RSS Feed
AVES: A Survey of the Literature of Neotropical Ornithology

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: [popup url=”″] (Read more…)[/popup]

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 [popup url=”″](Read more…)[/popup]

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 [popup url=”″](Read more…)[/popup]

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 [popup url=”″] (Read more…)[/popup]

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.