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May 7 Art Minute: Alexander Wilson, Plate 2: Wood Thrush (no. 1), American Robin (no. 2), White-breasted Nuthatch (no. 3), Red-breasted Nuthatch (no. 4), from American Ornithology, Vol. 1

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Alexander Wilson (American, born Scotland, 1766–1813), Plate 2: Wood Thrush (no. 1), American Robin (no. 2), White-breasted Nuthatch (no. 3), Red-breasted Nuthatch (no. 4), from American Ornithology, Vol. 1. Book with hand-colored etchings and engravings

John James Audubon’s large-scale prints of American birds, published as Birds of America (1827–38), are well-known and beloved. But they were published two decades after—and inspired by—Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology, or The Natural History of the Birds of the United States (1808–14). The publication featured illustrations and descriptions of 314 birds, including 26 species Wilson was the first to publish. Wilson’s systematic observations pioneered modern ornithology, the scientific study of birds. It was both the first comprehensive study of birds published in the U.S. and the first major scientific study of any subject by an American.

After moving to the United States from his native Scotland, Wilson’s childhood regard for birds deepened into fascination. He decided to embark on an ambitious project to document all the birds of the United States, which then encompassed 17 states and three territories. Wilson worked on this endeavor almost obsessively from 1803 until his death in 1813. He traveled, often on foot, more than 12,000 miles, going as far south as Florida and as far west as New Orleans to observe birds in the wild.