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AVES: A Survey of the Literature of Neotropical Ornithology

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).

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