Book review: Alexander Wilson by Edward Burtt and William Davis Jr

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ASK Americans who was the father of ornithology in their country and most will reply “John James Audubon”, the artist whose The Birds Of America is one of the most beautiful (and expensive) books in the world.

Alexander Wilson

by Edward Burtt and William Davis Jr

Harvard University Press, 450pp, £25.95

A more accurate answer is the subject of this study, the Paisley-born weaver Alexander Wilson, who emigrated to the US at the age of 30 in 1796.

Wilson was also a poet influenced by Burns, and while still in Scotland his poetry led him into conflict with the authorities after he was accused of stoking unrest in the mills. Yet it is as the author of American Ornithology – a nine-volume work that aimed to list every species in the US – that Wilson will be remembered.

Wilson’s books were revolutionary. He wrote his descriptions of birds from observing them in the field, rather than looking at stuffed birds in collections.

It was an approach that helped promote the adoption of the scientific method in the US. He also penned his narrative so that readers would be able to identify birds themselves, making it the first field guide – though many birdwatchers were likely to shoot birds before the advent of modern binoculars or telescopes.

While this book’s a little academic in places, and there’s some confusion between “British” and “English”, Wilson’s life and his struggle to publish American Ornithology are fascinating.