By Robert Robertson
Mark Catesby was born in England in 1683 and died there in 1749. Between 1712 and 1726 he twice visited present day Virginia all the way to Georgia, and the northern Bahamas (where he was the first naturalist). Between 1729 and 1747 he published the first edition of his The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, which comprises two volumes with 220 plates of hand-colored engravings. A precious copy is kept in the Academy Library’s Wolf Rare Book Room, and it is consulted by select scholars wearing white gloves. This article highlights some of the importance, significance, and beauty of this first and elaborately illustrated book on the natural history of southeastern North America.
Catesby’s work preceded that of the more famous John James Audubon (1725–1851) by about a century. Their natural history intentions were similar, and they both published sumptuous natural history books. They illustrated many of the same birds, but their styles were different and Audubon probably never saw a copy of Catesby’s work. Catesby was as much interested in flowering plants as he was in birds, fishes, and other animals. He often paired a plant and an animal on the same plate. Unlike Audubon, Catesby almost always portrayed a single bird, while Audubon commonly illustrated a small flock of the same species in flight or perched.
Equally interested in the economic importance and ecology of the organisms he observed, Catesby recorded edible birds and what they ate. Altogether, he illustrated 109 bird species. “Gestures” included in the illustrations demonstrate that he portrayed some of these alive. The descriptions often mention weights and feather colorations, suggesting that he was basing his illustrations on specimens that were newly collected. Some birds in his illustrations came out too thin, suggesting that they may not have been stuffed enough. An unexplained oddity in one illustration is a dead American “robin” (Turdus migratorius), a thrush, upside down on a stump.
Catesby observed three bird species now famously extinct: the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), and the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). His illustrations are reproduced here.
Catesby saw the Greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) in the Bahamas, where he killed and ate it (he proclaimed the flesh “delicate and nearest [resembling] that of an [English] partridge in taste.”) His illustration focusing on one flamingo head is shown artistically and with great accuracy. Both of Catesby’s flamingo plates have gorgonians (a type of marine animal) as incongruous out-of-water backgrounds. These are also called sea whips, and are related to corals and sea anemones (Catesby wrongly thought them plants).
Catesby apparently came to be the first person to infer that birds migrate, some for long distances. Several September nights, Catesby was at Andros, Bahamas, where he heard flocks of bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus). Coming from Cuba, they were flying northwards over Andros Island, then Andros, to rice fields in the Carolinas. In Cuba and the Carolinas, bobolinks were important human foods due to the rich rice diet of the birds.
For more information on these fascinating subjects, please consult the 1985 book, Catesby’s Birds of Colonial America, edited by A. Feduccia, and a chapter by S. Krech on the discovery of bird migration in a book, The Curious Mister Catesby: A “Truly Ingenious” Naturalist Explores New Worlds (University of Georgia Press, forthcoming March 2015).
Curator Emeritus of Malacology Dr. Robert Robertson is an acknowledged authority on several marine mollusk groups, and on the mollusks of the Bahamas. His extensive publication record stretches back to the beginning of his career at the Academy in the early 1960s. He is a great admirer of the work of Mark Catesby.
Images scanned from The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama islands containing the figures of birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, insects, and plants: particularly the forest-trees, shrubs, and other plants, not hitherto described, or very incorrectly figured by authors. Together with their descriptions in English and French. To which are added, observations on the air, soil, and waters, with remarks upon agriculture, grain, pulse, roots, &c. by Mark Catesby.
Carolina Parakeet: ANS Call Number QH41.C35, Volume 1, Plate no. 11
Ivory-billed Woodpecker: ANS Call Number QH41.C35, Volume 1, Plate no. 16
Red-Legged Thrush: ANS Call Number QH41.C35, Volume 1, Plate no. 30
Passenger Pigeon: ANS Call Number QH41.C35, Volume 1, Plate no. 23
Greater Flamingo: ANS Call Number QH41.C35, Volume 1, Plate no. 73
Greater Flamingo (Head): ANS Call Number QH41.C35, Volume 1, Plate no. 74