New Book from the Museum: Extraordinary Birds

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This article is excerpted from the new book Extraordinary Birds: Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library (Sterling Signature, 2013), which comes with 40 ready-to-frame bird prints. The monograph was edited by Paul Sweet, collections manager in the Museum’s Department of Ornithology.

Extraordinary Birds: selections from the AMNH rare book collection

In 1687, the young Hans Sloane—later a preeminent collector whose collections formed the foundation of the British Museum after his death in 1753—traveled to the West Indies from London as physician to the newly appointed governor of Jamaica, the Duke of Albemarle. The duke died soon after arriving, but Sloane spent 15 months in the islands collecting specimens of plants and animals and documenting their natural histories.

On his return to England, he produced his two-volume publication A voyage to the islands Madera, Barbardos, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica. This remarkable account of his travels and observations of West Indian natural history is illustrated by many fine prints, mostly by the Flemish engraver Michael van der Gucht, based on drawings made from life by the Reverend Garret Moore. These include “the largest white Gaulding,” seen here.

White Heron Extraordinary Birds
The largest species of White Heron, seen here, is known as the Great Egret. This illustration dates from the late 17th century. 
© AMNH/C. Chesek

“Gaulding” or “gaulin” is the West Indian colloquial name for herons and is still in use today.

During Sloane’s time, there were four species of white herons in Jamaica; the largest is now known as the Great Egret. This is a widespread species, found in warmer areas worldwide. In the United States during the 19th century, large numbers were slaughtered for their plumes, which were used as women’s hat decorations. Laws passed to protect this and other species were some of the first in bird conservation—the Great Egret is now the symbol of the Audubon Society.

Learn more about the book at the Museum Shop.

A version of this article appears in the Winter 2014 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.