The Zoology Museum

Audubon's birds

The Zoology Museum has 12 skins of North American birds that were presented to William MacGillivray by the great American artist Audubon. The original labels were written by MacGillivray who was Professor of Natural History at Marischal from 1840 until his death in 1852. The exciting wording on the labels is "presented by Mr. Audubon".

Yellow-throated vireo skin prepared by Mr Audubon
Photograph: Martyn L Gorman

Audubon met MacGillivray in Edinburgh in 1831 when MacGillivray was curator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. The first volume of Birds of America was about to be published, and Audubon was desperately seeking a collaborator to help him write the text to accompany the illustrations. Audubon realised that both his grasp of English and his knowledge of taxonomy were too poor for him to write the text himself. He engaged MacGillivray to revise his notes for him on a straightforward commercial basis; this arrangement developed into a deep and lasting friendship between the two men that changed the history of ornithology in America and Britain. MacGillivray essentially wrote all of Audubon's notes. Presumably these specimens in our collection are some of those used by MacGillivray and Audubon in Edinburgh in writing the Ornithological Biographies.

Our specimens were found by museum worker Sandy Anderson in the winter of 1954-5, buried in dust in a drawer beneath the gallery stairs in Marischal College. In October 1997, recalled his great excitement at discovering the Audubon bird skins:

"The specimen-drawer that I had just pulled out from the cupboard under the stairs leading to the Museum gallery was shallow and about a yard square. Like the 5 or 6 others, its contents were shrouded in a thick layer of soot-like dust. I had already examined and discarded rubbish from the other drawers, but in this tray the little objects beneath their dusty blanket showed themselves as neat rows of rounded humps. On picking one of these, a pair of labels swung from the legs of what was now obviously a small bird 'cabinet' skin with the old-fashioned handling stick protruding from its rear. A quick 'puff' at the labels revealed the name of an American warbler and that of the collector - J.J. Audubon.

I thrilled at the thought of what was, to me, a historic moment; unlike the reaction of the chief technician, Alex Hyland, whom I had called over to witness the find, 'What a horrible mess, throw them out!' he exclaimed. Fortunately, I did not act on his advice but instead set about the exciting task of discovery by vacuum cleaner. A few hours later, Prof. V.C. Wynne-Edwards (Regius Chair of Natural History) was introduced to the collection. He was not the sort to shout 'Eureka'. but he came close to it that day, over 40 years ago."

1950 Baffin Island Expedition
VC Wynne-Edwards is on the left and Sandy Anderson on the right.