Preconfederation Ornithology

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

Robert Gourlay



Robert Gourlay was an agrarian radical who emigrated to Upper Canada in 1817. In his short sojourn he conducted a statistical survey which provided an unprecedented insight into the early economic and social life of the province. Gourlay was known to Charles Fothergill who also emigrated to Upper Canada in 1817. Gourlay quickly ran afowl of the colonial establishment. He was put in jail and left the province in 1819.

Gourlay published his Statistical Account of Upper Canada in London in 1822. Included in his Statistical Account were a series of sketches of the province. Sketch XIV was entitled “General List of Birds” followed by some bird notes. These notes occasionally include interesting material on individual bird behavior and distribution. There is a particularly nice description of the Ruffed Grouse.

Gourlay’s complete Sketch XIV has been transcribed verbatim. It is set out below. At the end of the transcription I have listed all birds mentioned by Gourlay with their modern common names when the can be identified.

Gourlay was no naturalist but his bird material is important. It is the first bird list published in Ontario.

BIRDS 1822:171-174

Sketch XIV

General List of Birds

  • Wild Turkeys
  • Geese
  • Ducks
  • Canadian Partridge
  • Quail
  • Robin
  • Loon
  • Whipperwill
  • Mocking Bird
  • Sawyer
  • Swan Cuckoo
  • Annual Migration of Birds.

A GENERAL list of the native Birds of Upper Canada, not technically classed or described, but enumerated by their popular names, in the common language of the country, is as follows: the turkey, goose, swan, duck, brant, water hen, partridge, quail, pigeon, robin, eagle, hawk, raven, crow, vulture, owl, whipperwill, bat, barn swallow, chimney swallow, martin, lark, heron, pelican, loon, gull, snipe, pluver, diver, kingfisher, blackbird, bluebird, blue jay, mockingbird, kingbird, woodpecker, woodcock, redbird, cuckoo, sawyer, sparrow, yellowbird, (172) snowbird, phebe, groundbird, hangbird, wren, and hummingbird.

Wild Turkeys do not frequent the bank of the St. Lawrence, or the north shore of lake Ontario, but are numerous (Footnote: They are now scarce: they weigh from 16 to 30 lbs. R. G.) from the head of that lake, westward, and south ward. They differ very little from domestic turkeys, except that they are generally larger.

Wild Geese are migrating birds, and can hardly be said to belong to any particular region, unless it be the northern islands and shores, where they lay their eggs and rear their goslings. In their annual tours to and from those shores and islands, they visit this country, and are killed and taken in considerable numbers.

Ducks of several species are found in plenty on the margin of the lakes, creeks, and streams. Among other species there is one called the Wood Duck, from its frequenting the woods, and perching and nesting on the branches of trees. In shape and size it agrees with other ducks; in flavour, its flesh is superior, as it feeds less on fish. Its plumage is variegated and brilliant.

The Partridge of Canada is the same as in New England, but in Pennsylvania, is known by the name of the Pheasant. He is not so large as a domestic hen; has a crest on his head, and a ruff on each side of the neck, varied with black stripes, and raised or depressed at pleasure; the plumage in general is brown, shaded with a ferruginous colour, and marked with black lines and bars; the colour of the under part is light, striped with (173) brown the tail is large, and when expanded resembles a fan, of an orange ground, delicately lined and barred with black, and having near the end a band of ash colour, another of black, and a white border; the legs and feet are booted with white feathers to the toes. The female is smaller than the male: has neither crest nor ruff, and is sometimes mistaken for a different species of bird. The cock partridge has a singular habit of drumming, as it is termed. He stands on a stump or log, and begins to beat with his wings, once in about two seconds of time, repeating the beats quicker and quicker, until they run into one undistinguishable sound continued for a minute or two. It is often heard half a mile, and guides the listening hunter to his game. The flesh of the partridge is white and delicate, but rather dry.

The Quail of Canada is known by the same name in New England; but in Pennsylvania is named the Partridge.

The Canadian Robin is the same as that in the United States, but larger than the English robin, not so red on the breast, and has some black feathers on the head and tail. Their notes also are different. The robin of this country appears to be a species of the English thrush.

The Loon is a water fowl, of a dark colour, with some specks of white. His feet are stiff, and not adapted to travelling on land. He is a diver, so quick and vigilant, that he is not easily shot: lives most of the time in the water, but sometimes flies. His flight is generally low, frequently brushing the water. At certain periods, usually before a storm, (174) he screams, in a shrill plaintive voice, like some person in distress; and is neither valuable nor mischievous, except in feeding on fish.

The Whipper Will, or Whip-poor- Will, is a bird of the evening, seldom seen or heard at any other time. His colour is dark, with whitish stripes; his shape like that of a hawk; his bill hooked, and his wings formed for swiftness. His appearance in the spring was considered by the Indians an indication of the proper season for planting their corn. He will sit on some fence, log, or stone, near a house, and repeat during a whole warm evening, a plaintive sound, imitating the three syllables of the word by which he is named.

The Mocking Bird, or Brown Thrasher, a species of the thrush, imitates the notes of many other birds and some beasts.

The Sawyer, or Whetsaw, is so named from the sound of his voice, which resembles the whetting of a saw.

The Swan is a rare bird: but has been seen and killed on the margin of lake Erie.

The Heron, vulgarly pronounced Hern, has such an affinity to the crane, that I cannot ascertain from the information of observers, whether the latter exists here or not.

The Canadian Cuckoo, is not the bird that bears that appellation in England, but has obtained the name here from an imitation of the sound of that word.

Among a number of Larks the proper Sky Lark is not found.

There are various species of Eagles, Hawks, (p. 175) Owls, Woodpeckers, Blackbirds, &c. and several small birds, without appropriate names. Most of the birds of this country reside here in summer only. In the autumn they resort to warmer climates, spend the winter there, and return in the spring.


Robert Gourlay, Statistical Account of Upper Canada Simpkin and Marshall, London 1822

Additional Editorial Notes

Gourlay’s complete list, based on the text in Sketch, includes 48 common birds. His names are presented below with their modern-day equivalents. Some of his names were usefully identified or guessed at based on the contemporary Charles Fothergill’s writings and Fothergill’s common names. Gourlay’s bat species has been removed. At least 30 of his birds are identifiable and a few others can probably be correctly guessed.

I have made no attempt to place Gourlay’s list in modern AOU Checklist order. His list is set out below in the order he presented and discussed them in his Introduction:Sketch:

Gourlay NameModern Common Name
Wild TurkeyWild Turkey
GooseCanada Goose
SwanTundra Swan*
DuckDuck species
Water henRail species
PartridgeRuffed Grouse
PigeonPassenger Pigeon
RobinAmerican Robin
EagleBald Eagle
HawkHawk species
RavenCommon Raven
CrowAmerican Crow
OwlOwl species
Barn swallowProbable Cliff Swallow**
Chimney swallowChimney Swift
MartinBank Swallow
LarkHorned lark
HeronHeron species
LoonCommon Loon
GullGull species
SnipeWilson’s Snipe
PluverPlover species
DiverDiving Duck species
KingfisherBelted Kingfisher
BlackbirdRed-winged Blackbird
BluebirdEastern Bluebird
Blue jayBlue Jay
MockingbirdBrown Thrasher
KingbirdEastern Kingbird
WoodpeckerWoodpecker species
WoodcockAmerican Woodcock
RedbirdScarlet Tanager
CuckooBlack-billed Cuckoo
SawyerSaw-whet Owl
SparrowSparrow species
SnowbirdJunco or Snow Bunting
PhebeEastern Phoebe
HangbirdAmerican Redstart or Baltimore Oriole
WrenWren species
HummingbirdRuby-throated Hummingbird
Wood DuckWood Duck

* Trumpeter Swan was extirpated from the lower Great Lakes before the fall of New France.

** Fothergill never recorded a Barn Swallow in Upper Canada until 1830 which suggests that the swallow in question is likely a Cliff Swallow