Of mice, mortality and mercy.

Alexander Wilson

Here is a charming story about the Scottish American ornithologist, Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), from Heads and Tails, the memoirs of zoologist Adam White. As a young man Wilson had worked as a weaver in Paisley, Scotland. He also wrote poetry in the style of Robert Burns – and one of his satirical efforts triggered a libel action resulting in a hasty flight to America. Doggerel’s loss was ornithology’s gain, and Wilson’s works ranks alongside Audubon’s, which it significantly predates (see example below).

About the time when Alexander Wilson formed the design of drawing the American birds, and writing those descriptions which, when published, gave him that name which has clung to him, “the American Ornithologist” he had a school within a few miles of Philadelphia. He was then a keen student of the animal life around him. In 1802 he wrote to his friend Bertram, and tells him of his having had “live crows, hawks, and owls; opossums, squirrels, snakes, lizards,” &c. He tells him that his room sometimes reminded him of Noah’s ark, and comically adds, “but Noah had a wife in one corner of it, and in this particular our parallel does not altogether tally. I receive every subject of natural history that is brought to me; and, though they do not march into my ark from all quarters, as they did into that of our great ancestor, yet I find means, by the distribution of a few fivepenny bits, to make them find the way fast enough. A boy, not long ago, brought me a large basketful of crows. I expect his next load will be bull-frogs, if I don’t soon issue orders to the contrary. One of my boys caught a mouse in school a few days ago, and directly marched up to me with his prisoner. I set about drawing it
the same evening, and all the while the pantings of its little heart showed it to be in the most extreme agonies of fear. I had intended to kill it, in order to fix it in the claws of a stuffed owl;  but, happening to spill a few drops of water near where it was tied, it lapped it up with such eagerness, and looked in my face with such an eye of supplicating terror, as perfectly overcame me. I immediately restored it to life and liberty. The agonies of a prisoner at the stake, while the fire and instruments of torture are preparing, could not be more severe than the sufferings of that poor mouse; and, insignificant as the object was, I felt at that moment the sweet sensation that mercy leaves in the mind when she triumphs over cruelty.”

Kingfisher and Warblers by Alexander Wilson

4 thoughts on “Of mice, mortality and mercy.

  1. Although I don’t think he is the greatest painter, but the comment he made about the encounter with the hapless little creature makes him now to me the Greatest!
    Lovely story, thank you.



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