Written by
Emma Milnes

Emma Milnes

Deputy Librarian

14 October 2019

The original American natural history book

Mark Catesby's wrote the first natural history book in Northern America, the most influential naturalists of the early 18th century. Catesby's famous two volume work ‘The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands’ (published between 1731-1743) remained an authority on American natural history for over 100 years! 

Hawksbill turtle from volume 2 of Catesby's ‘The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands’

At the time of their publication the volumes were hailed for their success in enlightening Europeans to the new species that could be found in the Americas, but today modern readers marvel at not only the beauty of the books but also the number of species that are either extinct or critically endangered.

Our library is fortunate enough to have both these incredible volumes in its collection, and we would like to share with you some of the wonderful engravings contained inside them.

Catesby's large white billed woodpecker from volume 1 of ‘The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands’.

Life of Mark Catesby 

Catesby first travelled to the Americas in 1712 to visit his sister and there he remained until 1719. During this time he sent many plant specimens back to Europe for examination and potential cultivation which were enthusiastically received by naturalists and nurserymen.  This period in Catesby’s life must have been influential as he returned to the Americas only a handful of years later in 1722, but this time travelled further afield in order to collect plant and animal specimens from the little-known Carolinas.

It took Catesby nearly 20 years, but in 1743 he finally published his second and final volume of “The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands …”, and it was a resounding success.  We’re sure you’ll agree the images are magnificent! 

 Ivory-billed woodpecker painting

Historic animal illustrations 

Something that may strike you is the way in which the animals (most famously the birds) interact with the environments they are depicted in.  Catesby manages not only to capture the birds’ likeness in remarkable detail, but he also makes a point of illustrating birds with the accompanying plants they either fed upon or nested in.  This level of extra information is important as we can consider these volumes to be particularly early examples of an ecological study.

During the 1700s and beyond, Catesby’s work was valued for highlighting species that Europeans had never encountered before, but today the work has taken on a more poignant meaning as many of the species Catesby depicted are now either extinct or critically endangered. 

According to the IUCN red list the last confirmed sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker (featured above) was in 1944, and it is thought that IF any survive the population must be tiny.  Also, sadly, the hawksbill turtle (first image featured) is also now critically endangered too.

Let us now look at two of the bird species found in Catesby which are now confirmed extinct.

Firstly, the Carolina parakeet.  This beautiful bird would have been common during Catesby’s travels, but by the 1800s had already started to decline in numbers.  The last confirmed wild sighting was in 1910, but the last known Carolina parakeet died in captivity in 1918.

The parrot of Carolina - Mark Catesby

Passenger pigeon 

Our final image is also a tale of tragedy, and it is of the now extinct passenger pigeon.  At the start of the nineteenth century it is thought to have been one of the most abundant birds on the planet, and Catesby’s eyewitness account from the 1720s seems to confirm this when he states: “In Virginia I have seen fly in such continued trains three days successively, that there was not the least interval in losing sight of them...” .  These words hit home when we consider that Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in Cincinnati Zoo on 1 September 1914.

Passenger pigeon from volume 1 of Catesby's Carolina parakeet from volume 1 of Catesby's ‘The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands’.

The original book by Catesby has been on display at our library, along with other books and illustrations from ZSL Library’s collection with a special focus on extinct animals an exhibition of the ‘Lost and the rare’.  

Animal art and extinct species