Preconfederation Ornithology

A compilation of transcriptions relating to Canadian preconfederation ornithology, 1534-1867

Introduction to the Website

Welcome to our website which is devoted to making available papers written on the early ornithology of Canada.

My interest in this subject was first peaked in the late 1970s when my wife gave me an engraving of an American Bittern by George Edwards dated 1748 entitled “Bittern from Hudson’s Bay”. Having a strong interest in birds since childhood I never realized that American Bitterns ranged to Hudson’s Bay and that someone had collected, described and illustrated this bird at such an early date. This led to the search for other artwork and assembling a collection of nature art with a focus on Canadian birds. I also started collecting historical books on Canadian ornithology and quickly discovered that very little had been written about this early period except for the exceptional efforts of Stuart Houston, the pioneer of Canadian ornithological historians.

The next major development occurred in the mid-1990s, again as a result of my wife’s intervention. This time she placed on my desk a copy of a hand-written manuscript by Charles Fothergill which contained over 300 pages of descriptions of birds he collected and described during his residence in the Toronto region between 1817 and 1840. My wife had discovered this paper while researching for her PhD thesis which was published in 1998 as Drawn From Life: Science and Art in the Portrayal of the New World.

Reading through the Fothergill manuscript I was astounded at the detail and thoroughness of the writings and the fact that I had never heard of Fothergill. Within weeks I realized the unique importance of this work and determined to transcribe it in my spare time. I eventually learned of other hand-written unpublished volumes assembled through the efforts of James Baillie of the Royal Ontario Museum, and housed in the Thomas Fisher Library (TFRBL) at the University of Toronto.

Getting access to the Fothergill manuscripts was difficult from Ottawa, where I was living at the time. I arranged for the other key Fothergill bird volume, the Clendenan Manuscript to be microfilmed, one copy to TFRBL and one for my use. By the late 1990s I had transcribed all the Fothergill bird material. It soon became evident to me, however, that I would never understand where Fothergill fit into the ornithological history of Canada without researching all of it! This has become a lifetime commitment.

This website is a compendium of material I have written on the early ornithology of Canada. I had planned to conclude my research with the death of Fothergill in 1840. I soon discovered Montrealer, Mariane Ainley’s PhD thesis on the history of Canadian ornithology started in 1860. Reluctantly I decided that my research would conclude in 1860. This was a critical decision that I do not regret. The reality was that 1840 to 1860 period, which I later extended to 1867, Confederation, laid the foundation for professional ornithology in Canada. The volume of published material between 1841 and1867 increased my research exponentially.

Inevitably I have also found a smattering of important Canadian ornithological material published between 1868 and 1900. I have not researched this period in any particular depth. I think though the documents presented highlight the vast differences between Canadian and American ornithology so evident throughout the 19th century.

I am now far enough along in my work to understand where Fothergill fits into the history of Canadian ornithology. It now seems appropriate that I should develop a website and that Fothergill documents would be some of the first to appear. Eventually I hope to provide papers on the early ornithology in every province in Canada. In deference to the work of Stuart Houston on the Hudson’s Bay naturalists, I will not repeat his fine work.

Jeff Harrison