The preeminent American ornithologist before Audubon, Alexander Wilson (1766–1813) was born in Paisley, Scotland. In his youth he was a weaver of silk. Later, he became a published poet and satirist and was jailed for his protest poetry on the poor treatment of textile mill workers. After his release from prison in 1794, he immigrated to the United States.
Establishing himself in Philadelphia, initially he worked as an engraver, peddler, and weaver. In 1802 he became a teacher near Bartram’s Garden, a center for the scientific study of nature established by the foremost naturalist in the United States, John Bartram. There he met Bartram’s son, William Bartram, who inspired Wilson and taught him to identify birds. In 1803, Wilson began to explore the countryside “to make a collection of all [the] finest birds.” In 1808 he returned to Philadelphia to publish American Ornithology, which Wilson illustrated from specimens and wrote, introducing Linnaean taxonomy to ornithology in America.
Alexander Wilson’s pioneering folio ushered in a new era in American ornithology, earning him the title “Father of American Ornithology.” Far more accurate and painterly than those who preceded him, his engravings and descriptions were well recognized during his lifetime. Wilson’s elegant compositions may be recognized for their depiction of bird forms engaged in typical behavior within simplified habitats that are deliberately stylized patterns designed for engraving.
American Ornithology depicts 320 figures of American birds, representing 262 species. Of these, 39 were new to science, and 23 were sufficiently described to differentiate them from the European species with which they had been confused. Engraved by Alexander Lawson, the folio comprises 76 hand-colored plates printed on wove paper in nine volumes. Wilson never recovered from his last exhausting river crossing in pursuit of an elusive specimen. He died in 1813 at age 47, one volume short of completing American Ornithology.