Preconfederation Ornithology

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

Louis-Pierre Vieillot


Louis-Pierre Vieillot was an important European systematist who had a great influence on the development of American and Canadian ornithology. In his early adult life he spent considerable time in the West Indies working in the family trading business. Through most of the 1770s and 1780s he appears to have been living in French Guyana in South America and on the island of Santo Domingo, in what is now the Haitian portion of the island of Hispanola. His work also seems to have taken him to other French colonies in the West Indies.

During this period Vieillot devoted considerable time to the study of North and South American birds wintering in the tropics, and resident tropical birds. About 1792 he moved to the eastern seaboard of the United States were he spent the next six years. Long before Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon, Vieillot traveled over most of the eastern United States studying and collecting birds. He also visited Nova Scotia and the Canadian frontier at Niagara Falls, although there is no evidence that he visited Upper Canada.

Before he arrived in the United States, Vieillot, unlike Wilson and Audubon, was familiar with European birds and with many North American species in their winter plumage, as a result of his years of residence and ornithological study in the West Indies. His purpose in traveling to the United States was two-fold. First, he wanted to pursue his business interests and at the same time seek refuge from the excesses of the French Revolution. Secondly, he came specifically to study the birds in their native habitats, to document their their migration routes and to collect specimens in their summer and juvenile plumages in order to better identify and classify them.

While lesser known than his more celebrated contemporaries, Vieillot was a prolific and gifted ornithologist who made significant contributions to the advancement of bird classification and ecology. His most important contributions to North American ornithological literature were his two-volume Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux de l'Amerique septentrionale published in Paris in 1807-1808, and the classification system and extensive ornithological descriptions he prepared for the second edition of Nouveau Dictionnaire d'Histoire Naturelle published between 1816 and 1819.

Two additional volumes of the Histoire Naturelle, half of his North American bird descriptions, were never published. Some of these detailed descriptions were eventually published in the Nouveau Dictionnaire. In recent years these long-lost manuscripts have been found and recently sold at auction. Eventually the details of these significant manuscripts will add to our knowledge of North American ornithology.

In North American ornithology, Vieillot is best known today for his first descriptions of 20 species of North American birds including such well-known birds as Virginia Rail, Warbling Vireo, Tree Swallow, House Wren and Cedar Waxwing. That he also made contributions to Canadian ornithology is evident in the records in his surviving publications. It is clear that he visited Nova Scotia on more than one occasion, and that he collected and studied birds during his visits. He recorded at least nine species from there in entries in Nouveau Dictionnaire. Some of these are first records for Canada. His description of Least Sandpiper from Nova Scotia is a first record for this species. If his journal of these trips, or the additional volumes of descriptions in Histoire Naturelle are examined, some of his other observations might be first records for Canada.

This paper examines Vieillot's importance to North American ornithology. It is evident he is of greater importance than the paucity of literature written about him might suggest. (See Oehser 1948.) The treatment of Vieillot is in stark contrast to the voluminous American writings on Wilson and Audubon. This paper examines what is now known about Vieillot's life and his work.

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