Brilliant and Remarkable Birds of Brazil

One of the joyous things about being a Librarian caring for special and rare collections is that you frequently find something remarkable and new to you in those collections. Add on the role of BHL staffer and this multiplies through digitization requests posted by users of BHL.

Approximately five years ago a request was posted for a book unknown to me by an artist I had not come across. The catalogue record flagged that it was a folio of coloured plates which consigned the volume to a long queue for bespoke in-house scanning. Time passed and circumstances changed, and earlier this year I was informed that it had been scanned and was ready for loading to BHL. We have access to a new cloud-based system for loading our scans into BHL, and this volume was to be our test subject. A little bit of research indicated that this volume was indeed remarkable.

Jean-Theodore Descourtilz was born in 1796 in France, one of eight brothers. His father was Michel Etienne Descourtilz (1775-1836), a physician and botanist who wrote Flore pittoresque et médicale des Antilles (1821-1829). Jean-Theodore produced the 600 plates which illustrate this tome. He seems to have been well travelled with evidence of being in Haiti aged 3 and in the Antilles by 1821 in order to make the illustrations for his father’s book. Jean-Theodore seems to have arrived in Brazil around 1826 and in 1831 had presented a manuscript on hummingbirds to the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. Histoire des Oiseaux-mouches Habitant des Districts de Rio de Janeiro, Bananal, San-Paulo, Macahé, Canta-Gallo et Ilha-Grande contained full colour illustrations and meticulous notes about the hummingbirds and their habitats. Two of the species were very rare and had been seen only twice by Descourtilz since he arrived in the country. The original paintings were sold by Christies in 1992 for over £85,000 and a facsimile edition was produced in 1960 as limited run entitled Beija-flores do Brasil- Oiseaux-mouches – orthorynques du Brésil.

In 1834, Descourtilz published his first book, Oiseaux brillans et remarquables du Brésil, containing 60 beautifully coloured plates lithographed by Callier. There appears to have been no title page or text in the published edition, however the copy held by the Natural History Museum has handwritten title page and a page of text for each illustrated species. It is notable that Descourtilz illustrated the birds on appropriate food plants and captured detailed information on habits, customs, behaviour and habitat as well as the usual dates and location. This book is one of the rarest tomes of birds of the Americas. The Sotheby’s sale catalogue for the H. Bradley Martin Ornithological Library sale in 1989 states there are only four known copies; the copy for sale from H. Bradley Martin, a copy in the Teyler Foundation in Haarlem (Netherlands), a copy in the British Library, and a copy in the Library of Congress. At this time I can state there is a copy in the Natural History Museum (from the Rothschild Collection) and the Teyler Foundation copy was used to produce a facsimile edition Pageantry of Tropical Birds. However I have been unable to confirm that copies are held by the British Library or the Library of Congress, and have no knowledge of the whereabouts of the H. Bradley Martin copy.

Between 1852 and 1856, Descourtilz’s book Ornithologie Brésilienne, ou Histoire des Oiseaux de Brésil, remarquables par leur plumage, leur chant ou leurs habitudes was published in four parts. Forty-eight of the plates were developed from Oiseaux brillans du Brésil, and it contains fifteen species and one genus previously undiscovered.

The National Museum of Brazil recruited Descourtilz in 1854, but unfortunately he died the next year from arsenic poising while preparing specimens for the Museum. Very little else is known about his life, and he is buried near Aracruz, near the coast of Brazil a few hundred kilometers north of Rio de Janeiro.

So five years on Oiseaux brillans du Brésil is available on the Biodiversity Heritage Library! Please enjoy it. You can browse the illustrations from this stunning work in Flickr.

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Alison Harding is the Librarian of the Ornithology and Rothschild Libraries of the Natural History Museum at Tring.