Celebrating the Birds of South America

In honor of the first Olympics to take place in Brazil, we are highlighting a book contributed by The Field Museum featuring birds of South America, Le Vaillant’s Histoire naturelle d’une partie d’oiseaux nouveaux et rares de l’Amerique et des Indes (1801). Among several titles chosen for digitization from the Field Museum Library’s impressive Edward E. Ayer Ornithological Library, housed in the collections of the Mary W. Runnells Rare Book Room, the entry for the volume in Catalogue of the Edward E. Ayer Ornithological Library characterizes it as “a work intended to supplement his Hist. Nat. des Oiseaux d’Afrique (q.v.) by describing and figuring birds not properly included in that work.”

Published in eight parts, Histoire naturelle d’une partie d’oiseaux nouveaux et rares de l’Amerique et des Indes was available as a folio with both colored and uncolored plates; large quarto with colored plates only; and quarto, with uncolored plates only. Originally 240 plates were proposed, but ultimately only 49 were produced of species of Bucerotidae from Malay Archipelago and Cotingidae from South America. The Field Museum’s copy is a folio with both colored and uncolored plates.

Born to French naturalists in Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana (Suriname), François Le Vaillant (1753-1824) began collecting bird specimens and building his own “cabinet” (or collection of specimens) before the age of ten. The family returned to France in 1763, where Le Vaillant would eventually make connections with ornithologists, collectors, and patrons who would become supporters of his work.

Le Vaillant was one of the first naturalists to independently embark on long voyages to study subjects in the wild. Previous naturalists had generally conducted such fieldwork as part of larger scientific expeditions. Not an illustrator in his own right, Le Vaillant relied on renowned artist Jacques Barraband (1768-1890) and emerging technologies of the day to produce his books. As authors Sitwell and Buchanan point out: “One interesting and sometimes confusing point is that some famous books are known by the author’s name and not the artist. Le Vaillant…whose name appears on most of the great French bird books of that same period, was a naturalist who travelled far, but never drew any of the pictures for his books…”

Barraband painted the birds that Le Vaillant secured on his voyages in watercolors, which were then assembled using an “elaborate mixture of processes – engraving, etching, colour printing and hand-finishing” (Lambourne). Le Vaillant was fortunate in that Napoléon Bonaparte had imitated a policy of Louis XIV to create a series of publications that were then “sent as presents to crowned heads, men of science, and learned bodies, in evidence of the splendours of the Empire…in this manner many glorious books came into being…The works of Le Vaillant owe their sumptuous character to the same impetus” (Sitwell and Buchanan).

Le Vaillant’s travel memoirs contributed as much to his fame in his lifetime as his illustrated bird books: due to its popularity, Travels into the interior parts of Africa : by the way of the Cape of Good Hope in the years 1780, 8l, 82, 83, 84, and 85 (contributed by Smithsonian Libraries) was translated into English and German. Feeling pressured to write a sequel, New travels into the interior parts of Africa : by the way of the Cape of Good Hope, in the years 1783, 84 and 85 (also contributed by Smithsonian Libraries), contains “an entirely fabricated account of a journey from the Orange River to the Tropic of Capricorn,” though this was not discovered until after his death (Pasquier and Farrand). Ultimately, despite any embellishments, Le Vaillant will be remembered for having produced some of the finest bird books ever created.

The images from Histoire naturelle d’une partie d’oiseaux nouveaux et rares de l’Amerique et des Indes are available in BHL’s Flickr. Nearly all of them have been taxon tagged by volunteers with the scientific name of the species depicted, allowing you to easily determine the species in the image as well as search Flickr for one of the included species and find the image. Learn more about our citizen science Flickr tagging efforts.


  • Elphick, Jonathan. (2004). Birds. London: Scriptum Editions.
  • Lambourne, Maureen. (1990). The Art of Bird Illustration. London: Collins.
  • Martin, H. Bradley. (1989). The Library of H. Bradley Martin : Magnificent Color-Plate Ornithology. Sotheby’s Catalogue of Sale. New York, NY: Sotheby’s.
  • Pasquier, Roger F. and John Farrand. (1991). Masterpieces of Bird Art: 700 Years of Ornithological Illustration. New York: Abbeville Press.
  • Sitwell, Sacheverell, Handasyde Buchanan, and James Fisher. (1990). Fine Bird Books: 1700-1900. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
  • Stresemann, Erwin and G. William Cottrell. (1975). Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
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Gretchen Rings is Museum Librarian & Head of Library Collections for the Marie Louise Rosenthal Library of the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. She lives one block from Olmsted’s Midway Plaisance.