FÉLIX DE AZARA (1746-1821)
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 as part of an effort to determine disputed boundaries between Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Río de la Plata region. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the Portuguese were not much interested in the project, with the result that Azara ended up with a lot of time on his hands – twenty years, as it turned out – “forgotten by my friends, without books or rational conversation, and traveling continually through immense and terrifying wildernesses and forests, communicating only with the birds and wild beasts” (Beddell 1983b, 225).
“Finding myself in an immense country, which seemed to me unknown . . . ,” he wrote, “I could scarcely occupy myself otherwise than with the objects nature presented to me. I found myself, really, almost forced to observe her, and I saw at each step new beings that caught my attention . . .” (Beddell 1975, 18). Although not trained as a naturalist, by 1783 he was studying and collecting birds and mammals. He made extensive notes on the habits, nesting, and distribution of the birds he encountered, and his achievements were nothing short of remarkable. “Many of [Azara’s claims] were regarded as fables,” said the later explorer Alcide d’Orbigny, and Azara’s contribution to South American ornithology was often overlooked, largely due to the indifference of his contemporaries. But d’Orbigny discovered Azara to be “an observer as accurate as he was conscientious”; Darwin cited Azara repeatedly in Voyage of the Beagle; and a century later, W. H. Hudson, in Birds of La Plata, praised Azara and made frequent use of his observations (Beddell 1975; 1983b, 228).