Library Pathfinder Series

American Ornithology

Content Detail

The Morton Arboretum has been collecting rare botanical books and artwork since it was first established a century ago in 1922. Suzette Morton Davidson, former chair of The Morton Arboretum’s Board of Trustees and granddaughter of Joy Morton, took great interest in the Sterling Morton Library and in botanical art and books. Davidson was instrumental in the growth and development of the library’s special collections, so much so that the library’s Suzette Morton Davidson Special Collections were named in her honor. The library’s Rare Publications Collection consists of more than 5,000 volumes, including journals, nursery catalogs, and books. 

Among the Library’s Rare Publications Collection is American Ornithology by Scottish poet and naturalist, Alexander Wilson. Considered to be the “Father of American Ornithology”, Wilson emigrated to the United States of America from Scotland in 1794, originally landing in Delaware and eventually making his way to Grays Ferry in Philadelphia. Fascinated with his new home’s expanse of nature, Wilson shifted his intellectual interests from politics to natural history. He would eventually befriend famed botanist and Philadelphian William Bartram, who would encourage him to deviate his interests from poetry to sketching and painting. Inspired by William Bartram’s book Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida (1791), where Bartram listed 215 species of North American birds (the most complete list of North American birds at the time), Wilson kindled an interest in learning all he could about America’s birds. This interest would soon compel Wilson to develop his own published account on the birds of America.

After being hired as an assistant editor in the publishing house of Bradford and Inskeep, Wilson was quick to propose the creation and publication of his desired work on American birds. The publisher agreed to publish American Ornithology under the condition that Wilson secure 200 subscribers to ensure the financial success of the endeavor. Starting in 1808, Wilson set out on a series of trips intending to search for both birds and subscribers to his tentative publication. By 1809 he had secured 250 subscribers, solidifying the publication of the first volume of American Ornithology

In his lifetime, Wilson would publish eight volumes of American Ornithology, with the final volume finished by his friend, George Ord, after Wilson’s sudden death in 1813. Wilson’s nine-volume American Ornithology was the most important work on American ornithology before Audubon. In the work he illustrates 268 bird species, including 26 birds previously unknown to scientists. Additionally, Wilson was the first ornithologist to use the Linnaean system of naming to classify bird species. Despite the publication’s narrow scope due to Wilson’s limited travels and untimely death, it was still the most extensive work on American birds during its time. Today, there are five birds named after Wilson: Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata), Wilson’s warbler (Cardellina pusilla), Wilson’s plover (Charadrius wilsonia), Wilson’s phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor), and Wilson’s storm-petrel (Oceanites oceanicus).

The nine volumes under the care of the Sterling Morton Library contain 76 aquatint engravings with excellent color. These works can be viewed by appointment at the Sterling Morton Library. If visiting the library in person is not an option, all nine volumes belonging to the Smithsonian Library are digitized and available online via Biodiversity Heritage Library



  • Burtt, Edward. Alexander Wilson: the Scot who founded American ornithology. Cambridge, Massachusetts : The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013.
  • Ellis, E. (2021, July 22). Alexander Wilson: America’s first Birdman. Oak Spring Garden Foundation.


Learn More

To learn more about birds and ornithology, explore these resources made available by the Sterling Morton Library.

  • On ACORN you can find a gallery titled Birds of The Morton Arboretum, featuring images, articles, and documents that highlight some of the birds that can be seen at The Morton Arboretum. 
  • The library’s circulating collection also contains resources that can assist you in learning more about birding and ornithology. Browse titles on the library’s catalog.
  • Titles in the library’s ebook collection can be accessed immediately when you sign in using your Sterling Morton Library card.