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AVES: A Survey of the Literature of Neotropical Ornithology

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).

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