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AVES: A Survey of the Literature of Neotropical Ornithology


Among Neotropical birds there are a good number that show unusual patterns of distribution. Populations are isolated from one another by hundreds of miles, or thousands of feet in elevation, with no obvious explanation. Theories have been advanced to account for this, most involving recurring changes in habitat over long periods of time. Recently, [popup url=”″] (Read more…)[/popup]


Biography: “For his time, however, he was an eminent man.” That was Alexander von Humboldt’s appraisal of Molina as a naturalist (Ronan 2002, 194); if it is faint praise, it is probably a useful corrective to the more laudatory assessments that came later. The usually hard-headed Elliott Coues, for instance, calls Molina’s Saggio sulla storia naturale del Chili [popup url=”″] (Read more…)[/popup]

Saggio sulla storia naturale del Chili. Bologna: Stamperia di S. Tommaso d’Aquino,1782. Small 8vo. Folding map. (Wood 469; Zimmer 440; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)The first edition of this work was published anonymously in Bologna in 1776. Molina compiled this revised edition after the fortuitous return of his notes on natural history that had been confiscated when he left Chile in 1767. He made no revisions to the bird section, however, which remained unchanged until the last revised edition appeared in 1810. Whatever the book’s shortcomings, it is the earliest reliable source of information about the region’s natural history. The bird accounts were exceeded by those in Friedrich Heinrich Kittlitz’s Über einige Vögel von Chili, published in 1830, and completely superseded by A. O. Des Murs’s description of over 250 species of Chilean birds, incorporated into Claudio Gay’s Historia fisica y politica de Chile (1844-71), which draws from all earlier accounts of the region’s birds.


Biography: Vieillot is hardly a household name, unless one happens to be deeply involved with avian taxonomic issues, in which case the abbreviation “Vieill.” after a bird’s binomial name, denoting Vieillot as the first describer of the species, will be familiar. In the brief time he was active – roughly 1800 to 1825 – he described 387 currently valid species, [popup url=”″](Read more…)[/popup]

Image: Image by Jean Baptiste Audebert, published in Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot’s Oiseaux dorés ou à reflets métalliques (Paris, 1800-02). French color printing of this period was technically brilliant, but the formal style – resembling that of Napoleonic portraiture – is not well suited to birds. Also, with little knowledge of the habitat or habits of the birds he drew, Audebert could do little more than pose them on sticks.

Oiseaux dorés ou à reflets métalliques. Paris: Desray, 1800-1802. 2 volumes. Folio. 190 color-printed engraved plates. (Anker 14; Mengel 93; Wood 206; Zimmer 17; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

This splendid folio, “one of the most beautiful books of its era” (Sitwell, Buchanan, and Fisher 1990, 15), features hummingbirds, jacamars, dacnises, chlorophonias, and euphonias from the Neotropics, plus sunbirds from Africa and birds of paradise from New Guinea. Indeed, a more apt title might be “Fancy Birds from Around the World.”

Vieillot created the book in collaboration with the artist Jean Baptiste Audebert, who had mastered a special technique for printing in reflective colors. Audebert died in 1800, before the work was complete, so Vieillot was responsible not only for the text, but also for printing the plates according to Audebert’s methods. The results are stunning if a bit stiff. Sometimes the French Napoleonic style cannot capture the evanescent nature of darting birds; they are perched, in erect poses, as if frozen (or, as was more literally likely, stuffed) in place.

FÉLIX DE AZARA (1746-1821)

Biography: 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 [popup url=”″] (Read more…)[/popup]

Image: “Surucua” appearing in Azara’s Voyages dans l’Amérique Méridionale.

Voyages dans l’Amérique Méridionale . . . depuis 1781 jusqu’en 1801 . . . publiés d’après les manuscrits de l’auteur, avec une notice sur sa vie et ses écrits, par C. A. Walckenaer; enrichis de notes par G. Cuvier . . . Suivis de l’histoire naturelle des Oiseaux du Paraguay et de La Plata . . . traduite . . . et augmenté d’un grand nombre de notes, par M. Sonnini. Paris: Dentu, 1809. 4 volumes: 3 volumes, 8vo, plus 4to atlas volume. 35 plates, 4 of birds; some copies (as at LSU) have hand-colored plates. (Wood 214; Zimmer 28; McIlhenny Collection, LSU.)

Azara’s account of Paraguay’s birds was first published, in Spanish, in Madrid in 1802-05, then reprinted, in Sonnini’s French translation, as volumes 3-4 of this Paris edition. The Spanish edition is quite rare. There was no contemporary Spanish edition of the narrative portion of Azara’s work, and none appeared until an obscure edition was published in Montevideo in 1846. Basically, the Spanish were not much interested in Azara, and, although his work was published in Paris, “Azara was not French, and the French had no stake in furthering his reputation” (Beddell 1975). Beddell (1983b) has carefully worked out the significance of Azara’s efforts: “Azara described 448 birds . . . This number is reduced to 381 when duplications of sex, age, and plumage are taken into account (8 remain unidentified), and 178 of them are the types upon which the scientific names are based, the large majority having been named by the ornithologist Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot, who had supervised the illustrations of birds for Sonnini’s translation” (p. 228).