Dinosaurs of the Sky: Consummate 19th-Century Scottish Natural History Illustrations of Birds
From pigeons to parakeets, an uncommonly beautiful celebration of biodiversity.
By Maria Popova
Birds populate our metaphors, our poems, and our children’s books, entrance our imagination with their song and their chromatically ecstatic plumage, transport us on their tender wings back to the time of the dinosaurs they evolved from. But birds are a time machine in another way, too — not only evolutionarily but culturally: While the birth of photography revolutionized many sciences, birds remained as elusive as ever, difficult to capture with lens and shutter, so that natural history illustration has remained the most expressive medium for their study and celebration.
To my eye, the most consummate drawings of birds in the history of natural history date back to the 1830s, but they are not Audubon’s Birds of America — rather, they appeared on the other side of the Atlantic, in the first volume of The Edinburgh Journal of Natural History and of the Physical Sciences, with the Animal Kingdom of the Baron Cuvier, published in the wake of the pioneering paleontologist Georges Cuvier’s death.
Hundreds of different species of birds — some of them now endangered, some on the brink of extinction — populate the lavishly illustrated pages, clustered in kinship groups as living visual lists of dazzling biodiversity.
Among the cornucopia of species depicted — pigeons and parakeets, warblers and jays, woodpeckers and owls, sunbirds and sugarbirds — none occupy more space than hummingbirds, perhaps due to their enduring enchantment partway between science and magic.
Couple with some stunning 19th-century ink illustrations of owls, dial back a century with the trailblazing 18th-century artist Sarah Stone’s paintings of exotic, endangered, and extinct species, and dive into the fascinating science of feathers.
Published February 7, 2023