The First

He was the first to depict birds in conjunction with environmentally relevant plants.”

For all his great attainments, Mark Catesby was not really the first in everything, as his fans (among whom I count myself) would sometimes have it.

It is true that Catesby—always in the first instance a botanist—paid particular attention to the relations between the plants and the animals that depended on them, particularly the birds, as “having oftenest relation to the Plants on which they feed and frequent.” In composing his plates, he tells us, he made an explicit principle of “adapt[ing] the Birds to those Plants on which they feed, or have any Relation to.”

But Catesby, working in the first decades of the eighteenth century, was by no means the first to have struck upon such an idea.

More than a century before Catesby set out for Virginia and points south, the Bolognese polymath Ulisse Aldrovandi published an Ornithology in three volumes, the first in what would become one of the most massive natural histories ever, illustrated throughout with carefully prepared—and thoughtfully composed—woodcuts.

Like Catesby 125 years later, Aldrovandi set many of the birds in his illustrations in a botanical environment (and like Catesby, he forwent such backgrounds in the case of most water birds and birds of prey). Aldrovandi’s snowfinch, for example, is shown taking seeds from a millet stalk, identified as such in the caption of the illustration.

This is neither accidental nor merely decorative. In listing everything he has done for his reader, Aldrovandi conspicuously points out that

“I have furthermore included on the plates figures, drawn from life, of many plants and animals which these birds eat or otherwise profit from, or which help them preserve their health or recover from illness,” a neat summary of what Catesby would later call “relations.”

I know of no reason to suggest that Aldrovandi’s proto-ecological approach directly inspired Catesby’s. Instead, the two seem to have come up with the idea independently. But which of them carried it through better?

It’s an invidious question. Consider, though, the two authors’ treatments of the northern cardinal.

Aldrovandi’s bird perches on the branch of a chokecherry. Catesby’s emerges from a cluster of hickory leaves.

Flat and weird as Catesby’s engraving is, there is still a certain elegance to it, while the woodcut from Aldrovandi is so stiff as to almost belie the text’s claim that it was made after a living bird captive in Pisa.

All the same, though, Aldrovandi’s cardinal engages with the plant as a food source; it is as if the bird had looked up from feeding on the cherries and now waits for the observer to turn away. The bird in Catesby is grotesquely dwarfed by the surrounding leaves and hickory nuts, where it appears to have landed entirely by chance: there is no “relation” to be seen here.

It’s quite possible that others before Aldrovandi commissioned pictures intentionally illustrating the connection between birds and their botanical surroundings. What is certain, though, is that the tradition did not begin with the great Mark Catesby.