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Walking with Birds: The Art of Audubon and MacGillivray


Image of MacGillivray's Warbler, the bird Audubon named after William MacGillivray

MacGillivray's Warbler © Frank D. Lospalluto

Ornithological Biography

Audubon decided to produce a scientific text to accompany the spectacular paintings of Birds of America. As his first language was French, he required help to write the descriptions of each bird,despite his vast knowledge of their habits.

Audubon met MacGillivray in 1830 while MacGillivray was employed at the University of Edinburgh and they began an eight-year collaboration on the 12 volumes of text, entitled ‘Ornithological Biography’. Audubon described how this began:

“[Mr. James Wilson] gave me the card with the address of Mr. W. MacGillivray, spoke well of him and his talents, and away to Mr. MacGillivray I went … He agreed to assist me and correct my manuscripts for two guineas per sheet of sixteen pages.”

Audubon sent MacGillivray copy to work on, sometimes posting it from America. It remains unclear how much of the Ornithological Biography was written by Audubon and how much by MacGillivray.

Exchanges and learning

Audubon benefitted from the scientific knowledge and writing skills that MacGillivray brought to the Ornithological Biography. Meanwhile MacGillivray gained valuable experience that helped him to publish his own work, A History of British Birds, in 1837. In this book he repeatedly refers to the important information he learned from Audubon.

Dedication to John James Audubon in Descriptions of the Rapacious Birds of Great Britain, 1836

William MacGillivray's dedication to Audubon in The Rapacious Birds of Great Britain, 1836

A Close Friendship

Alongside the professional benefits of their collaboration, Audubon and MacGillivray enjoyed a close friendship founded on their love of nature, despite their very different backgrounds and personalities. Audubon named “MacGillivray’s Warbler” and “MacGillivray’s Seaside Sparrow” after his friend. When MacGillivray published Description of the Rapacious Birds of Great Britain (1836) he dedicated it to Audubon.


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