Extinct Birds & Rare Books: The Example of the Great Auk

September 8, 2014

In conjunction with the first event of the fall semester sponsored by the Friends of the UW-Madison Libraries, we will make available in our reading room rare books depicting bird species now extinct. A key source for this topic is Extinct birds by baron Lionel Walter Rothschild (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1907), part of the Thordarson Collection and available as well through UW Digital Collections. The subtitle of Rothschild’s book told a depressing tale: “An attempt to unite in one volume a short account of those birds which have become extinct in historical times–that is, within the last six or seven hundred years. To which are added a few which still exist, but are on the verge of extinction.”

One of these species was the great auk, or Alca impennis. Rothschild, a noted zoologist and collector, had in fact two specimens of the great auk in his own collection, noting that “The remains of the Great Auk and its eggs in collections are more numerous than one would think, considering the enormous prices paid for mounted specimens and eggs.”

His book, filled with accounts of descriptions and illustrations of extinct birds as published in earlier books, pointed to a slightly confusing description and depiction of the great auk in the Exoticorum libri decem of Carolus Clusius (1605), who thought the bird a native of North America and called it a “Mergus Americanus.” Rothschild did allow that the depiction in Clusius’ work — a woodcut — was “a rather poor but perfectly recognizable figure” of the great auk.

Rothschild went on to credit the Museum Wormianum (1655), an account of the collection assembled by the Danish physician  naturalist, and university administrator Ole Worm (latinized as Olaus Wormius), with the “first comparatively good figure,” by which Rothschild meant illustration, “from a specimen brought alive from the Faroe Islands.”

Rothschild went on, “Curiously enough the figure shows a white ring round the neck, which no Great Auk, of course, possesses.” Other authors have called attention to the fact that Worm kept the bird as a pet, hence the white collar around its neck. From my point of view, it is at least as interesting that the copperplate engraving of the great auk in the Museum Wormianum was one of the few engravings in this title, otherwise filled with woodcuts.

Worm (1588-1654) and his collection have attracted attention from historians of museums, art historians, historians of science, and artists. In turn, we call your attention, for example, to a history of Danish museums by Gudmund Boesen (gift of the William Reeder family to the Special Collections reference collection); reconstructions of Worm’s museum by artists like Rosamond Purcell; and scholarship by historians of science and medicine like Jole Shackelford, who earned his Ph.D. from UW-Madison’s department of history of science.


Many of the volumes we will show at the event on Tuesday, September 9, 2014, hail from the Thordarson Collection, rich as it is with lavishly illustrated works on ornithology. Others come from various other collections in the Department. Titles include:

  • Clusius, Carolus. Exoticorvm libri decem. Antwerp: Ex officinâ Plantianâ Raphelengii, 1605. Call number: LV L49 Cutter oversize.
  • Nieremberg, Juan Eusebio, S.J. Historia naturae, maxime peregrinae, libris XVI distincta. Antwerp: Ex officina Plantiniana Balthasaris Moreti. 1635. Call number: 1195438 non-current oversize.
  • Piso, Willem, et al. De Indiae utriusque re naturali et medica: Libri quatuordecim, quorum contenta pagina sequens exhibit. Amsterdam: Apud Ludovicum et Danielem Elzevirios, 1658. Call number: +LV +P67.
  • Worm, Ole. Museum Wormianum, seu, Historia rerum rariorum. Leiden: Ex Officina Elseviriorum, 1655. Call number: CA 15474 oversize. Bound with other titles.
  • Willughby, Francis. Ornithologiæ libri tres. London: Impensis Joannis Martyn, Regiæ Societatis typographi, 1676. Call number: 715372 non-current oversize.
  • Willughby, Francis. The ornithology of Francis Willughby. Additions by John Ray. London: Printed by A.C. for John Martyn, printer to the Royal Society … , 1678. Call number: Thordarson T 2609 oversize.
  • Catesby, Mark. The natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. 2 vols. London: Printed for Charles Marsh … Thomas Wilcox … and Benjamin Stichall … , 1754. Call number: Thordarson T 505-506 flat.
  • Wilson, Alexander. American ornithology; or, The natural history of the birds of the United States: Illustrated with plates, engraved and colored from original drawings taken from nature. 9 vols. Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1808-1814. Call number: Thordarson T 2610-2618 flat.
  • Audubon, John James. The birds of America: From drawings made in the United States and their territories. First octavo edition. New York: J.J. Audubon; Philadelphia: J.B. Chevalier, 1840-44. 7 vols. Thordarson T 152-158. 
  • Gould, John. The birds of Australia. 7 vols. London: Printed by Richard and John E. Taylor; pub. by the author, 1848-1869. Call number: Thordarson T 1747-1754 flat plus supplement. 
  • Strickland, Hugh Edward. The dodo and its kindred. London: Reeve, Benham, and Reeve, 1848. Call number: QE872 C7 S8 oversize.
  • Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. With forty-two illustrations by John Tenniel. London: Macmillan, 1877. Call number: CA 6319.
  • Rothschild, Lionel Walter Rothschild, baron. Extinct birds. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1907. Call number: Thordarson T 1496 oversize.
  • Brink, Carol Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn. New York: Macmillan, 1961. Cairns Collection PS3503 R56 C33 1961. 

We encourage you to attend the event on September 9, and then to revisit these titles, like others in the holdings of the Department of Special Collections, in our reading room, open Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.