

At first glance, the movement of huge collections of zoological specimens from the Neotropics to the private cabinets and public museums of Europe bears an unfortunate resemblance to the other, more serious forms of colonial exploitation. In fairness, however, before the nineteenth century there were no institutions in Latin America (Read more…)


Biography: Johann Natterer was almost predestined to become a naturalist. His father, Joseph, worked as a falconer and taxidermist at Laxenburg, one of the country estates of the Austrian emperor Franz I. There the elder Natterer assembled a large collection of birds, mammals, and insects, which the emperor later purchased and moved to Vienna, where it (Read more…)

Zur Ornithologie Brasiliens: Resultate von Johann Natterers Reisen in den Jahren 1817 bis 1835. Wien: A. Pichler’s Witwe & Sohn, 1871. 8vo. 2 maps of Natterer’s routes. (Borba de Moraes 608; Wood 515; Zimmer 486.)

The Ibis praised Natterer as “the best and most successful collector of birds that has ever lived” (vol. 3, no. 11, July 1891, 459). The quantity of material he collected in Brazil was so great, however, that by the time of his premature death in 1843, he had been able to analyze and write about only a small portion of it. The task of studying the thousands of birds Natterer sent back to Vienna, representing 1,238 species, was eventually taken up by August von Pelzeln (1825-91), curator of birds and mammals at the Hof-Naturalienkabinette. “The [collection is] arranged and listed and the new forms are described. Pp. 344-390 contains an analysis of the avifauna of Brazil. Pp. 391-462 contains a list of all known Brazilian species, compiled from various sources, comprising a total of 1680 species” (Zimmer 1926, 486). This was the first attempt to create a complete list of Brazilian birds, and John T. Zimmer concluded his description of Pelzeln’s work by saying that it is “indispensable to the student of South American ornithology” (ibid.). Perhaps because it has been so useful, it is now quite difficult to find.

Traveling Naturalists

The “traveling naturalist,” a person who wandered in search of natural wonders to see and collect, was a type that flourished in the nineteenth century. Before that time an individual was hard-pressed to travel independently: Logistical arrangements were daunting and political permissions hard to come by, especially in colonial Latin America. (Read more…)

Jean Théodore Descourtilz (1798-1855)

Biography: Despite producing the most splendid of all books devoted to Neotropical birds, Descourtilz managed to live out his life in an obscurity that has not been illumined since. The little we know is this: He was born sometime in 1798, a son of Michel Étienne Descourtilz (1775- 1835), a physician and botanist who did important scientific work in the Antilles. (Read more…)


Images: It is unlikely that Descourtilz knew the work of Gould. Independently he appears to have realized that effective illustrations required depiction of appropriate habitats, and his experience as a painter of flowers, combined with his personal field knowledge of his bird’s habits, enabled him to create especially fine compositions. The rich coloring of the plates in this work (along with the apparent fact that only a handful of copies were ever produced) suggests the possibility that Descourtilz himself colored them.

Oiseaux brillants du Brésil. Paris: [for the author], 1834. Folio. 60 hand-colored lithograph plates. (Borba de Moraes 260.)

Oiseaux remarquables du Brésil . . . Rio de Janeiro: Heaton & Rensburg, n.d. [1843]. Folio. 30 plates. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Ornithologie bresilienne ou histoire des oiseaux du Brésil, remarquables par leur plumage, leur chant ou leurs habitudes.Rio de Janeiro [actually London]: Thomas Reeves, [1852-1856]. Folio. 48 hand-finished chromolithograph plates. (Borba de Moraes 260; Wood 315; Zimmer 166; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Descourtilz knew his birds from life, and he knew equally well the plants in which he placed them. Some of the plates, artful compositions depicting several species of birds in active postures amidst fruits and flowers and leaves, remind one of a foraging flock of birds in an Amazonian rainforest. Helmut Sick commented on his qualities as an observer: “He left a valuable collection of colored plates of birds, accompanied by detailed notes on habits and customs of the illustrated species. His dedication is reflected in the choice of birds he studied, including such difficult species to observe as the Kinglet Calyptura, Calyptura cristata; Shrike-like Cotinga, Laniisoma elegans; and Sharpbill, Oxyruncus cristatus” (Sick 1993, 35). The kinglet calyptura is difficult indeed; first described by Vieillot in 1818, it was recorded only a few more times in the nineteenth century, then lost until observed again in 1996. “Descourtilz painted frugivorous birds perched on their favorite fruit trees,” Sick continued. “With hummingbirds he painted flowers they prefer. As a dietitian he was much interested in bird feeding and became ill after trying the fruits of the marianeira . . . a berry eaten by some birds but noxious to humans, being rich in saponins. Descourtilz’s tongue was so swollen he was unable to talk for several days” (ibid.). One would think that, given the quality of his art and observation, Descourtilz’s work would be famous. It is not, except among discerning and wealthy bibliophiles, because all three books are rare – the first two exceedingly so. Of the 1834 Paris edition, Borba de Moraes remarks, “This book is so rare that I began to doubt its existence” (Borba de Moraes 1983, 260). The 1989 sale of the great ornithological library of H. Bradley Martin contained a copy (lot 68), that sold for $121,000, with a note that only four copies are recorded. The edition (if it can be called that) produced in Rio de Janiero, c. 1843, is even rarer, with two copies known – one in the McIlhenny Collection at LSU, and another that fetched $445,500 at a London auction in 1997. The edition printed in London but published in Rio de Janeiro in the 1850s is common by comparison – a dozen or so copies are recorded. Besides being beautiful, it is “a very important, fundamental, systematic treatise. It furnishes descriptions and colored figures of 164 species, including 15 new species and one new genus” (Wood 1931, 315).

The Destruction of the Atlantic Forest

When the first Europeans arrived in Brazil, they encountered a lush forest along the Atlantic coast that ran from the northeast corner of the country to the region south of present-day São Paulo, almost to the border with Uruguay. One doesn’t hear much about the Atlantic Forest these days, as one does about Amazonia, for a simple reason: (Read more…)

CLAUDIO GAY (1800-1873)

Biography: Born in France, Claudio Gay spent most of his productive life in Chile. He arrived there in 1828 and by 1830 had accepted an invitation to begin a study of the country on behalf of the government. He did research for a decade, then began writing, and produced a thirty-volume set of books (twenty-eight volumes of text, plus two atlas volumes) that (Read more…)

Image: This image by Alphonse Prévost, appearing in Claudio Gay’s Historia fisica y politica de Chile (Paris, 1844-1871) benefits from Gay’s field notes on this colorful bird – now known as the many-colored rush-tyrant (Tachuris rubrigastra) – which appear in the text volume. Although a bit stiff, the bird is attractively posed in appropriate habitat, with an accurate representation of the species’ nest.

Historia fisica y politica de Chile . . . Paris: En casa del autor; Chile: En el Museo de Historia Natural de Santiago, 1844-1871. 26 volumes: 24 8vo volumes (text) and 2 folio volumes (atlas). (Wood 352; Zimmer 237; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Eight volumes of Gay’s work are dedicated to zoology; birds are treated on pages 183-494 of the first of these volumes (i.e., part 4, vol. 1). Gay was more a botanist than an ornithologist, so A. O. Des Murs described the birds he collected.

Des Murs was not intent on describing new species, although there was at least one – Sylviorthorhynchus desmursii, Des Murs’s wiretail. His chief objective was to bring together in one place information provided by earlier workers such as Spix, d’Orbigny, and Molina. The volumes describe 259 species, and Gay did contribute field notes on many of the birds’ habits. The atlas volumes, beautifully printed by E. Thunot in Paris, are primarily devoted to maps, ethnology, landscapes, and botany; there are, however, fourteen hand-colored prints of birds, all but one signed A. Prévost.

Alcide d’Orbigny(1802-1857)

Biography: In November 1825, d’Orbigny was designated Naturalist-voyageur du Museum d’Histoire Naturelle[Paris]” (Heron-Allen 1917,23). His destination: South America. Like many of his contemporaries he was inspired and supported by Alexander von Humboldt, who provided him with letters of introduction, as well as a long list of questions about (Read more…)

Images: Edouard Traviés produced the illustrations for Alcide d’Orbigny’s Album de Aves Cubanas (Paris, 1842). His superior draftsmanship is evident, and he later published a splendid suite of folio plates, Les oiseaux les plus remarquables par leurs formes et leurs couleurs, scènes variées de leurs moeurs et de leurs habitudes, (Paris, 1857), which includes several striking paintings of Neotropical birds. (Photographs courtesy Antiquariaat Junk, Amsterdam).

Voyage dans l’Amérique méridionale . . . exécuté pendant les années 1826, 1827, 1828, 1829, 1830, 1831, 1832, et 1833. Paris and Strasbourg: Pitois-Levrault, P. Bertrand, and V. Levrault, 1835-1847. 7 text and 2 atlas volumes. 4to. 415 lithograph or engraved plates, 293 colored, including 67 of birds by Edouard Traviès. (Borba de Moraes 631-32; Wood 615.)

What books can compare with the multivolume records of the great scientific expeditions – launched from Europe, bound for the four corners of the world –that were published in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries? Beginning with a few volumes of narrative, describing the people and adventures met with during the voyage, these accounts then offered chapter after chapter, sometimes volume after volume, devoted to discoveries on every subject of interest to the scientific mind – from geology to botany to zoology to ethnology. Lavishly and beautifully illustrated with maps, hand-colored lithographs, and steel engravings, the sets were prodigiously expensive to produce, and generally took years – sometimes decades – to complete. The most famous are those devoted to French expeditions of discovery in the Pacific, which combine the adventure of sea voyages, the exoticism of the human cultures of the Pacific, unusual flora and fauna, and breathtaking island scenery. All were displayed in the context of a skill in bookmaking – design, printing, coloring – that has rarely been equaled.

The contemporary expeditions into the wildernesses of South America were, if anything, even more remarkable than the Pacific voyages. The environment was difficult, the logistical complexities extreme, and the sheer quantity of new scientific material found in the Neotropics was a challenge to all but the most capacious minds. D’Orbigny was up to the challenge: Remarkably, he not only wrote the narrative of his adventures, but also single-handedly wrote volumes devoted to geology, paleontology, and ethnology, as well as penning the zoological descriptions of birds (with Lafresnaye), mollusks, and zoophytes. He assisted in the description of the mammals and reptiles. Other experts were enlisted to describe crustaceans, insects, and plants. Besides the plates of birds by Traviès, the set includes thirty plates of views, twenty-four plates of customs and costumes, twenty-two plates of geology and paleontology, forty-seven botanical plates, and nineteen fine maps and geological diagrams. Truly a visual feast, and at the same time one of the most important contributions to Neotropical science in the nineteenth century.

John Gould 1804-1881)

Biography: If it is true that John Gould could be unkind to friends and grudging in acknowledging the work of others, it is also true that from the beginning of his career he suffered from the class prejudices for which Victorian England was notorious. Edward Lear, who illustrated two of Gould’s earliest books (and who had reason enough to dislike his patron), described him (Read more…)

Images: John Gould’s monographs on South American birds changed the way birds were presented in illustrations. His work on the toucans, published in 1835, was his first monograph, and under the tutelage of Edward Lear he learned to present birds in poses that are more fluid, attitudes that are at times almost confiding. Instead of being stiffly posed on bare branches, the birds are part of a composition that includes appropriate and nicely rendered habitat. The five-volume work on hummingbirds takes this approach about as far as it can go: the sheen of colors glitter as the page is turned, almost like the effect of moving light on a real bird, and the floral arrangements that complete the compositions are so accurate that one can create (as one collector did) an entire bound volume of plates devoted to Gould’s hummingbirds displayed in compositions with South American orchids.

A Monograph of the Ramphastidae, or family of Toucans. London: Published by the author, 1834. Folio. 34 plates, 33 hand colored. First edition. (Anker 170; Wood 364; Zimmer 252; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

The toucans were a logical choice for Gould’s first monograph. Perhaps the most exotic of Neotropical birds, they had fascinated Europeans since they were originally described in the mid-sixteenth century. After being impressed by Edward Lear’s lithographs of parrots, published in 1831 (and buying out the edition when Lear ran into financial difficulties), Gould persuaded him to draw ten of the toucans. Lear also helped develop Mrs. Gould’s skills as a bird artist, which were essential to Gould’s early successes. She died in 1841, having provided most of the drawings for seven of Gould’s books. Gould’s notes on distribution and habits display the errors produced by drawing unconfirmed conclusions from specimens in drawers. “Rarity,” as he used the term, referred to rarity in collections, not in the wild, and descriptions were often inaccurate because of the paucity of reliable information. Gould begins his description of the many-banded araçari (Pteroglossus pluricinctus), a fairly common and widely distributed bird, “The extreme rarity of this bird, and the consequent small number of specimens that have reached Europe . . .” Of the lettered araçari (Pteroglossus inscriptus) he says, “It appears to be a bird of the greatest rarity, and only to be found in the remote and untrodden parts of the country destined by nature for its abode; and which, according to the best information I can collect, is Guiana, the low and swampy districts of which, abounding in luxuriant palms, &c., afford it a retreat.” The bird is also found widely in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Where he did have sufficient information, however, his taxonomic observations could be astute, as in discerning the not readily apparent relationship between the red-necked araçari and the curl-crested araçari, which has now been confirmed with genetic data (Hackett and Lehn 1997; Pereira and Wajntal 2008).

A Monograph of the Trochilidae, or Family of Hummingbirds. London: Published by the author, 1849-1861. 5 volumes. Folio. 360 hand-colored lithograph plates. A posthumous supplement, prepared by R. Bowdler Sharpe, with 58 additional plates, was published between 1881 and 1887. (Anker 182; Wood 365; Zimmer 263; McIlhenny Collection, LSU, supplement only.)

Of all the world’s birds, hummingbirds were Gould’s favorites. He amassed a collection of over five thousand specimens, and for the Great Exhibition of 1851 he created an entire building devoted to displaying over three hundred mounted examples – an exhibit that proved wildly popular, attracting a visit from Queen Victoria and eighty thousand others. At the time he created this book he had never seen a living hummingbird (his first and only was a ruby-throat, seen in Philadelphia in 1857). But with the aid of novel techniques, such as painting over gold leaf with transparent watercolors, and by depicting the birds, often in flight, amid luxuriant tropical flowers – he managed to give viewers of his plates a glimpse of his subjects’ vivid spirit. In fact, one of the most distinctive qualities of the hummingbird’s iridescence – the way a male’s throat will suddenly flash with brilliance in just the right light – is often captured by Gould’s coloring technique.

Collecting by Individuals

A great many birds fell to guns in the New World in the nineteenth century, and much of the killing was wanton slaughter. Besides the millions of egrets and terns killed to decorate women’s hats, vast numbers of shorebirds and waterfowl were blasted by market gunners, who in their ignorance hunted in spring, when birds were massed in (Read more…)

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Biography: The finches of the Galápagos archipelago, commonly called “Darwin’s finches” are among the most famous and studied groups of birds in the world. Until recently, conventional wisdom held that those finches – extraordinary examples of adaptive radiation – were singularly important to Darwin in the development of his theories. (Read More…)

The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, under the Command of Fitz Roy, R.N., during the Years 1832 to 1836. Part 3, Birds, by John Gould. London: Published by Smith, Elder and Co., 1841. Small folio. 50 plates by John and Elizabeth Gould. (Wood 310; Zimmer 157-59.)

Darwin spent nearly five years on his voyage, of which only five weeks was spent on the Galápagos Islands. And of the roughly 515 avian specimens collected by (or for) him during those years, 65 came from the Galápagos (Steinheimer 2004). Most came from Argentina and Chile, collected during his rambles in land from the coast. Darwin himself collected only a few of the birds. He wrote in a letter of May 23, 1833, eighteen months into the voyage, “You ask me about Ornithology: my labors in it are very simple. – I have taught my servant to shoot & skin birds, & I give him money” (ibid., 302). He added that only one bird, the least seed snipe (Thinocorus rumicivorus), interested him, although a bit later in the trip (December 1833), another bird certainly excited him: a rhea that he realized might be a species separate from the greater rhea only after members of his party had shot and cleaned a specimen of the smaller bird for eating. He gathered the remaining pieces of the bird and sent them back to England, where in due course Gould described the bird as Rhea darwinii. Although that scientific name was soon discarded, when it was discovered that Alcide d’Orbigny had already described the bird with the name Pterocnemia pennata, the species was called by the common name of Darwin’s rhea until recent times, when the name was changed to the accurate, if less evocative, lesser rhea.


Biography: Gosse lived a “vehement, eager life,” according to his son, formed by enthusiasms that followed one upon the other. As a young man abroad, he studied insects in Canada and Alabama, birds in Jamaica. Upon returning to England, he turned his attention to the wonders of the seashore – especially anemones. (Read more…)

Image: An image from Gosse’s unillustrated folio volume, Birds of Jamaica.

Birds of Jamaica. London: John van Voorst, 1847. 8vo. Although this volume is not illustrated, a folio volume containing fifty-two plates of Gosse’s paintings of Jamaican birds was published separately in 1849; titled Illustrations of the Birds of Jamaica, it is one of the real rarities of ornithological literature. (Wood 363; Zimmer 250; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Gosse was in Jamaica for only eighteen months, but he was able to devote all of his time there to fieldwork, earning his living by selling specimens of all kinds of life forms, with special attention paid to birds. He had an unusually astute assistant, Sam Campbell, described by the Jamaican historian J. E. Duerden as one who “soon approved himself a most useful assistant by his faithfulness, his tact in learning and then his skill in the art of preparing natural subjects, his patience in pursuing animals, his powers of observations of fact, and the truthfulness with which he reported them, as well as by the accuracy of his memory with regard to species . . . I never knew him in the slightest degree attempt to embellish a fact, or report more than he had actually seen” (Duerden 1897, 578-79). These traits would have been especially valuable to Gosse, who was a close observer and recorder at a time when published descriptions of birds, and especially tags on specimens, generally contained insufficient or misleading data. In his preface (p. iv) Gosse says, “Perhaps a word of apology may be thought necessary for the minuteness with which the author has sometimes recorded dates, and other apparently trivial circumstance, in his observations. It is because of his conviction, that an observer is hardly competent to determine what circumstance is trivial, and what is important: many a recorded fact in science has lost half its value from the omission of some attendant circumstance, which the observer either did not notice, or thought irrelevant. It is better to err on the side of minuteness than of vagueness.” David Lack, when working on Jamaica’s birds in the 1970s, appreciated Gosse’s care: “When Gosse produced his Birds of Jamaica in 1847, it was far ahead of its time, and remained one of the best bird books on any part of the world for at least half a century” (Lack 1976, 8). Unfortunately, Sam Campbell’s career as a naturalist ended when Gosse left the island. “No further demand existed in the island for a youth so exceptionally skilled,” wrote Duerden. “He took practically the only calling possible in the locality, that of fisherman, so far as the term can be applied to the desultory manner in which the profession is carried on at Bluefields. He died six years ago, having survived his quondam master by four years. From all that can be learnt, Sam, who became the happy father of fifteen children, was quite as admirable a character as are the fishermen there today” (Duerden 1897, 578-79).

Robert Schomburgk 1804-1865) & Richard Schomburgk (1811-1891)

Biography: Born in Prussia, the son of a Lutheran pastor, as a young man Robert Schomburgk traveled to Richmond, Virginia, where he attempted to set himself up as a tobacco merchant. Unsuccessful, he then moved to the Caribbean island of St. Thomas but failed once again in his business pursuits. After a brief stint in Puerto Rico, he ended up in the British Virgin (Read more…)

Reisen in Britisch-Guiana in den Jahren 1840-1844. Leipzig: J.J. Weber, 1848. 3 volumes.8vo. (Wood 555.)

Although Richard Schomburgk was primarily a botanist, he collected all manner of living things, and he gathered a sufficient number of interesting bird specimens to attract the attention of Jean Cabanis, whose descriptions of them fill just over one hundred pages of volume 3. He described 424 species, of which 26 were claimed to be new. Schomburgk’s avian collections were particularly important in increasing understanding of the difference between the forms of birds found in the Guiana region and similar species found in the Amazon basin. In addition, he brought back the first collection of specimens from Mount Roraima, the famous tepui (tabletop mountain), discovered by Robert Schomburgk on his expedition in 1838 (Mayr and Phelps 1967).

Twelve Views of the Interior of Guiana: From drawings executed by Mr. Charles Bentley, after sketches taken during the expedition carried on in the years 1835 to 1839, under the direction of the Royal Geographical Society of London . . . with descriptive letterpress by Robert H. Schomburgk. London: Ackerman & Co., 1841. Folio. Frontispiece lithograph preceding title; lithograph title; 12 hand-colored lithograph plates; numerous wood engravings in text. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

This is one of the great illustrated books devoted to South America, published by Robert Ackerman, London’s foremost producer of lavish color plate books. Its scarcity might be explained by the fact that 209 of the 340 subscribers were residents of British Guiana, a place with a climate inhospitable to books. It is a stretch to include this wonderful book in a work devoted to ornithology, since the only bird mentioned in the text is a jabiru nesting on the top of a fifty foot column of stone, a poor creature promptly shot by one of the Indian guides. The bird on its perch is shown in one of the twelve brilliantly colored plates, which together form an incomparable record of the scenery of the interior of British Guiana – the broad savannahs, tabletop mountains, lush tropical rainforests. Each plate is accompanied by two or more pages of text describing the importance of the locale in the context of Schomburgk’s explorations. During the journey the explorers “suffered privations and fatigues of every description,” but as was so often the case in South America, the results justified their troubles. Schomburgk published more extensive texts describing his journeys in German, as Reisen in Guiana und am Orinoko: während der Jahre 1835-1839 (Leipzig, 1841), and in English in Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society. In these sources he relates the circumstance of his discovery of the Victoria regia and Elizabetha regia water lilies (depicted on the lithograph title of the present work) and describes collecting other plants, fish, fossils, insects – and, yes, some birds.

Johann Jacob von Tschudi (1818-1889)

Biography: Johann Jacob von Tschudi was surrounded by nature as a child growing up in the town of Glarus, Switzerland. A member of a distinguished family of statesmen, scholars, merchants, and clergymen, he may have inherited his love of travel and exploration from a sixteenth-century ancestor, the historian and geographer Aegydius (Read more…)

Image: It is fair to say that illustrations in 19th German books devoted to Neotropical birds were not of the highest quality. They have neither the formal brilliance of French bird art, nor the naturalness and subtlety of the best English bird art. The German artists seem content to portray a stuffed object, without attempting to impart the spark of life. This is regrettable, because the work of Germans was crucial to the progress of Neotropical ornithology. This plate is from the first work devoted entirely to the birds of Peru: Tschudi’s Untersuchungen über die Fauna Peruana (St. Gallen, 1844-46).

Untersuchungen über die Fauna Peruana. St. Gallen: Scheitlin and Zollikofer, 1844-1846. 2 volumes. 4to. First volume text, second volume with 72 plates, 66 hand colored. (Anker 51; Sitwell 111; Wood 603; Zimmer 639; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Dedicated to Alexander von Humboldt, this work was originally issued in twelve parts. The plates, depicting mammals, birds, amphibians, and fish, were copied from drawings by Johann Carl Werner, E. O. Schmidt, and Joseph Dinkel. There are thirty-six color plates of birds. Tschudi completed his foreword to the text volume at the botanical gardens in Vienna on July 1, 1846. He was assisted in writing its section on ornithology by Jean Louis Cabanis, who later served for four decades as editor of the Journal für Ornithologie. The volumes’ publisher, the Swiss firm of Scheitlin and Zollikofer, specialized in scientific and historical works. Zollikofer, moreover, was Tschudi’s stepfather.

Although Tschudi was the first to provide an account of Peru’s birds, a more comprehensive account was published in 1884 by Ladislas Taczanowski, curator of zoology at the Royal University of Warsaw. Taczanowski never visited South America, but his four-volume Ornithologie du Pérou (Rennes, 1884-86) drew upon collections made by two Polish collectors, Constantin Jelski and Jean Stolzmann, as well as the published accounts of Tschudi, d’Orbigny, Castelnau, Sclater, and Salvin. According to John T. Zimmer (who would know), Taczanowski’s magnum opus “is indispensable to the worker in Peruvian ornithology” (Zimmer 1926, 622).

Francis L. De LaPorte, Comte de Castelnau (1810-1880)

Biography: The chronology of Castelnau’s life reads like a travelogue: “[He] was born on 25 December 1810 in London. Travel books by Captain Cook and LeVaillant were his childhood reading. He studied natural science in Paris under Baron Cuvier, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and other noted zoologists. In 1837-41 he travelled in the United States, Texas and Canada (Read more…)

Images: This image is by Paul Louis Oudart. These two barbets (female and male Capito auratus), at right, are from the ornithology section of the 15-volume Expedition dans les parties centrales de l’Amérique du Sud . . . by Francis L. de Laporte, Comte de Castelnau (Paris, 1850-57).

Expedition dans les parties centrales de l’Amérique du Sud, de Rio de Janeiro à Lima, et de Lima au Para; executée par ordre du gouvernement français pendant les années 1843 à 1847 . . . Paris: P. Bertrand, 1850-1857. 15 volumes: 7 in 4to, 6 in 8vo, and 2 in folio. 493 lithograph plates and maps, 401 hand colored. (Borba de Moraes 167-68; Wood 281; Zimmer 125-26; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Divided into seven parts, Castelnau’s magnificent publication of his journey begins with six volumes devoted to a travel narrative, reconstructed from various sources after his diaries were lost. (At the end of the outbound portion of the trip he had tried to safeguard them by sending them home via Lima instead of taking them with him down the Amazon, but the person deputed to take the material to Lima was murdered by his guides.) Other parts were devoted to the usual array of subjects investigated by large scientific expeditions: anthropology, geology, botany, and zoology. The work has been called “one of the most valuable contributions of its kind in all zoological literature” (Wood 1931, 281). Of course, it includes a substantial section on birds; Castelnau brought back two thousand avian specimens from South America. They were worked up by A. O. Des Murs, a Parisian ornithologist who was responsible for the ornithological sections of several large works, including the famous Pacific voyage of Abel du Petit-Thouars in the frigate La Venus (during which Tahiti was taken from the British) and Claudio Gay’s enormous work on the natural history of Chile. Des Murs’s report is illustrated by twenty hand-colored lithographs by Paul Louis Oudart, “one of the outstanding French illustrators and bird painters” (Jackson 1999, 382).

Hermann Burmeister (1807-1892)

Biography: Hermann Burmeister studied medicine as a young man but knew from an early age that his real interest in life was natural history. One of his favorite pastimes as a boy growing up in the German city of Stralsund was collecting insects. After receiving his medical training, he sought a position as an army doctor in the Dutch East Indies, believing that would (Read more…)

Systematische Übersicht der Thiere Brasiliens. Berlin: G. Reimer, 1856. 3 volumes. 8vo. (Borba de Moraes 136; Wood 273; Zimmer 117.)

The first volume of this set is devoted to mammals; volumes 2 and 3 present a “systematic, descriptive account of the birds collected and observed by the author in Brazil” (Zimmer 1926, 117). However, Burmeister was primarily an entomologist and paleobotanist, not an ornithologist, and his systematic work on birds is often unreliable (Sick 1993, 35). It is perhaps best to admire him as an early polymath who, unlike most of his contemporaries, did not take his specimens back to Europe but tried to make a home for them on their native continent.

Philip Lutley Sclater (1829-1913)

Biography: “A Prince in the realm of Zoological science has fallen,” wrote D. G. Elliot in The Auk upon Sclater’s death, “and I am called here today to bid you look upon his face, and hearken to the records of his deeds” (Elliot 1914, 1). A rather extravagant bit of memorial prose, but perhaps not so far from the mark. Philip Lutley Sclater was a pillar (Read More…)

Image: The tanager is from P. L. Sclater’s A Monograph of the Birds forming the Tanagrine genus Calliste (London, 1857). Perhaps influenced by the English preference for a more natural style, Oudart has given the bird’s pose more life and energy; also there is a bit of natural foliage, and a blue-tinted background.

A Monograph of the Birds forming the Tanagrine genus Calliste; illustrated by coloured plates of all the known species. London: John Van Voorst, 1857. 8vo. Frontispiece map and 45 hand-colored lithographs by Oudart. (Anker 448; Wood 557; Zimmer 559; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Nomenclator avium neotropicalium. Sive avium quae in regione neotropica hucusque repertae sunt nomina systematice disposita adjecta sua cuique speciei patria accedunt generum et specierum novarum diagnoses. Londini: Sumptibus auctorum, 1873. 4to. (Zimmer 561; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.) Compiled with Osbert Salvin, this represents the first attempt to create a list of all the species of birds known in the Neotropics. It names 3,565 species.

Monograph of Jacamars and Puff-Birds, or Families Galbulidae and Bucconidae. London: Published for the author . . . [1879-1882]. 4to. (Anker 451; Wood 558; Zimmer 361; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

This work is notable for the fifty-five hand-colored lithographs drawn by John Gerrard Keulemans (1842-1912), the finest and most prolific bird artist of his time. He had come to England from the Netherlands in 1869, at the suggestion of Richard Bowdler Sharpe, and immediately found a strong demand for his gifts. His ability to portray birds with a spark of life and energy, while maintaining scientific accuracy, was partly the result of having been on expeditions to West Africa at the beginning of his career, which gave him the opportunity to observe birds in their native habitats and to learn taxidermy.

Keulemans illustrated not only books but also journals such as The Ibis and the Proceedings of the Zoological Society, which still used hand-colored lithographs to illustrate articles. By 1892 he had already published over twenty thousand illustrations of birds, a productivity no doubt required to maintain his equally productive life as a father of fourteen children (Keulemans and Coldewey 1982). Apparently, work came first: “Confirmation of his total preoccupation with his work was evident to his family . . . He was often seen to be in his studio still in his long underwear and absentmindedly would sometimes remain in that condition for several days” (ibid., 30). Unfortunately, he outlived the age of lithography, and by the end of his life demand for his work had abated. In 1908 he wrote to his original sponsor, Bowdler Sharpe, “Have you any work for me? Times are bad and work scarce” (ibid., 27).

Museum Men

Whatever the travails endured by explorer-collectors in the field, at least they are now remembered with a certain admiration and envy. By contrast, the “museum man,” the taxonomist who labored to make sense of all those birds, is largely forgotten. Such men worked with specimens laced with arsenic, alcohol, and other (Read more…)

Frederick Ducane Godman (1834-1919) & Osbert Salvin (1835-1898)

Biography:The names of Godman and Salvin have been linked from the time they became fast friends as undergraduates at Cambridge. Godman later remarked, “We were more intimately connected than most brothers” (Godman 1918, 5), and in a sense they were part of a family – that of gentleman ornithologists. Both came from wealthy families, both had the (Read More…)

Biologia Centrali-Americana. Aves. [London: Published by the authors, 1879-1904.] 4 volumes: 3 of text, 1 of plates. 4to. (Wood 360; Zimmer 541-42; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Images: In the Neotropics there are antwrens, antvireos, antthrushes, antshrikes, and antpittas. They were given these names by Europeans because of morphological similarities to other, mostly Old World birds. Thus the antshrikes – such as the pair of black-hooded antshrikes (Thamnophilus bridgesi) pictured on the left – have stout, hooked bills like those of shrikes and are similar in body size and plumage. This and the following image, both of exceptional quality, are by J.G. Keulemans, published in Salvin and Godman’s monumental Biologia Centrali-Americana (London, 1879-1904).

Pictured on the right is a Scaled antpitta (Grallaria guatimalensis). Although they resemble them in shape and posture (and ground-dwelling, skulking behavior), New World antpittas are not related to the more brightly colored pittas found in Asia.
The Biologia Centrali-Americana was intended to describe the flora and fauna of Mexico and Central America and in the end contained volumes on archaeology, as well. As with many large undertakings, if Salvin and Godman had known how long it would take and how much money it would consume, they might have thought twice about doing it. When they announced the series in 1879, they predicted it would fill about sixteen volumes, issued as eighty parts. It should have been complete by 1892. Ultimately, the set consisted of sixty-three volumes, with over a thousand plates, and was not finished until 1915. The bird volumes alone required twenty-five years to complete, and by the time the third volume appeared, in 1904, Godman was well aware that the first volume, issued in 1879, was outdated. Not only had many new species been discovered, but the whole basis of taxonomical description had also evolved from binomial to trinomial, to account for and accurately describe subspecies. As one anonymous writer quipped, “The expense of production would have strained the finances of a small state, and would have required a financial vote – not likely to have been granted – of an enlightened empire. Such amounts are privately wasted every year, but seldom contributed to science, especially to such a sober and non-advertising science as zoology” (Zoologist 1898). Salvin died long before the project was completed, and Godman’s interest apparently flagged after the set was published – by 1918 he had turned sales over to the London bookselling firm of Bernard Quaritch, publisher and distributor of many important natural history books. Quaritch’s prospectus noted that the work “was privately issued and was not published in the ordinary manner; it has therefore remained unknown to the general public . . . [Godman] sold to me the remaining sets of his monumental book in order that it should become known to those interested and its sale effected by more commercial methods.” Those methods included reducing the price for the set from £287 to £180, about £10,500 to £6,600 in today’s currency. Still a bit high for “the general public.”

Charles B. Cory (1857-1921)

Biography: Charles B. Cory was born rich and enjoyed his money. Besides having a passionate interest in birds (he was a founding member and later president of the American Ornithologists’ Union), he was an accomplished musician (he wrote an opera), magician, hypnotist, shooter, and golfer (he built himself a private golf course). (Read more…)

Image: Euphonia musica from The Birds of Haiti and San Domingo.

The Birds of Haiti and San Domingo. Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1885. Folio. 23 plates, 22 hand colored. (Mengel 559; Wood 300; Zimmer 138; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Cory’s chief interest as an ornithologist was the birds of the West Indies. He made five trips there in the 1880s and continued to employ local hunters to enhance his collection of specimens. Besides the present book, he published Birds of the Bahamas (Boston, 1880; rev. ed., 1890), Birds of the West Indies (Boston, 1889), and a rather grand if pointless coffee table book, The Beautiful and Curious Birds of the World (Boston, 1880-83), a publication no doubt made possible by his personal fortune.

W.H. Hudson (1841-1928)

Biography: W.H. Hudson would not have called himself an ornithologist. Indeed, he had little affection for those who studied dead birds and contempt for those who displayed them. “I shall never forget the first sight I had of the late Mr. Gould’s collection of Hummingbirds,” Hudson wrote, “. . . shown to me by the naturalist himself, who evidently took (Read more…)

Image: Chaetocercus burmeister from Argentine Ornithology.

Argentine Ornithology. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Birds of the Argentine Republic. London: R.H. Porter, 1888-1889. 2 volumes. Large 8vo. Limited to 200 copies signed by both authors. (Wood 558; Zimmer 562; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

This was Hudson’s first significant publication about birds. Philip Lutley Sclater did the scientific descriptions, while Hudson provided notes on the birds’ habits, based on his observations in Argentina. Despite the fact that Sclater published Hudson’s letters in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society and helped him become a naturalized British citizen, Hudson did not much care for him, finding him humorless and too focused on taxonomy. “This book was always a sore subject with Hudson,” wrote Morley Roberts. “Judging from his description this eminent professor [Sclater] lacked charm, to say the least of it, but balanced the lack by a keen regard for royalties somewhat repugnant to a much poorer collaborator” (Roberts 1924, 124). When Hudson republished this work in 1920, as Birds of La Plata, he unceremoniously dumped all of Sclater’s work, saying accurately if rather ungraciously, “The original work (Argentine Ornithology) was . . . out of date as soon as published, and the only interest it still retains for readers is in the accounts of the birds’ habits contributed by me” (Hudson 1920, v).

Robert Ridgway (1850-1929)

Biography: “I am a poor boy,” wrote fifteen-year-old Robert Ridgway to Spencer Baird, assistant secretary of the Smithsonian and the country’s leading ornithologist. Ridgway needed assistance with his own budding ornithological interests: “My parents do not fully understand my views and motives . . . To you therefore, – as my only friend except my parents, do I go for (Read more…)

The Birds of North and Middle America. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Higher Groups, Genera, Species, and Subspecies of Birds Known to Occur in North America, from the Arctic Lands to the Isthmus of Panama, the West Indies and Other Islands of the Caribbean Sea, and the Galapagos Archipelago. Bulletin of the United States Museum, no. 50. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1901-1950. 11 volumes. 8vo. (Wood 538; Zimmer 525; Rare Book Collection, LSU.)

This was the first attempt at a comprehensive catalogue of the birds of this region, which includes that portion of the Neotropics north of South America. It contains a mind-numbing amount of descriptive detail, and although the first volume was published in 1901, Ridgway stated in his introduction that he had been working on it full time since 1894, and intermittently for nearly twenty years. He was one of the indefatigable men who, with immense labor and exactness, rendered comprehensible the confusion that prevailed regarding the correct naming of species. “The synonymies of this work,” he complained in the preface to volume 1 (p. xi), “have proven by far the most laborious part of its preparation . . . Anyone who has had occasion to verify citations must know that the amount of inaccuracy and misrepresentation in current synonymies, even the most authoritative and elaborate, is simply astounding. They abound with names which do not even exist in the works cited, with those which do not correspond with the originals in orthography, and others which have no meaning or use whatever, being evidently culled from indices without reference to what their status may be on the pages indicated.” Unfortunately, the work was never finished. Ridgway died after completing the first eight parts; three more parts were completed by Herbert Friedmann; but parts 12 and 13, described in part 11 as “in preparation,” were never published, no doubt because of the enormous changes in classification that had taken place since the first volume appeared, half a century earlier. Nevertheless, these volumes are still used by ornithologists and are among the most frequently cited ornithological works from the first part of the twentieth century.

Color Standards and Color Nomenclature. With Fifty-three Colored Plates and Eleven Hundred and Fifteen Named Colors. Washington, D.C.: Published by the author, 1912. 8vo. (Rare Book Collection, LSU.)

Ridgway spent twenty-five years on this project, calling it “the hardest and most difficult work I ever did” (Harris 1928, 44). It was no picnic for the printers, either: They underestimated costs by thousands of dollars and delivered the books in three years instead of the promised six months. In a letter Ridgway explained why: “It is all hand work; that is to say, each separate color was mixed in one ‘batch’ (enough for the 5000 copies), then large sheets of paper were evenly coated by hand with this one mixture, and these sheets afterward cut into the small pieces which represent the colors on the plates. In this way, only, can absolute uniformity of different copies be guaranteed . . .” (ibid.). Comparison of the original edition with modern attempts to reprint it show that he was right and help explain the continued high price for a first printing, which is still the authority cited for describing the colors of new bird taxa.

Frank M. Chapman (1864-1945)

Biography: Frank M. Chapman left a promising banking career to study birds, at a time (1886) when there were fewer than a dozen paying jobs for an ornithologist in America. On his own he traveled to Florida, a place “of abundant promise for the naturalist” (Chapman 1933, 42), where he encountered pumas, black bear (devouring sea turtle eggs), and three now (Read more…)

The Distribution of Bird-Life in Colombia. A Contribution to a Biological Survey of South America. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, vol. 36. New York: Published by Order of the Trustees, 1917. 8vo. Numerous maps, photographs, and 4 color plates of birds by L. A. Fuertes. (Anker 96; Mengel 503; Wood 286; Middleton Library, LSU.)

The Distribution of Bird-Life in Ecuador. A Contribution to a Study of the Origin of Andean Bird-Life. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, vol. 55. New York: Published by Order of the Trustees, 1926. 8vo. Numerous maps, photographs, and 4 color plates of birds by L. A. Fuertes. (Anker 97; Mengel 507; Middleton Library, LSU.)

These two books are among the most important ever published in the field of Neotropical ornithology. They represent a pivot point in the study of birds, a move away from the focus on collecting and classification toward an understanding of the ways geography and habitat influence distribution and speciation – that is, biogeography. “To determine the boundaries of zones and faunas as they are manifested by birds and mammals is our first aim,” Chapman said in the introduction to his work on Colombian birds (pp. 4-5), “and in the course of this work we trust that our study of purely local conditions will at times so closely connect cause and effect, that we may throw some light on the laws governing the origin of species and the distribution of life.” He was particularly concerned to describe the effect of elevational zones on distribution along the Andes. As he noted, “Climatically, we travel about 1000 times faster vertically than horizontally,” with the result that “under certain circumstances I have passed, on foot, from one zone to another and experienced an almost complete change in bird-life within five minutes” (Chapman 1933, 206). His influence has been pervasive. His publications are still cited frequently in current publications (rare for texts that are approaching one hundred years old), and it has been said that “all students who today investigate the biogeography of Andean birds follow in Chapman’s footsteps, whether they recognize it or not” (Vuilleumier 2005, 397). Amazingly, given what he accomplished, his footsteps did not fall on South American soil until he was forty-eight years old.

Image: “Rosy” from Life in an Air Castle.

Life in an Air Castle. Nature Studies in the Tropics. Illustrated with Drawings by Francis L. Jaques, and from Photographs by the Author. New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1938. 8vo. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Although Chapman lived a fairly public life, he loved solitude. So in 1925 he built his “Tropical Air Castle” on Barro Colorado, the island formed in Lake Gatun when the Panama Canal was completed. It was a small home, perched high in a small clearing in the trees, with the “balcony” extending into the edge of the forest. Chapman spent most winters from 1925 to 1936 studying the wildlife on the island, which was (and remains) an important center for studies of tropical biology. He tricked out his tree house in ways a birder will understand: Having endured enough of “warbler neck,” he relaxed in a reclining chair with a custommade tripod and a mount for his 24x binoculars. Special creatures were encountered year after year and had nicknames. One was “the Composer,” an especially sweet-singing black-bellied wren. Another was a coatimundi, nicknamed “José,” who for several years fascinated Chapman with his skill in robbing the feeders of bananas intended for birds.

Collecting by Museums

Before the twentieth century governments and aristocrats were the sponsors of most expeditions to the Neotropics, the materials collected going to museums to be described, preserved, and displayed. The museums themselves were passive, having little say in where expeditions went or what they collected. (Read More…)

George K. Cherrie (1865-1942)

Biography: Born and raised in Iowa, Cherrie had a fairly typical Midwestern upbringing, full of work and religion. He studied mechanical engineering, but, finding the subject and the resulting employment uncongenial, he moved to Rochester, New York, where he learned the basics of taxonomy and taxidermy at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment. (Read More…)

A Contribution to the Ornithology of the Orinoco Region. The Museum of The Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science, Science Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 6. Brooklyn: Published for the Brooklyn Museum, 1916. 8vo. (Mengel 519; Wood 288; Middleton Library, LSU.)

This publication documents the rate at which new information was being received about the avifauna of South America at the beginning of the twentieth century. Cherrie, who was unusual for his time in that he was able to do descriptive work on the specimens he collected, states in his introduction that publication had been delayed five or six years because of the death of the curator of birds at the Brooklyn Museum, who had been editing the piece. He continues, “The old proof sheets have been placed in the writer’s hands, and recently published investigations of various students of tropical American ornithology have made considerable revision necessary. The paper, therefore, is not as complete as might be desired, nor does it represent the most recent views on classification” (p. 133). Cherrie’s attempt to deflect criticism was not entirely successful. Carl Hellmayr, who could be rather severe, remarked in 1921 that “reading such diagnoses as those given by Cherrie or Chubb [the Englishman Charles Chubb] one is forced to the conclusion that the authors are not conversant either with the existing literature or with the subject about which they are writing” (Hellmayr 1921, 173). It is doubtless a good thing Hellmayr never encountered Cherrie in a bar in the tropics.

Leo E. Miller (1887-1952)

Biography: Besides his place of birth (Huntingburg, Indiana) nothing much is known about the life of Leo Miller before he arrived at Buenaventura, Colombia, in March 1911, the youngest member of a trio that included Frank Chapman and Louis Agassiz Fuertes. His subsequent work in Colombia impressed Chapman: “Miller, a novice on our first expedition, showed (Read More…)

Image: Cock of the Rock from In the Wilds of South America.

In the Wilds of South America. Six Years of Exploration in Colombia, Venezuela, British Guiana, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1918. 8vo. (Wood 465; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Miller had his share of close calls with various forms of wildlife, becoming so casual about it all that he could write nonchalantly of a night spent on a riverside ledge of rock where “the men set the dry vegetation in back of the camp afire in order to keep away jaguars, and built a fence of brands along the outer edge of the rock to frighten off the crocodiles.” He also describes in passing persecutions from all manner of troublesome creatures such as mosquitoes and fleas, and the illnesses that inevitably accompanied them. About the people of South America he had mostly nice things to say, extolling their honesty and hospitality to strangers. All of this is common enough stuff in books of this type; what distinguishes Miller’s account is that he devoted a good portion of his text to actually describing the bird life. He made excellent use of his camera outfit, too; the photographs in the book give a good sense of his travels and include images of his adventures as a valued member of the famous Roosevelt-Rondon expedition on the River of Doubt.

Emilie Snethlage (1868-1929)

Biography: Snethlage did things women rarely did at the beginning of the twentieth century. She was among the first women in Germany to earn a PhD; the only woman scientist in South America to head a significant museum; and the only woman in Brazil devoted to field ornithology, an occupation difficult enough for a man and “deprecated by the old systematists (Read More…)

Image: Plate from Catalogo das Aves Amazonicas.

Catalogo das Aves Amazonicas, contendo todas as especies descriptas e mencionadas até 1913. Boletim do Museu Goeldi (Museu Paraense) de Historia Natural e Ethnographia, tomo 8, 1911-1912. Pará: Edição do Museu Goeldi, 1914. Large 8vo. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

Snethlage was thirty-two before she became serious about science, but by age thirty-six, in 1904, she had earned a doctorate, and in 1905 she took a position at the natural history museum at Belém founded by Emilio Goeldi. The museum, later named for its founder, was an important center for Brazilian zoological studies. Goeldi, for reasons of health, resigned shortly after Snethlage arrived, and returned to Switzerland. Snethlage became director of the museum in 1914 and served in that position until 1921, when the museum was forced to close for a time due to the collapse of the rubber boom. After leaving the museum, she increasingly focused on fieldwork, journeying all over Brazil in quest of insights into zoogeography, her particular interest. In the process she described about sixty new species and subspecies of birds, an impressive number for the twentieth century (Sick 1993).

William Beebe (1877-1962)

Biography: William Beebe was a prolific and popular author; he published twenty-four books and some 825 articles (Berra 1977). The early writings focused on birds, culminating with the publication of his Monograph of the Pheasants, a four-volume opus published between 1918 and 1922 that is regarded as one of the great bird books of the twentieth century. (Read More…)

Two Bird-Lovers in Mexico. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1905. 8vo, pictorial cloth. (Mengel 200; Middleton Library, LSU.)

William Beebe’s first book, a charming if rather old-fashioned travelogue describing his honeymoon trip in 1902-03. There is a lot about Mexican birds, but the most interesting and best-written chapter may well be the last: “How We Did It,” by Blair Beebe, his bride. It consists of counsel for women going on a wilderness camping trip (the Beebes were not staying in fancy hotels), practical advice offered in an amusing way. She continued to travel with her husband, going various places in South America and accompanying him on the trip to Asia that resulted in his famous Monograph of the Pheasants. It would be nice to report that the Beebes lived happily ever after, but in fact they divorced, none too amicably, in 1913. Beebe is said to have erased her existence from his books, a claim that involves too much work to verify. In any case, this seems not to have much disturbed Blair: She remarried the day after her hasty Nevada divorce was final and went on to publish books under her new name, Blair Niles, including travel books about Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Haiti.

“Studies of a Tropical Jungle: One Quarter of a Square Mile of Jungle at Kartabo, British Guiana.” Zoologica, vol. 6, no. 1, 1925.

A seminal work that brought into focus the richness of a small area of tropical jungle. A mere 2,000 x 4,000 feet was studied intensively for thirty-six months by a team of thirty-three workers, beginning in 1916, and resulted in 150 published articles, plus “life history notes on 73 species of mammals, 464 species of birds, 130 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 150 species of fish” (p. 1). Beebe’s focus then became even tighter; pages 44-46 are devoted to “One Hour of Jungle Life,” in which he tries to dispel the notion that jungle life is uncommon: “The dearth of life and silence in the tropical jungle is emphasized and reiterated in book after book of travel, and as long as the observer is actually traveling, he will indeed see little more than the few frightened creatures which rush from his path.” In his hour of stillness in one spot, Beebe recorded 536 living creatures, including 128 birds.

Carl Eduard Hellmayr (1878-1944)

Biography: For all his contributions to Neotropical ornithology, it is remarkable that Hellmayr never visited South or Central America. Indeed, apart from a decade spent in Chicago, he lived most of his life in the snow-covered Alps. Born near Vienna, Hellmayr received his earliest education at Stift Seitenstetten, a rural monastery surrounded by forests and (Read More…)

“Revision der Spix’schen Typen brasilianischer Vögel” . . . Munich: K.B. Akademie der Wissenschaften in Kommission des G. Franz’schen Verlags (J. Roth), 1905. 4to.

This work represents the beginning of the struggle to untangle the diverse and confusing nineteenth-century sources for the classification of Neotropical birds, and it is particularly notable for the emphasis it places on the type specimens for new species. The crucial importance of this work is made clear by François Vuilleumier (2003, 580): “Despite the tremendous field and museum activity, real progress in the understanding of many aspects of Neotropical avifauna was not forthcoming at the rate one could have expected, given the rate of discoveries and publications. I think that advances in Neotropical ornithology in the early years of the twentieth century were slowed down, not by lack of exploration, lack of specimens, or lack of ability on the part of the authors, but by the absence of a unified nomenclature . . . The true significance of Hellmayr’s work is often underrated.”

Catalogue of Birds of the Americas. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1918-1949. 11 parts in 15 volumes. 8vo, printed wrappers. (Mengel 571; Wood 300-01; Middleton Library, LSU.)

Although begun by Charles Cory and completed by Boardman Conover, this set is universally referred to as “Hellmayr.” The single most important source for the taxonomic descriptions of Neotropical birds, it organizes the chaos that came before it and forms the base on which subsequent work has been done. The degree of detail involved in this kind of taxonomic work is daunting. It is perhaps suggested by the following quotation from a review published in The Auk in 1937, referring to volume 9 of the catalogue, which includes the tanagers: “In the introduction Dr. Hellmayr states: ‘The rejection of Brissonian genera, in consequence of a vote passed by the International Zoological Congress of Padua, entails only one nomenclatorial change: namely, the substitution of Calospiza for Tangara.’ Dr. Hellmayr, however, is mistaken in the action of the Padua Congress. It is true that a resolution calling for the rejection of generic names of binary authors was passed by that body, but this resolution was not then effective and was tabled at the Lisbon Congress, hence Brissonian generic names are still valid. But even if they were not, Calospiza G. R. Gray, 1840, is not the first available name to replace Tangara Brisson, 1760, for Calliste Boie, 1826, has the same type as Calospiza and is not preoccupied by Callista Poli, 1791 (Mollusca), under the International Code.” All this for the name of one genus, albeit an important one. The same scrutiny could be applied to every species, and Hellmayr had over 3,500 to describe and “nomenclatorially” regularize.

M. A. Carriker, Jr. (1879-1965)

Biography: Most American museum collectors went to South America for a few years and then returned home to pursue more conventional livelihoods. Meb Carriker went to Colombia in 1911 and stayed there for most of the rest of his life. He had already spent time in Costa Rica between 1902 and 1907 (Read More…)

Image: Pyrrhura viridicata from The Birds of the Santa Marta Region of Colombia.

The Birds of the Santa Marta Region of Colombia: A Study in Altitudinal Distribution. [Pittsburgh:] Annals of the Carnegie Museum, vol. 14, 1922. 8vo. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

Carriker worked out a congenial arrangement with W. E. Clyde Todd, curator of birds at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. He collected in Colombia, then shipped the specimens to Todd, who could not travel in the tropics because of health problems. They spent ten years intensively studying the birds of a restricted area, with a view to making a book that would be complementary to Chapman’s 1917 work on the birds of Colombia. According to Witmer Stone (Stone 1923, 344), Chapman deliberately excluded the Santa Marta region from his general survey of Colombian bird life in anticipation of the publication of this more closely focused study, which came to much the same conclusions he did regarding elevational distribution.

Elsie M. B. Naumburg (1880-1953)

Biography: Because of her gender, Elsie Naumburg was an unlikely systematist, and her modest background made her an even more unlikely benefactress for the American Museum of Natural History. Geoffrey Hellman, who wrote profiles of many New York institutions for The New Yorker, tells her story: “In 1917, Mrs. Elsie M. B. Reichenberger (Read More…)

The Birds of Matto Grosso, Brazil. A Report on the Birds Secured by the Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition. With Field Notes by George K. Cherrie. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, vol. 60. New York: The American Museum of Natural History, 1930. 8vo. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

The 1913 Roosevelt-Rondon expedition down the Rio da Dúvida – River of Doubt – is famous in the annals of South American exploration. Financed by Theodore Roosevelt and organized by the American Museum of Natural History, it was a trip of grueling hardships that nearly killed the ex-president. It featured a serious shortage of food, rapids that destroyed canoes and claimed a life, a murder, and a camp dog found dying with two Indian arrows in his side, not to mention disease and a plague of insects. Amazingly, George Cherrie, the expedition’s naturalist (and, with Cândido Rondon, the toughest and most seasoned traveler in the group), collected birds during the entire journey. When three days were required to hew new canoes from huge trees, Cherrie was out hunting, for food and for specimens. According to the daily log published in Cherrie’s narrative, which forms the first part of this work, he collected specimens on twenty of thirty-two days on the Rio da Dúvida (subsequently renamed the Rio Roosevelt). At one point, when the travelers were jettisoning all but the most essential equipment, he considered abandoning his box of specimens – but decided against it. Cherrie returned to the area in 1916 to collect more specimens, turning over the systematic description of his collections to Naumburg, who was then his assistant. She worked carefully on the descriptions, going to Europe every year to study collections there, spending the spring and summer of 1922 consulting with Carl Hellmayr in Munich, his expertise “enabling her to solve many difficult problems” (p. 3). Witmer Stone responded favorably in his 1931 review in The Auk: “Her work has been admirably done; not only is it a report on the collections obtained by the expedition and Mr. Cherrie but also of the other Matto Grosso material in the American Museum and in various European museums which she has visited in the course of her study . . . We have therefore a list of the 658 species and subspecies of Matto Grosso birds with detailed ranges of each as well as annotations by Mr. Cherrie” (Stone 1931, 135). He concludes the review with an interesting aside: “The reviewer is reminded of his enthusiasm upon receiving, from the late Dr. J. A. Allen, the successive parts of his ‘Birds of Chapada, Matto Grosso’, published in 1891-1893, and a comparison of this classic paper with Mrs. Naumburg’s volume illustrates in a most striking way the developments in methods of exploration and collecting during the forty years that have intervened, as well as the enormous advance in ornithological knowledge in America” (Stone 1931, 136).

Robert Cushman Murphy (1887-1973)

Biography: By any standard Bob Murphy was an accomplished scientist. In 1912, newly married and with a degree from Brown, he went on his first expedition – a year spent as seaman (but actually naturalist) on one of the last whaling ships under sail, the Daisy. That voyage, which included his introduction to the amazing bird life of South Georgia Island, sparked (Read More…)

Image: Chincha Islands, from Oceanic Birds of South America.

Oceanic Birds of South America. A Study of Species of the Related Coasts and Seas, including the American Quadrant of Antarctica . . . New York: The American Museum of Natural History, 1936. 2 volumes. Large 8vo. (Anker 352; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

On page 1 of Murphy’s magnum opus he explains what drew him to devote eighteen years of his life to the project: “Collections of South American birds are among the oldest still preserved in natural history museums. Without exception, however, such historic series are chiefly made up of species inhabiting the land areas or the inland waters of the continent.” The reason for that is simple enough: Pelagic birds are hard to get at and even harder to collect. Murphy secured the services of Rollo Beck, who (with his wife) spent five years (1912-17) collecting in South American waters. The carefully documented series of specimens collected by Beck (along with additional examples collected by Murphy himself on three expeditions) form the basis for the species accounts that make up the bulk of these volumes. However, Murphy went beyond just describing the birds: The first three hundred pages of his work are devoted to describing the geography of land and sea that makes the bird life possible and affects it at all times. There is also a 212-page “Ornithological Circumnavigation of South America” that opens on this promising note: “The journey upon which we are embarking has never been undertaken. I propose to skirt the continental coast line, with full disregard of distance, time and circumstance. Neither weather nor current need retard us; no island of the surrounding seas shall be too remote for us to reach within a twinkling; moreover, we may view these successive projects, as preference dictates, either through the eyes of today or those of generations long departed . . . Let us in the main travel fast, halting only to picture a series of well-chosen localities along the ocean front, and at islands offshore. At each such station we may select the time of year best suited to our purpose of observing the bird life or the periodic natural phenomena concerned with the distribution of birds” (p. 110). No mosquitoes, either: a wonderful voyage indeed for the armchair naturalist.

John T. Zimmer (1889-1957)

Biography: John T. Zimmer was sufficiently introverted that even those who worked with him for years at the American Museum of Natural History could report little about his life, apart from his professional activities. “The general impression he created at the museum,” his eulogists wrote, “particularly after the loss of his wife [in 1945], was (Read More…)

Studies of Peruvian Birds, Nos. 1-66. American Museum Novitates. New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1931-1955. 66 volumes, together approximately 1,650 pages. 8vo, printed wrappers. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

To understand the need for these detailed systematic treatments of Peruvian birds one needs to read Zimmer’s introduction to his report on the birds of the Marshall Field Peruvian Expedition, published in 1930: “The systematic arrangements in the following pages may seem somewhat confused inasmuch as I have not followed any single author. There is no check list of neotropical birds which is both complete and strictly modern. Consequently I have largely followed Wetmore . . . for the sequence of orders and families; Simon . . . for the genera of hummingbirds; Hellmayr . . . for the Mesomyodian (or Tyrannine) Passeriformes; Berlepsch. . . for the Tanagers (excluding certain genera which I think belong to the Finches); and Brabourne and Chubb . . . when better authority is not available” (Zimmer 1930, 240). Stresemann called this series “the classic achievement in the study of subspecies of South American birds,” but Frank Chapman is said to have been disappointed that Zimmer did not synthesize his material on Peru into a monograph, like Chapman’s own on Ecuador and Colombia. Synthesis, however, was apparently not something Zimmer was interested in. He stayed focused on the details, but with such skill and discernment that his papers are still cited frequently in the literature.

Image: Drawing from Catalogue of the Edward E. Ayer Ornithological Library.

Catalogue of the Edward E. Ayer Ornithological Library. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1926. 2 volumes. 8vo. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

In the electronic era, book collecting has come to seem a quaint pastime, but at the beginning of the twentieth century more than a few accounts of the first purchase of a book had about them the atmosphere of a first kiss, and the ongoing life of the collection was often depicted as a love affair with the printed word. Edward Ayer became a great collector of books and benefactor of libraries, helping to found the Newberry Library and later donating his wonderful collection of ornithological books to the Field Museum. His first book purchase was a five-volume set of Prescott’s histories of Mexico and Peru, from a bookshop in Chicago. His description of their acquisition, written on the flyleaves at a later date, is a classic of the genre: “I asked the price and to my astonishment was told $17.50. I said ‘What!’ – and remarked I didn’t suppose such books were worth more than fifty cents a volume. I was being served by one of the proprietors, and I finally said, ‘My name is Edward Ayer, I live at Harvard [Illinois], I have been on the plains and in the war four years. I returned a month since. My father has given me an interest in a store. I have $3.50 I can spare now. If you will let me have volume one I will give to you the $3.50 I have and every month when I come in will take and pay for another volume.’ He said (bless him), ‘Young man, you give me the $3.50 you have and take the whole set home with you now.’ My return home was a triumphal procession. I was certainly the happiest boy in the world, and of course, only touched the earth in high places” (Ayer 1950). John T. Zimmer did justice to the Ayer gift by bringing to this catalogue the same meticulous attention to detail that characterized his later taxonomic publications. There are full collations for every book, with variants noted, and annotations on the contents that he was uniquely qualified to write. After over seventy-five years, it remains the single best bibliographical source for early ornithological literature.

Alexander Wetmore (1886-1978)

Biography: Late in his long life Wetmore was fond of describing what he called “my zoo,” the more than fifty new genera, species, and subspecies of recent and fossil birds (along with assorted insects, mammals,and mollusks) that were given his name by his professional colleagues (Ripley and Steed 1987, 608). (Read More…)

The Birds of the Republic of Panama. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, vol. 150 [parts 1-4]. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1965-1984. 4 volumes. 8vo. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

Between 1946 and 1966 Wetmore spent three months of each year in Panama, collecting specimens and making observations for the great work of his later years (he was sixty when the first volume was published). His camp demeanor was a reflection of his personality: “Wetmore was quite meticulous in everything he did, and he expected the same of his colleagues. In the field he always wore a khaki uniform, complete with khaki tie. His friend Perrygo recalled that Wetmore expected the camp kit to be laid out with geometric precision, so much so that Wetmore preferred doing it himself. Perhaps his concern for order and efficiency helped make Wetmore the crack shot that he was. Once, in dense cover, Wetmore and Perrygo sighted a bird they wanted for a specimen. The shot seemed doubtful to Perrygo and he called to Wetmore, ‘Did you hit him?,’ to which Wetmore replied ‘I shot didn’t I?'” (Ripley and Steed 1987, 609).

Life Histories

The life histories of their targets were seldom of concern to the men who pursued specimens for museums, except as such knowledge aided in locating the birds for collecting. After all, one did not make one’s name or one’s living by reporting on behavior; indeed, stopping to observe a bird’s habits might result in unwelcome knowledge as the bird (Read More…)

François Haverschmidt (1906-1987)

Biography: Suriname, the smallest nation in South America, remains to this day one of the more exotic destinations in the Neotropics. A former Dutch colony, with Dutch as the official language, it includes a large community descended from African slaves, as well as people from Dutch-controlled regions of Indonesia and India who were brought in as laborers after (Read More…)

Image: Plate 19 from Birds of Surinam.

Birds of Surinam. Illustrated by Paul Barruel. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1968. 4to. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

Haverschmidt was preceded in his work on Suriname’s birds by Frederik Paul and Arthur Philip Penard, who self-published their two-volume De Vogels van Guyana in Paramaribo between 1908 and 1910. What little we know of the Penard brothers is contained in an article about them by Haverschmidt, published in The Auk in 1949 (vol. 66, no. 1, pp. 56-60). They both suffered from childhood from a debilitating disease (probably leprosy, to judge from the fact that they were kept in seclusion) and relied on a network of local collectors to provide them with specimens. This circumstance accounts for the most significant drawback to their work, the unreliability of records of distribution. Both were remarkably young to undertake such a large project: Frederic was twenty, Arthur sixteen, when they began forming the collections, and they were apparently almost entirely self-taught. Haverschmidt’s work did not suffer from these drawbacks: He was already an accomplished ornithologist when he arrived in Suriname, and he was able to do his own fieldwork. Although he laments that “all my ornithological work could be done only in spare time during a busy life in a sphere far removed from ornithology” (p. vii), he personally collected the nearly 8,700 specimens that form the basis for most of the book’s descriptions.

William Phelps, Sr. (1875-1965) & William Phelps, Jr.(1902-1988)

Biography: It is an obvious and sad fact that the major repositories of Neotropical bird specimens are not found in the Neotropics – they are in North America and Europe. One great exception is the Colección Ornitológica Phelps in Caracas, where the personal passions of a father and son have created a center for the study of Venezuelan birds that is preeminent (Read more…)

Lista de las Aves de Venezuela con su Distribucion. Parte 2, Passeriformes. Boletin de la Sociedad Venezolana de Ciencias Naturales, tomo 12, no. 75, enero 1950. [and] Parte 1, No Passeriformes. Boletin de la Sociedad Venezolana de Ciencias Naturales, tomo 19, no. 90, mayo 1958. 2 volumes. 8vo, printed wrappers. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

This was the first comprehensive description of the birds of Venezuela, made possible by the numerous expeditions of the Phelps family. Like many multivolume projects involving systematics, it appeared in an unusual order (part 2 before part 1) and took longer than expected to complete: A review of part 2, published in 1950, says that part 1 was expected in 1951. It actually appeared in 1958, by which time a revised edition of part 2 was already in the works. In 1978 Billy Phelps, along with Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee, went a step further, writing (as well as financing) A Guide to the Birds of Venezuela. This was a first in many respects: It was among the first comprehensive field guides to a South American country; one of the first field guides published by Princeton University Press, which has gone on to be among the world’s leading publishers of field guides; and it represents Guy Tudor’s major entrance into the field of ornithological illustration (R. Ridgely, pers. comm., 2010).

Alexander Skutch (1904-2004)

Biography: A decade after earning a PhD in botany from Johns Hopkins in 1928, Skutch switched “from foliage to feathers” (Stiles 2005) and moved to Costa Rica with a singular purpose: to describe the life histories of Central American birds, about whose habits almost nothing was known. He bought a farm in 1941 and lived there for the rest of his life. (Read More…)

Life Histories of Central American Birds. Illustrated with Drawings by Don R. Eckelberry. Berkeley: Cooper Ornithological Society, 1954, 1960, 1969. 3 volumes. Large 8vo. First editions. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

Writing of Skutch’s style would have a hard time getting published today, because as well as being scientific, and statistical when necessary, it is personal, anecdotal, and engaging. To take a random example: He devotes fourteen pages to Tangara nigrocincta, the golden-masked tanager (“golden” has since been dropped from the name), including sections on food, voice, roosting, nesting, eggs, incubation, care of newly hatched nestlings, care of older nestlings, later broods, plumage changes, and enemies. His notes cover a period of eleven years; his conclusions on incubation came after multiple sessions of observation lasting as long as ten hours. On the tanager’s voice: “The Golden-masked tanager would have been seized upon with delight by theorists of a past century who believed that birds lavishly endowed with bright colors had poor songs; for this elegant tanager appears to have no song at all” (p. 201). On its enemies: “Early one afternoon the parent Golden-masked Tanagers were attending their two-week-old nestlings in the calabash tree fifty feet in front of me. Suddenly a Swallow-tailed Kite, that had been soaring about high overhead, swooped down and carried off the nest along with the two nestlings. A Neotropic Kingbird darted angrily at the kite the moment it seized the nest, but was not able to distract the kite. Rising high in the air, the hawk soared around on set wings, holding the nest in its talons; it bent its head down to extract a small object that was doubtless a nestling. Then it dropped the nest, which drifted slowly earthward.” He then describes the pathetic aftermath: “When, a few minutes later, the parent tanagers returned together with food in their bills, they found only a bare, mossy crotch where their nest had been. Then they hunted over the neighboring branches and forks, as though they hoped to find their nestlings in some other spot. Over a period of an hour, they returned again and again with food in their bills and searched in the neighborhood of the vanished nest” (p. 211).

Eugene Eisenmann (1906-1981)

Biography: Eisenmann did not write much, but his name appears in many books: The Imperative Call, by Alexander Skutch, is dedicated to him, as are Robert Ridgely’s Birds of Panama and Birds of South America, volume 1. After Eisenmann’s death, in 1981, the sixth edition of the AOU Check-list was dedicated to him, and in 1985, an entire volume of essays on Neotropical (Read More…)

The Species of Middle American Birds. A list of all species recorded from Mexico to Panama, with suggested English names, outlines of range, and distributional bibliography. New York: Transactions of the Linnaean Society, vol. 7, April 1955. 8vo. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Eisenmann was chair of the AOU Check-list Committee, not a small achievement for a Panamanian lawyer with no formal ornithological training. Names (especially English names) were important to him, and this was his attempt to create a list “by which each species could be designated throughout its range, without regard to locality or the subspecies involved” (p. 1). He wanted to “lay a foundation, before it is too late, for some measure of uniformity” (p. 2). He also recognized that “not all our selections will please everyone. In fact they do not please all our little committee” (p. 3). Little has changed since: Today there is a “little committee” of ten members, the South American Classification Committee of the American Ornithologists’ Union, that reviews proposals for name changes to South American birds. Although highly technical, the commentary on the proposals at the SACC website is lively, and it appears that as many name changes are rejected as accepted.

Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee (1901-1984)

Biography: Barons and counts were something of a staple in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century natural science, and in the early twentieth century Walter, the second Lord Rothschild, was without peer as a collector of zoological specimens from all over the world. After that, however, the dwindling nobility of Europe seems to have lost what interest they had in (Read More…)

The Birds of Colombia and Adjacent Areas of South and Central America. Narberth, Pa.: Livingston Publishing Co. [for the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 1964.] 8vo. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

A work that marks a significant divide in publications devoted to Neotropical birds. Before, most publications devoted to the region were unillustrated lists of species. This is among the first books to include illustrations, and to be serviceable as a field guide. Although he did a fair amount of traveling and collecting, Meyer de Schauensee remained at his core a museum man – in the research for The Birds of Colombia, he never visited Colombia. Instead, he employed collectors in Colombia to gather the needed specimens for the Academy of Natural Sciences, allowing him to describe the birds from Philadelphia.

Image: White-headed Marsh Tyrant from A Guide to the Birds of South America.

A Guide to the Birds of South America. Wynnewood, Pa.: Livingston Publishing Co., for The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, [1970]. 8vo. (Middleton Library, LSU.)

“This book became famous to the growing legion of ornithologists and then birders who started traveling in South America in the 1970s. I count myself as one of them. It was always ‘the blue book’ and though it had errors and was written by a museum man with almost no experience with Neotropical birds alive, it was invaluable: Now finally we had something we could use, with care, in the field” (R. Ridgely, pers. comm., 2010).

Maria Koepcke (1924-1971)

Biography: Koepcke’s contributions as an ornithologist were cut short by her death in a Peruvian plane crash and overshadowed by the remarkable story of her seventeen-year-old daughter, also on the plane. The girl fell from the sky, strapped in her seat, from over 10,000 feet, but survived the fall, protected by the seat and the dense rainforest canopy. (Read More…)

Las Aves del Departamento de Lima. Lima: Editado por Dr. Maria Koepcke, 1964. 8vo. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Koepcke specialized in the birds of the Pacific slope of the Andes, and this charming little book, the first field guide to any part of Peru, covers an area from the Pacific shore to the base of the Andes. It is enhanced by drawings by Koepcke for each of the 313 species described, and has been noted as the first book on Peruvian birds “to promote its avifauna at the popular level” (Soffer 2010).

Helmut Sick (1910-1991)

Biography: After earning his doctorate under Erwin Stresemann, Sick went to Brazil, in 1939. He spent three years studying birds before being forced to turn his attention to fleas, lice, and termites, “the miserable companions of . . . solitude” (Sick 1993, [ix]), when he was incarcerated, along with other German citizens, after Brazil declared war on Germany in (Read More…)

Birds in Brazil. A Natural History. Translated from the Portuguese by William Belton. Princeton: Princeton University Press, [1993]. 4to. First edition in English. First published in 1984 as Ornitologia Brasileira – Uma Introdução. The English edition, however, contains Sick’s numerous revisions to the text and other revisions introduced by the translator. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

As Sick himself generously pointed out, his work was constructed on the foundation laid by Olivério Pinto (1896-1981), “the grand old man of Brazilian ornithology,” whose Catálogo das Aves do Brasil, published between 1938 and 1944, “is the starting point for any systematic ornithological work in this country” (Sick 1993, 39).

The publication of Birds in Brazil, Sick’s magnum opus, was also a landmark event in Brazilian ornithology, so it is probably best to let Brazilians describe its impact: “Sick’s book constituted a watershed because, more than an ornithology textbook, it was a comprehensive treatment of Brazil’s avifauna, with a wealth of new information and a high literary quality that unchained a tide of interest by specialists and laymen. Both young students and other nature enthusiasts met for lectures and field trips, with an authoritative textbook, providing the principal ingredients for the dissemination of knowledge beyond the few Brazilian ornithologists working in museums. The investigation of Brazil’s avifauna had been in the hands of very few professionals and even fewer amateurs until the advent of Sick’s book” (Pacheco and Fonseca 2001).

Ted Parker (1953-1993)

Biography: Ted Parker was renowned even during his short lifetime as “the most gifted field ornithologist of the 20th century” (Robbins, Graves, and Remsen 1997, 1). With a bulky reel-to-reel tape recorder hanging from his shoulder, he spent about six months of the year in the field for nineteen years, sometimes on his own, sometimes guiding birders for (Read More…)

Birds of Peru. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 8vo. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

In order to pursue his passion for Neotropical birds Parker neglected academic credentials – he barely finished an undergraduate degree at the University of Arizona – but that did not stop him from publishing many articles in technical journals, many coauthored with colleagues at LSU. This long-awaited field guide to Peru was a large project Parker was involved with from the beginning, when John O’Neill invited him to work on it in the mid-1970s. In the end, Parker did not live to see publication of the book, and it proved to be a project large enough to require several authors (besides Parker, they were Thomas S. Schulenberg, Douglas F. Stotz, Daniel F. Lane, and John P. O’Neill). There were also thirteen illustrators.

Miguel Alvarez del Toro (1917-1996)

Biography: Miguel Alvarez del Toro was “one of the last of the all around naturalists and the first of Mexico’s modern conservationists” (Cuarón 1997). For most of his adult life Don Miguel, as he was known, lived in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. He was singularly devoted to the fauna of the region. (Read More…)

Las Aves de Chiapas. Tuxtla Gutiérrez: Publicado por el Gobierno del Estado de Chiapas, 1971. 4to. (McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Remarkably, Álvarez del Toro not only wrote the text but also provided the paintings for all but five of the eighty-two color plates.

People & Places

Most early accounts of exploration in the Neotropics focused on the hardships and dangers encountered: survival and the discovery of riches were the point. Beginning with Alexander von Humboldt there was a new emphasis: on the beauty and grandeur of the natural world. The experience is idealized; hardships are obscured; most everything is described as pleasant and inspiring. The image above, from Robert Schomburgk’s Twelve Views of the Interior of Guiana, is typical, as is this awed description: “It appears as if the productive powers of nature, on receding from the poles, had collected themselves in their greatest strength near the equator, spreading their gifts with open hand, rendering every scene more imposing and majestic …. Gigantic trees raise their lofty crowns to a height unknown in the European forests, and display the greatest contrasts in the form and appearance of their foliage. Lianas cling to their trunks, interlace their wide spreading branches, and having reached their summit, with aërial roots descend again towards the ground and appear like the cordage of a ship. Clusters of palm trees, of all vegetable forms the most imposing, rise in grandeur above the surrounding mass, waving their pinion-like leaves in the soft breeze. . . The calm of the surrounding atmosphere, where frequently not a breath of wind agitates the foliage, not a cloud veils the azure vault of heaven, contrasts strongly with the hum of animated nature. The Colibri, with its metallic lustre, passes rapidly from from blossom to blossom, sipping the nectar of fragrant flowers . . . The ancient forest of noble trees re-echoes with the notes of feathered songsters. The plumage of the splendid macaws and parrots, perched on boughs, perhaps illumined by the beans of a setting sun, richly mingles with the brilliant and bright green foliage” (p. [1]).

Maximilian Wied-Neuwied was charmed by the forests in Northeastern Brazil: “Our stay on the Rio Doce was certainly one of the most interesting parts of my travels in Brazil; for on this river, which is so rich in fine scenery and remarkable productions, the naturalist finds employment for a long time, and the most diversified pleasures” (Wied 1820, p. 182-3). Depicted in the stern of the boat, arms casually crossed in a full coat and beaver top-hat, Wied looks the part of an aristocrat on a charming excursion: “The weather was very fine, and when we had become accustomed to the rocking of the narrow canoe, caused by the soldiers walking backwards and forwards to push it along, we found the excursion very agreeable” (ibid., 175). He described the birds observed along the river: “Here it was that we first saw in their wild state the magnificent macaws . . . which are among the chief ornaments of the Brazilian forests; we heard their loud screaming voices, and saw these splendid birds soaring above the crowns of the lofty sapucaya trees. We recognized them at a distance by their long tails, and their glowing red plumage shown with dazzling splendour in the beams of the unclouded sun. Perroquets, maracanas, maitaccas, tiribas, curicas, camutangas, nandayas, and other species of parrots, flew, loudly screaming, in numerous flocks from bank to bank . . .” (ibid., 176). Unfortunately, the lush scenery and abundant wildlife experienced by Weid are gone; today the Rio Doce valley is almost completely deforested.

Although it is fair to say that no European considered the Indian his equal, the arrival of naturalists brought men who were more curious than cruel. They used Indian skills, such as woodsmanship and knowledge of local conditions, to assist them in their work. In the previous image from Schomburgk (plate 3), natives are employed as boatmen and in setting up camp. Here, Johann von Spix, leaning against a tree and looking as relaxed and well-groomed as if he were at home in Bavaria, witnesses the ritual consumption of a local beverage. Spix himself drank some, but was “filled with disgust.” Though he was not vicious, his attitude of superiority is complete: “Still and docile in the service of the whites; unremittingly persevering in any work assigned to him; not to be excited by any treatment to anger, though he may too long cherish revenge; he is born, as the colonists are used to say, only to be commanded” (Spix 1824, vol. 2, p. 242).

Henry Walter Bates mobbed by curl-crested aracaris, not amused by one of their tribe being shot – a vivid image of the collecting naturalist as a “solitary stranger on a strange errand” (Bates 1863, vol. 2, p. 178). His description of “one tropical day” begins with ornithology at dawn, “when all nature was fresh;” entomology in the late morning and early afternoon, “the best time for insects being a little before the greatest heat of the day;” then, “fatigued with our ramble” a long rest in hammocks (ibid., vol. 1, pp. 61- 64). Of course, having collected specimens all day, Bates had then to prepare them: “Each bird (macaws) took me three hours to skin, and I was occupied with these and my other specimens every evening until midnight . . . working on the roof of my cabin by the light of a lamp” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 139). Over time (he was in South America eleven years) “the want of intellectual society, and of the varied excitement of European life,” took its toll on him: “I was obliged, at last, to come to the conclusion that the contemplation of nature alone is not sufficient to fill the human heart and mind” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 186).

This photo, from Charles Chubbs’s Birds of British Guiana (London, 1916-21), is reminiscent of the grand image from Schomburgk. It also depicts a camping scene on a stream in British Guiana, but the impression made is quite different – it looks like hard and rather uncomfortable work for all involved.

Blair Beebe was one of the first women to appear in the largely male world of Neotropical ornithology. Two Bird Lovers in Mexico describes her honeymoon trip with William Beebe, and this image shows them just before a fairly harrowing part of their trip: ” The side of the barranca (ravine) is steep and rocky, and the way to the bottom is treacherous and slow. The sure-footed mules felt their way at each step, and we leaned far back against the rear pommel of the great saddles, the shoulders of the horses working laboriously, the animals hanging back in the steep places. With a final reckless push we tore down the last slope, shouting out in English and Spanish with the joy of the journey’s end, nor did we pull rein until our steeds were deep in the streambed.” (Beebe 1905, 130). She offered fashion advice for the camping woman: “When the last farewell to civilization is said, and the woman who goes camping sets forth on the trail to be a wilderness woman indeed, she will find that a very simple wardrobe will be all that is necessary. First and most important is a divided shirt of whipcord or courduroy. No one should attempt to ride side-saddle over these steep mountain trails; indeed the woman who does not intend to ride cross-saddle should never attempt a camping-trip in the wilds of Mexico. . . .A pair of canvas hunter-leggings . . . were the joy and comfort of my life; for whatever Mexico may lack, it is not thorns. . . . But I hope my camping woman will not mar her pleasure by wearing her veil over her face. A wild gallop over the plains on horseback loses much of its charm if there is anything between one’s face and the pure invigorating mountain breeze. And after all, a little honest tan is a good thing!” (ibid., 367-8).

In Blair Beebe’s opinion, “the cheapest kind of a tent will suffice; for during the winter season in Mexico, every day is like Indian summer – bright and cloudless. . . We did not take tent-poles. A stout rope stretched between two trees answers every purpose, which reminds me that, like pins and strings, rope is a thing of which one can never have too much when camping (ibid 368-9). This image, also from Two Bird Lovers in Mexico, seems a bit too artful to be accidental. Note the white monkey perched by the tent in the background.

Two places for studying birds, both described as “castles” by their proprietors. William Beebe’s “jungle castle” was the last whim of Juan Vincente Gómez, a Venezuelan dictator. Abandoned, unfinished, upon Gomez’ death in 1935, it was a vast edifice in a state of decay, but perfect for Beebe’s purposes: “On many expeditions in many different lands, with hammock, blanket and camp outfit, I would have welcomed the primitive shelter of Rancho Grande as palatial. But as the early days of mere collecting gave place to watching and studying living creatures, there came a greater reason for comfortable beds, healthful food and an adequate laboratory with easy access of wildlife in its own haunts. . . Here was comfort, space, daylight, electricity and refrigeration (Beebe 1949, 67-8, 89). Frank Chapman’s abode – an “air castle” he called it – was on a smaller scale, but created to the same end. Perched in the trees, it afforded him solitude and convenience. “The Balcony,” pictured above, included a reclining “Bliss chair,” tripod-mounted 24x binoculars, and an outdoor shower. “In the dry season, concealed, I can bathe in either sun or shower or both combined. . . ” he wrote. “The forest is only twenty feet away, just far enough to give a foreground and permit of the ready focusing of glasses on the birds and mammals that frequent the outer trees” (Chapman 1938, 15).

Field research today. A PhD candidate at the University of Florida, Gustavo Londano, recently posted an ad for volunteer assistants to help him with his dissertation on “Avian Nesting Ecology along an Elevation Gradient, Manu National Park, Peru.” He is candid about the conditions: “This study require mainly search and monitor nests, behavioral observations, mist-netting, and banding. We will be working six days a week between 6:00 am and 5:30 pm, and on occasion data entry will take place during the night. Communication is limited, we can have between 2 and 3 weeks without email or phone access. Applicants should be in good physical shape, able to work well in a group setting,and be willing to work long hours (10 hours per day under difficult conditions) . . . I personally prefer volunteers with previous experience with mist nets, nest searching, and that can live happy in uncomfortable conditions (camping and cooking for 4 months). You should expect to be wet, bit by insects (especially mosquitoes) and have a limited diet of rice, pasta, legumes, cassava, plantain, and fresh vegetables.” He asks for a letter, “explaining why you want this difficult job.” On Londano’s website his previous assistants tell why: “the single greatest experience of my life;” “both the most difficult and the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.” And, waxing a bit more philosophical, “the forest doesn’t offer its wisdom and beauty for free. For this job, one needs a strong body to hike across trailless hills all day and haul pack-loads of food for miles. Perhaps even more important, however, one needs a strong mind. Aside from clouds of mosquitoes, biting flies, bamboo spikes, and wasp stings, it can be very frustrating spending weeks without finding what you search for all day long. But when you finally find one of these perfectly constructed nests with eggs inside, it is a true celebration.”

Candles and computers in camp. Manu National Park, Peru.

Modern Fieldwork

A young John O’Neill in 1977, camped by the Rio Heath on the border between Peru and Bolivia. The animal roasting on the makeshift grill is a tapir. The pot and other paraphernalia at O’Neill’s feet are ingredients for hot chocolate, a beverage he considers indispensable to happy camp life. Once, when asked what he most feared in the jungle, O’Neill replied, “Running out of sugar.”

Transportation on the Rio Shesha, Peru, during a 1987 expedition memorably described in Don Stap’s A Parrot without a Name (New York, 1990). The river runs near the base of the Cordillera Divisor, on the border between Peru and Bolivia; studying the unknown fauna and flora of these remote mountains was the goal of the journey. Stap called the river, which was running low, a veritable obstacle course, filled with submerged logs, sandbars, and tangles of brush. The dugouts were propelled by a straight-shafted prop attached to a lawnmower engine; neither the motors, nor their reckless operators, were reliable. During the two-day trip up the river mishaps were frequent, with bags of equipment and provisions floating down the river, chased by frantic members of the expedition. By the time the group reached camp, nearly all of their gear was soaking wet. . .” (ibid., 176). Unfortunately, the lush scenery and abundant wildlife experienced by Weid are gone; today the Rio Doce valley is almost completely deforested.

Along with participating in LSU expeditions and leading birding tours, Ted Parker was instrumental in establishing the Rapid Assessment Program (usually known by its acronym RAP) for Conservation International, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. The idea was to bring together a core group of experts in several fields – ornithology, botany, mammology, forest ecology – to quickly inventory the biota of a fixed area, then provide the information to local authorities in hopes of provoking a beneficial local response. In 1991 Parker and the team were working in a region of southwest Ecuador, between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, where 95% of the original forest had been cleared, much of it in the twenty previous years. Sadly, at times the assessments had to be rapid because they could hear chain-saws working all around them (Conniff 1991). Parker was killed in a plane crash while conducting a similar survey in another part of Ecuador.

Condor Expedition, 2006. This LSUMNS (Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science) expedition ventured into the cloud forests of the Cordillera del Condor, a remote range of mountains on the border between Ecuador and Peru. Particularly from the Peruvian side, the area is difficult to access. Toyotas are the vehicle of choice.

Mules have always had a hard time of it.






There is no such thing as a waterproof tent.

The kitchen.



A russet-crowned warbler (Basileuterus coronatus) being carefully extracted from a nearly invisible net.



Preparing specimens of Jocotoco antpittas (Grallaria ridgelyi), a species discovered only in 1997. The first examples were found in southwestern Ecuador. The specimens being prepared in this photo were collected in northern Peru in 2006, a first record for the country, expanding the bird’s known range (and hopes for its survival).


Despite the large number of LSUMNS expeditions carried out in Peru, there are still poorly studied areas. One of these is the Department of Tumbes in northwestern Peru, bordering with Ecuador to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Tumbes had been studied only briefly, by small expeditions, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In order to sample the variety of habitats in Tumbes, which includes mangrove, deciduous, arid, and humid forests, and to investigate the high number of endemic species found there, a large expedition was conducted in the summer of 2009. The Tumbes River runs through most of these habitats between the Amotape Cordillera and the Pacific Ocean.


Looking into a large mirror at the zoo founded by Miguel Álvarez del Toro at Tuxtla Gutiérrez, you will see, along with your own visage, these words: THE MOST DANGEROUS AND DESTRUCTIVE SPECIES IN THE WORLD (Navarro and Morales-Pérez 1999, 226). True enough: There is no doubt that Homo sapiens has done a fairly comprehensive job of overexploiting and thereby destroying much of the natural fecundity that flourished in the New World. Habitat destruction is, and will likely remain, the greatest threat to wildlife, and it is hard to see how the interests of birds will compete effectively against the needs of a growing population for food and a place to live. Certainly, the creatures of our continent have not been spared in this same competition, leaving North Americans with little claim to the moral high ground when advocating conservation in Latin America. Perhaps the example of Miguel Álvarez del Toro, and the reserve at El Triunfo, offer a glimmer of hope for the future. A special place, identified and prized by a local scientist, then protected by local initiative. A place that attracts visitors from around the world, thus becoming a source of income for the residents of the community. A place that by virtue of saving a few charismatic species, such as horned guans and resplendent quetzals, also provides a haven for the numberless other species of plants and animals that form the ecological community of a cloud forest. All of this, of course, may just be wishful thinking; perhaps it is inevitable that one day, as Álvarez del Toro feared, the push to develop and exploit a mountain valley will trump all other values. It happens all the time.


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The LSU Libraries thanks Tom Taylor for his extraordinary generosity in committing time and resources to make this publication and exhibition possible, and the Coypu Foundation, which continues John S. McIlhenny’s philanthropic dedication to wildlife and education through its support of this catalogue and exhibition.

. . . and Tom Taylor thanks Elaine Smyth, a valued friend for over thirty years, whose enthusiasm for the project has been matched by her perseverance in securing the resources needed to make it happen. Michael Taylor came to the rescue when my lack of German threatened to compromise the entries on the important German scientists; his research and writing have, in several instances, provided the first good accounts of these people in English. Everyone on the staff in Special Collections at LSU was unfailingly friendly and helpful, especially Leah Jewett; every visit to the library was a pleasure.

A number of ornithologists have helped me to write as if I actually know something about the subject, and saved me from any number of errors. I would especially like to thank Van Remsen, who helped in many ways, from beginning to end. Several people read all or part of the manuscript and offered suggestions and corrections, for which I am most grateful: Diego Calderon, Lloyd Kiff, Catherine Levy, Manuel A. Plenge, Robert Ridgely, John Rowlett, and W. P. Vellinga. Producing this catalogue was a collaborative effort. As always, I owe an enormous debt to Jill Mason for her skills as an editor, and to Bradley Hutchinson for his skills as a printer. Jace Graf helped design the binding. Except where noted the photographs from books are by Kevin Duffy, who did excellent work capturing the vivid colors of the original illustrations.

Finally, I wish to dedicate my work in this catalogue to Judy, my companion in journeys to wild and beautiful places.

Online exhibition design and editing by Leah Wood Jewett; content entry and editing by Vanessa Varin. Special thanks to Gina Costello, Robbie Gore, Sigrid Kelsey, and Brian Melancon for technical assistance; and to Tara Z. Laver, Hans Rasmussen and Christina Riquelmy for assistance with editing.