Today we have a lovely treat from our Zoology Museum. This is one of the 12 skins of North American birds that were presented to William MacGillivray by the great American artist Audubon
William MacGillivray, Professor of Natural History at Marischal College, was also a close friend and collaborator of the North American naturalist and painter John James Audubon (1785-1851). He worked with Audubon between 1826-1838, helping him write the text to accompany the latter’s Birds of America. This massive illustrated work, now the most expensive book ever to be sold at auction, was a visual exploration of the ornithology of the whole of North America. MacGillivray and Audubon remained life-long friends and MacGillivray brought with him to Aberdeen many specimens given to him by Audubon.
Following MacGillivray’s death, the specimens were lost for many years and curatorial staff did not know they were in the museum. In 1954, museum worker Sandy Anderson was excited to find them in a drawer beneath the stairs in Marischal College.
Forty years later, Mr Anderson recalled the discovery:
“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.”
Of the twelve specimens found that day -now dusted and cleaned – we have shown you the Yellow-Throated Vireo, a small songbird that breeds in the Eastern United States, whose calls Audubon might have heard in the 1800s-1820s as he explored the vast North American continent.
To learn more about Audubon and MacGillivray see our Connecting Collections pages: