Ohio Wesleyan University was the site of a one-day symposium April 23 that drew bird enthusiasts and experts to campus to celebrate “Alexander Wilson and the Making of American Ornithology.”
The event, planned by OWU zoology professor Edward H. “Jed” Burtt Jr., Ph.D., included awarding an honorary degree to esteemed ornithologist Frank B. Gill, Ph.D., author of “Ornithology,” widely considered the leading textbook in the field.
During his illustrious career, Gill also has served as interim president and chief scientist of the National Audubon Society, led the Important Bird Areas program, and pioneered citizen science initiatives including the Great Backyard Bird Count.
The symposium coincided with the 200th anniversary of the publication of the ninth and final volume of Wilson’s groundbreaking “American Ornithology.” The works, published between 1808 and 1814, cataloged all of the birds of the United States, becoming the first major scientific publication of the young republic and the founding document of American ornithology.
Burtt, who joined the Ohio Wesleyan faculty in 1977, is the co-author of “Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology,” written with William E. Davis Jr., Ph.D., professor emeritus at Boston University. Their book tells the story of how Wilson came to publish “American Ornithology,” including the hand-colored illustrations of the birds he encountered in his travels.
The symposium included a display of Wilson’s artwork as well as presentations by Burtt, Gill, and other experts:
- Joel T. Fry, Curator, Bartram’s Garden, The John Bartram Association.
- Gerard Carruthers, FRSE, Chair of Scottish Literature since 1700, University of Glasgow.
- Robert McCracken Peck, Curator of Art and Artifacts and Senior Fellow, The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.
- Tom Blanton, an art collector who has spent 15 years seeking to acquire all editions of Wilson’s “American Ornithology” published in the 19th century.
President Rock Jones, Ph.D., welcomed those attending the symposium to the Ohio Wesleyan campus and recognized honorary degree recipient Gill for his many contributions.
“As Alexander Wilson brought American ornithology to the attention of the world, Frank Gill brought ornithological research and awareness to the masses,” Jones said. “He turned millions of us from bird watchers into bird researchers.”
Jones also recognized Burtt, who is retiring in May, for his dedication to ornithology and education.
“Jed, thank you for all you have done to create this symposium, to distinguish Ohio Wesleyan University, to advance the field of ornithology, and to enlighten and inspire hundreds and hundreds of students to truly see and cherish birds and nature,” Jones said.