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AVES: A Survey of the Literature of Neotropical Ornithology

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…)


FRANCISCO HERNÁNDEZ (1514-1587)

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).

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