Preconfederation Ornithology

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

Alexander Milton Ross



Dr. Alexander Milton Ross was a Canadian medical doctor, abolitionist and naturalist, born in Belleville, Ontario in 1832. A great deal of what is known of Ross is the result of his own writings. It is hard not to want to discount much of what is known about him since his writings contain an overwhelming element of self-promotion and exaggeration. Ross attended school in Belleville but was apparently forced to leave with the death of his father. His early interest in natural history appears to have come from his mother, Frederika Grant. She was the youngest daughter of John Grant, a soldier in the British army who was killed in fighting at Niagara during the War of 1812-1814.

About 1848, at the age of 16, Ross moved to New York City where he secured a position as a compositor on the Evening Post. In 1851 he began the study of medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. To support himself he continued to work for the Post. Ross graduated in 1855 and by the following year he had become actively involved in the abolitionist movement in the United States. Later, during the civil war, he served for a time as a surgeon in the Union army.

In 1865 Dr. Ross, now in his early 30s, returned to Canada after an absence of 17 years. According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Ross did not practice as a physician until 1875 when he applied and received a license from the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons.

It may have been during this ten year period that one can speculate that Ross was actively involved in collecting, studying and writing about the flora and fauna of Canada. As a physician he had a basic knowledge of science and natural history but otherwise he may have been largely self-taught. It is not known what field experience or collections he may be undertaken over his many years in the United States. It is also not known how he may have supported himself during his early residence in Toronto. The fact is that within ten years of his arrival back in Ontario he published the following works on Canadian natural history:

  • Birds of Canada (1871); Second Edition (1873)
  • Butterflies and Moths of Canada (1873)
  • Flora of Canada (1873)
  • Forest Trees of Canada (1874)

Once he started practicing medicine again Ross published two additional works:

  • Ferns and Wild Flowers of Canada (1877)
  • Mammals, Reptiles, and Fresh-water Fishes of Canada (1878)

Of most interest to Canadian ornithology is Ross's Birds of Canada. Prior to his book the only known attempt at a Birds of Canada was James LeMoine's two volume Ornithology du Canada (1860, 1861) written in French. LeMoine's "Canada" was almost exclusively Ontario and Quebec. His work drew primarily on his extensive knowledge of Quebec birds and the bird records of Thomas McIlwraith from southern Ontario. LeMoine also included a very limited number of seabirds from the Gaspe, Newfoundland and Labrador. His Ornithologie includes significant research on ranges of birds as well as many personal anecdotes in his descriptions of about 180 species of Canadian birds. One has the impression that Ornithologie is a compendium of his own personal knowledge of the birds he knows.

Ross sought reviews for his Birds from some of the leading newspapers of the day. Perhaps most interesting were comments from the Irish Canadian:

This work is designed, as the author states in his preface, to supply in some measure a want long felt by those interested in the study of Canadian Ornithology.... Dr Ross has in his collection (which has been made in this province) specimens of almost all the birds which he describes.......The first edition of the work is drained to the last copy -- a fair criterion  of its popularity and usefulness...

Bird Specimen

Despite including scientific names, all of his descriptions covering a total of 296 species and sub-species were brief. All the species found in Canada had already been scientifically described, or attributed to Canada by other authors. As he notes in his preface his work was conceived more as a popular ornithology directed at interested amateurs.

In addition to descriptions, and about fifty nicely rendered wood-block sketches such as the Common Nighthawk, shown above, drawn faithfully from an image in Wilson's American Ornithology. Ross provided limited ranges (usually Canada) as well as inconsistent migration dates and patterns which showed minimal knowledge or use of the extensive literature available. However, his work appears to have contemporary knowledge of food sources, preferred nesting locations, and details of clutch size and egg colour.

Indeed the assemblage of all the material must have taken a considerable amount of time and represents a genuine effort to impart knowledge to English Canadians of their bird life for the first time. While lacking the personal touch of LeMoine, Birds represents the first effort to bring together knowledge of all species which inhabit Canada, although the 1871 version deals primarily with the birds of Ontario. Comments from the Mail newspaper indicate that the print run for first edition may have been one thousand copies. A second edition, published in 1873 was a little more ambitious including a list of species found in western Canada. Ross's two works were followed by C-E Dionne's Les Oiseaux du Canada, published in French in 1883. Like Birds, Oiseaux was a very incomplete work. See a separate paper on Dionne under Quebec.

Until the publishing of Montague Chamberlain's much more complete and scientifically accurate Catalogue of Canadian Birds in 1887, Ross's and Dionne's volumes were the only publications of their type available. It is interesting to note that Chamberlain assembled his Catalogue in the 1880s from his own knowledge of Canadian birds and his extensive list of contacts from Newfoundland to British Columbia. However barely fifteen years after Ross's Birds it is interesting to note that Alexander Milton Ross is not among Chamberlain's network. Like Ross and Dionne, Chamberlain did not publish a Bibliography.

Chamberlain included comments on Ross's Birds in his review M. Dionne's "Les Oiseaux du Canada" in The Canadian Sportsman and Naturalist 3 in 1883. Excerpts from his scathing review are presented below:

M. Dionne's book exhibits clear evidence of the influence of another mischievous work, "The Birds of Canada", by A. M. Ross, M.D., &c., &c., &c., &c. The long list of et ceteras by which this author sought to impress upon his readers his eminent qualifications for writing a standard work did not save it from being dismissed by the English "Zoological Record," with this severe sentence, "The text is valueless." [This quote comes from Elliott Coes's assessment of Ross's work in *Birds of the Colorado Valley* 1878, p. 688] Every one must admit that such books are worse than merely "valueless," for, placed in the hands of young students who cannot discriminate between the good and the bad which they contain, they become mis-leading. This matter is of such importance that I ask a little space to quote a few examples from these books by way of illustrating their character. I will quote from both, for the one is such a close imitation of the other that the original must be examined to determine the value of the copy.

In the first place, the titles of the books are misleading, for it can not be correctly said of either that they contain accounts of the birds of Canada as such. Dr. Ross' work refers almost wholly to a part of Ontario, the few references to the maritime Provinces, chiefly drawn from Audubon, and the list of species found in Manitoba and British Columbia, which is appended to the second edition, do not redeem the body of the work from its purely local character, and to give it a title bearing a wider significance is to handicap it with a pretension which its contents will not sustain, and will also cause confusion to inexperienced readers....... To state, as Dr. Ross does, that the Brown Thrasher "is one of our most common birds," that the House Wren "arrives from the south the first week in May," that the Evening Grosbeak ""is a visitor," and to make no further mention of the localities in which they occur, in a book entitled "The Birds of Canada," is calculated to create a false impression; for though all this may apply to Ontario, it does not apply to New Brunswick or Nova Scotia, as these birds have never been found there.......... That many of the statements made would be correct if applied to prescribed districts I will not dispute; but I submit it is a mistake to suppose that what applies to the fauna of one limited locality must perforce be equally Applicable to the entire Dominion. Each faunal area, and there are a number of such divisions in Canada, has a bird-life peculiar to itself; even though some species having a much wider range of distribution than others, are found in several areas. But there are in these books other errors of a more serious nature than the question of distribution. For instance, Dr. Ross gives the color of the eggs of the Olive-backed Thrush as reddish brown, while leading authorities have pronounced them greenish blue, speckled with brownish. The same author states that the Hudson Bay Tit "nests in a shrub; eggs four; pure white." Not one of these details are correct.............

As I have before remarked, references are made in these books to numerous western species, without any indication of their range being given. Macgillivray's Warbler will serve as an example of these. The most eastern limit of the range of this species which is authentically recorded, is Dr. Cooper's report of finding it at Fort Laramie, in Wyoming Territory. Yet Dr. Ross makes the unqualified statement that "it breeds in Canada," by which he must mean, to be consistent with his other records, that it breeds in Ontario.

M. Dionne follows with an unsupported assertion, changed, by way of appearing original, to "rarely seen in Canada," and he copies the pattern so closely as to repeat an error which Dr. Ross made in describing the eggs as "flesh-colored." The best authorities describe them as of a pinkish-white ground color, but "marked and spotted with purple, lilac, reddish-brown and dark brown approaching black."....

It would take a large volume to point out all the errors which these two authors have made. I have picked out these few quite at random, but they will suffice to show how little reliance can be placed in anything which the books contain. Had they been content to publish what they had observed, or could have compiled from authentic sources, these writers would have rendered a valuable service to Canadian students and ornithologists at large, but the publication of these books must bring a blush to the cheek of every Canadian who realizes that those claiming to be eminent among our scientists are responsible for such miserable failures. It is time such work was stopped.

It is not known where Ross traveled to assemble his collection (mentioned in the Irish Canadian review), its size or breadth, or the details presented on the nesting habits of individual birds. In Birds, when discussing where the birds are found,there are very few references to major centres in southern Ontario where one might expect he would have visited. As a result there are single references to Ottawa, Niagara Falls and Goderich and none for some of the major population centres such as Kingston, Belleville, where he grew up, Hamilton, London, Guelph, Woodstock and Windsor.

As one might expect, since he seems to have been living in Toronto, birds associated with Toronto are mentioned on about a dozen occasions. Most frequent references are to the Don Marshes (described as "the marsh east of Toronto") and the Toronto islands. There are no references to Quebec and only scattered mentions, almost exclusively of seabirds, to Atlantic Canada: Gulf of St. Lawrence (4); New Brunswick (4); Nova Scotia (10); Newfoundland (4) and Labrador (7). One must conclude that when Ross mentions "Canada" he is mostly referring to Ontario, particularly southern Ontario. It seems unnecessary to point out that founding of Canada in 1867, Canada included the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario.

West of Ontario Ross mentions birds from Manitoba and British Columbia on nine occasions each. In his Second Edition, published in 1873, he includes a list of birds found in these two provinces. As he points out he included these provinces since they had recently joined Canada, Manitoba in 1870, British Columbia in 1871. No references are provided for the source of this list. Despite the many deficiencies, Ross's second edition of Birds must be recognized as the first attempt by a Canadian to provide a complete Canadian ornithology.

Ross's second edition of Birds had access many quality sources of published ornithological information. He made little effort to use them or to use the wealth of contacts available at the time from across the country.

One only has to point out the important 18th Century works by George Edwards, Thomas Pennant and John Latham, as well as key 19th Century works: Swainson and Richardson's Fauna Boreali Americana, Volume 2: The Birds (1831); Hall's Birds of the Montreal District (1861-2); LeMoine's Ornithologie de Canada (1861); McIlwraith's "Birds of the Hamilton District" and the 1860s publications of the Palliser Expedition to the Prairies and British Columbia. It is significant that Ross does not include a bibliography or references to any author in North American ornithology. As a result I has to guess at where Ross assembled the Canadian records for Birds.

Given the orientation towards southern Ontario one can assume that some of his "Canada" records include his own. There is enough evidence in the text about birds in the Toronto region to suspect that Ross may well have done some field work locally. It is likely however he also made use of the extensive bird collections and records assembled by May and William Hincks at the University of Toronto and the records of Thomas McIlwraith from the Hamilton area. This is obviously the case with his inclusion of many accidental records he could never have recorded himself.

Details on Atlantic Canada birds are essentially of seabirds. Since there is no evidence that he traveled there, his records are likely from published records from Audubon and Americans like Bryant and Cabot who visited the Gulf of St Lawrence and New Brunswick in the 1850s and published their findings in Volumes 6 and 8 of the Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History. Details from western Canada are most likely from the Palliser Expedition to western Canada. The completeness of details on the clutch size and egg colour likely came from Thomas Brewer's North American Oology published in 1857. It appears that the unattributed wood-block artwork may have been from Thomas Bewick's British Birds. Other artwork appears to be from Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology.

Spencer Fullerton Baird, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was keenly interested in the fauna, especially the ornithology of North America. Between the 1850s and 1870s he developed a huge network of correspondents who supplied him with information. His Canadian correspondents included naturalists from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. His extensive Ontario list contains prominent as well as obscure members of his network. Alexander Milton Ross is not on Baird's list.

Ross was a great promoter. It was natural that he sought out positive reviews and approval for this book from of many of the key naturalists and educators, especially in Ontario. Individuals who responded and recommended his work, and some of their selected comments include:

  • Rev. Egerton Ryerson, Chief Superintendent of Education of Ontario
  • Rev. John McCaul, President of University College and Professor of Classical Literature, Logic and Rhetoric
  • J. W. Dawson, Principal and Professor of Natural History, University of McGill College, Montreal wrote: "Your interesting book on 'Birds' will eminently advance the interests of popular Natural History"
  • Rev. N. Burwash, Professor of Natural Sciences and Chemistry, University of Victoria College, Cobourg
  • H. Alleyne Nicholson, Professor of Natural History, University College, Toronto
  • N. B. Dupuis, Professor of Natural History, Queens College, Kingston
  • Daniel Wilson, Professor of History and English Literature, University College, Toronto wrote: "It supplies such a book of reference as was much needed, in a neat and handy form, and I am sure will be highly acceptable to Canadian Ornithologists."
  • John Macoun, Professor of Botany and Geology, Albert University, Belleville wrote: "I have gone over it carefully, and am satisfied it will be exceedingly useful."

Given the savage review of Birds by Chamberlain one might conclude that the knowledge of Canadian birds by the English-speaking literati of Ontario and Quebec was negligible. However it is probably also evident that Ross did not seek out the opinion of any prominent contemporary Canadian and American ornithologist.

In 1875 Ross wrote The Collected Writings of Canadian Natural History in which he included his Birds and Butterflies books virtually unchanged. In the preface to Birds he wrote: "I have in my collection a specimen of each bird described, except a few of the sea birds that frequent the coasts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia." He also included an article in the Phrenological Journal of 1874 which made even more outlandish claims:

.... the extent of his labours may be inferred from the fact that he has personally collected a male and a female specimen of every bird, both native and migratory known to visit the several provinces that now compose the Dominion of Canada, and numbering in all three hundred and twenty three distinctly different species; and he has obtained also the eggs of each species that breeds in Canada. His observations have also been directed to the materials of which the nests of each species are composed, and the style of architecture and position for building peculiar to each species.

It is interesting to examine Ross's Butterflies and Moths of Canada for additional insight into his work. In Butterflies he lists 33 species of butterfly and suggests that his collection contained specimens from Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. There is no evidence in his work of any reference to Quebec or New Brunswick and only one to Toronto. This is in regard to what he called the Queen of Spain (Monarch). In this sense Butterflies like Birds appears again like a compilation from other sources.

Peter Hall, author of Butterflies of Canada kindly reviewed Ross's Butterflies. He offered the following insight into Ross's work:

The write ups of the species are short with no real specific information. It is more a curiosity than a reference book. The most interesting point is the names used as I think he made most of them up. There are a few like the Painted Lady that still hold but he refers to the Monarch as the Queen of Spain Butterfly and Milbert's Tortoiseshell as The Red Empress. I have never come across these. Some are also of English origin such as Camberwell Beauty.

In conclusion Birds of Canada was a very modest first attempt in English to bring together a description of all the birds to be found in Canada. There is very limited information on their ranges and details on their nesting. It is obvious that Birds has many deficiencies which make it of little scientific value to Canadian ornithology. What it does represent is an amateurish attempt at the first compilation of all Canadian birds in one book.

Finally, in his later years Ross appears to have become a member, or honorary member, of many scientific societies in North America and Europe. The list is printed in his second edition of Birds and presented here mostly as a curiosity. Ross died, at the age 64 in Detroit.


  • Ballstadt, Carl. 1990. Ross, Alexander Milton. Dictionary of Canadian Biography XII: 1891-1900. Toronto: University of Toronto Press
  • Chamberlain, Montague. 1887. A Catalogue of Canadian Birds with Notes on the Distribution of the Species. St. John: J & A McMillan.
  • Hall, Archibald. 1861. On the Mammals and Birds of the District of Montreal. The Canadian Naturalist and Geologist 6. Montreal: B Dawson & Son.
  • Hall, Archibald. 1862 On the Mammals and Birds of the District of Montreal. The Canadian Naturalist and Geologist 7. Montreal: Dawson Brothers
  • LeMoine, J. M., 1861. Ornithologie du Canada, Second Edition. Part One. Quebec: J. T. Brousseau. Part Two. Quebec: E. R. Frechette
  • Richardson, Sir John, William Swainson. 1831. Fauna Boreali-Americana. Part II, The Birds. London: John Murray
  • Rose, George Maclean. 1888. Alexander Milton Ross. The Canadian Cyclopedia. Toronto: Rose Publishing Company
  • Ross, A. M. 1871 Birds of Canada, First Edition, Toronto: Henry Rowsell
  • Ross, A. M. 1873 Birds of Canada, Second Edition, Toronto: Rowsell and Hutcheson
  • Ross, A. M. 1873. The Butterflies and Moths of Canada, Toronto: Rowsell and Hutcheson
  • Ross, A. M. 1874. The Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated 4. New York: Samuel R. Wells
  • Ross, A. M. 1875. The Collected Writings on Canadian Natural History. Toronto: Rowsell and Hutcheson
  • Smithsonian Institution Archives. Spencer Fullerton Baird Index of Correspondence 1850s -- 1870s Canadian Naturalists: re-arranged by Canadian province or territory (p. 22-26)