Preconfederation Ornithology

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

18th Century

Early European explorers to the west coast of North America were looking for the terminus of the Northwest Passage. This mythical route was rumoured to connect the Atlantic to the Pacific. If such a passage existed it would have provided a much shorter route for European trade with China and the far East.

As early as 1578 Sir Francis Drake was instructed to look for it. On his around-the-world voyage he sailed up the west coast at least as far as California. In subsequent centuries Britain’s flimsy claim to the west coast of North America was mostly based on Drake’s landing in California. Also in the 16th Century Spanish adventurers conquered Central and South America. In the 17th century Spain sent three expeditions under the leadership of Cabrillo, Aguilar and Vizcaino to explore the Pacific Northwest and look for the Northwest Passage.

By the mid-18th century Spain had constructed an important naval base on the Pacific coast at San Blas, Mexico, and founded settlements at San Diego, Los Angles and San Francisco.

After the Seven Years War ended in 1763, France, Spain, Russia, Britain and other European countries turned their attention to commercial expansion. This lead to numerous conflicts among their foreign possessions.

European interest in the Pacific Northwest intensified with official expeditions mounted by Russia, France, Britain and Spain. Unlike earlier explorations, these were largely government-sponsored expeditions which included scientists. As a result the scientific community gained a much greater knowledge of the natural history and ornithology of the Pacific Northwest.

My interest of this research is primarily in Canadian ornithology. As a result the papers in this section focus on British Columbia. As birds know no political boundaries, and boundaries did not exist at this time, the ornithological history of Alaska, and the American states of Washington and Oregon is also briefly discussed.

In this section the following papers are presented in chronological order. Except for the early Russian expeditions, dates relate to the presence of the expeditions in the waters of the Northwest Pacific:

The Steller, Pallas and Billings Expeditions were mounted by the Russian government. None were known to have entered British Columbian waters. However, all three expeditions are included since each collected specimens, mostly from Alaska, that were first records for North America.

As a result of the discovery of Sea Otters in Alaska from earlier Russian explorations, Catherine II granted a trading monopoly to the newly-founded Russian-American Company (RAC) to exploit the resource. The Company founded its first settlement at Kodiak in 1786, followed by New Archangel in the Sitka area in 1799. By 1804, when Sitka become Company headquarters, the Russians were trading with aboriginal peoples living in settlements along the northern coast of British Columbia.

Cook visited Nootka, on Vancouver Island, and Alaska, in 1778. The published results of the expedition revealed the potential value of the Pacific marine fur trade. This attracted interest from British, Spanish, French, and American maritime traders. Alarmed by this activity, which threatened Spanish expansion into the Pacific Northwest, they built a fort at Nootka in 1789.

Image of HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery Image of HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery

The potential of the Pacific Northwest also attracted political and commercial interests in Canada and the United States. In Canada this resulted in the explorations of fur trader Alexander Mackenzie of the Northwest Company. In 1793 Mackenzie crossed the Rockies, descended the Bella Coola River, and reached the coast close to the south end of Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). In 1805 Lewis and Clark, in a government-sponsored expedition, crossed the Rockies and reached the Oregon coast near the Columbia River.

At this point I express my appreciation for the outstanding natural history research, in particular the ornithological research, carried out Michael Layland who in 2019 published his book In Nature’s Realm: Early Naturalists Explore Vancouver Island.

My ability to wade through the ornithological material, much not easily accessible, would not have been possible without his pioneering work. Readers will find in the following papers considerable reference to Layland’s In Nature’s Realm.

Layland offers an important assessment of the ornithological results of these late 18th century expeditions:

Several factors restricted wildlife sightings by the early Spanish expeditions and  those of Cook and Vancouver/Menzies. First, counting types of birds and other wildlife was just a peripheral reason for their being there. Since they visited only  during the summer months, they missed bird migration passages and winter-resident birds. They lacked the benefits of binoculars for distance viewing and shotguns for collecting,....

Although it is now known that many bird specimens were collected, the official results at the time were relatively meagre. The reasons are many and varied including: often hostile weather conditions; few records published at the time; documents in languages other than English were not translated; there was an official preference for collecting botanical rather than ornithological material. Specimens that were collected sometimes spoiled, were lost in transit or lost by poor preservation techniques. Scattered in various government archival facilities they sometimes remained uncatalogued or miscatalogued.

There were other reasons for a lack of ornithological material. These were more related to the expedition leaders who were expected to ensure the full results of their expedition were published. Cook was killed in Hawaii. The write-up of his expedition was left to James King. Alessandro Malaspina was jailed soon after his return to Spain. Most of the results of his expedition were lost and forgotten only to be published much later. In other cases the scientists responsible for collecting ornithological specimens suffered illness, were hindered in their work by ship-board conflicts, or showed their own selective bias based on their interests.

In recent years long-lost Spanish documents have been found and published which throw more light on the ornithology of the Pacific Northwest. Given the number of expeditions from many different countries, additional documents may eventually be discovered.

A Table entitled “Birds Recorded in British Columbia in the 18th Century” has been developed from an analysis of these expeditions. It is provided here. The list contains 45 species. It includes species collected, others merely observed. Additional information on these species will be found in the individual expedition papers.

Readers will note that many of the birds recorded are inhabitants of coastal areas. This reflects the largely maritime nature of the expeditions. The significant number of species collected or recorded by the Cook expedition reflects its seminal importance to the early ornithology of British Columbia.

As many of the papers show, research into the ornithological history of the 18th century in the Pacific Northwest is incomplete. I suspect that British Columbia offers the best chance for productive research in Canadian ornithology during this period. In the circumstances readers should view the current set of papers as a work-in-progress.


  • Beddall, Barbara G. "Scientific Books and instruments for an eighteenth century voyage around the world: Antonio Pineda and the Malaspina Expedition", Journal of Society for the History of Natural History 9 (2) pp 95-107
  • Dickenson, Victoria. 1992. First Impressions, European Views of the Natural History of Canada from the 16th to the 19th Century. Kingston: Agnes Etherington Arts Centre.
  • Gough, Barry M.. 1992. The Northwest Coast, British Navigation, Trade, and Discoveries to 1812. Vancouver: UBC Press
  • Layland, Michael. 2019. In Nature’s Realm: Early Naturalists Explore Vancouver Island Vancouver: Torchwood
  • Marshall, James Stirrat and Carrie Marshall. 1955. Vancouver’s Voyage. Vancouver: Mitchell Press.
  • Mackay, David. 1985. In the Wake of Cook, Exploration, Science & Empire, 1780-1801. London: Crom Helm
  • Merck, Carl. Edit. Richard A. Pierce. 1980. Siberia and Northwestern America, 1788-1792: the journal of Carl Heinrich Merck, naturalist with the Russian scientific expedition led by Captains Joseph Billings and Gavriil Sarychev/ translated by Fritz Jaensch. Kingston: The Limestone Press
  • Pabellon Villanueva. 1989. La Botanica en La Expedition Malaspina, 1789-1794. Madrid: Real Jardin Botanico
  • Real Jardin Botanico 1987. La Real Expedition Botanica a Nueva Espana, 1787-1803. Madrid: Real Jardin Botanico