lioness and her cubs, painted in November 1800

Animal Biography
by William Bingley

An attention to Nature from childhood would . . . contribute greatly to the happiness of mankind in general, and to that of females in particular, by enabling them to overcome all those fears and vulgar preju­dices which have commonly attached to some of the smaller quadrupeds and to the reptile and insect tribes. They would then have no greater repugnance towards handling a Lizard, a Beetle, or a Spider, than they now have towards that of a Bird, or a Flower.

William Bingley (1774–1823) was another in the long list of English clergymen who had plenty of time for non-churchly pursuits, possibly because their curates did all the work. In Bingley’s case, his main interest was the study of nature—he was a member of the Linnaean Society—coupled with the then-common pastime of borrowing freely from other writers, with or without attribution.

Animal Biography, or Popular Zoology, was first published in 1802–03 and remained in print for several decades. It went through five editions—growing from three to four volumes—in the author’s lifetime, with at least two more after his death. Among other accomplishments, the work was a significant donor to Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Which seems only fair.

Volume I:
Introduction and Sources
Primates and Bats
Large Mammals
Carnivores and Marsupials

Volume II:
Land Birds
Water Birds

Volume III:
Reptiles and Amphibians

Combined Index


As printed, Animal Biography had only one illustration, the foldout frontispiece depicting a lioness and her cubs, described on pages 277-278 of Volume I. This frontispiece is missing from scanned versions of the book. (I’m pretty sure it was present in the physical book. They just weren’t able to scan it.) Fortunately, the author gives enough detail that it was not hard to find reproductions of the original painting, dating from November 1800.

As for the rest, the author made it easy for me. Each animal’s “Synonyms” footnote includes a reference to one or more illustrations in Bingley’s favorite sources, all of which are readily available online. The illustrated animals won’t always have the same name that Bingley gives them, but overlapping synonyms—including one or more binomials—make it possible to match them up. Illustration captions will always identify the source:

Shaw Miscellany
George Shaw (1751–1813), Naturalist’s Miscellany in twenty-four volumes from 1789 to 1813. As the title suggests, illustrations from this work—all in color—are in perfectly random order. Only the first few volumes were available to Bingley; I’ve continued to the end of the series, because who could pass up a full-color plate?
Shaw Zoology
George Shaw again, General Zoology in fourteen volumes including Index, spanning the years 1797 to 1827. Although the whole work is called “Shaw’s Zoology”, the last six volumes were completed after Shaw’s death by James Francis Stephens (1792–1863).
Only the first three volumes—two of Quadrupeds, one of Amphibians—were available to Bingley. But I’ve included illustrations from later volumes: IV-V Fish; VI Insects; VII-XIII Birds.
Illustrations in the Quadrupeds section of this ebook are mostly from Shaw, “engraved principally by Mr. Heath”. As a bonus, some plates depict more than one species, so you may even get to see a few animals that didn’t rate a mention in Bingley. “Mr. Heath” is James Heath (1757–1834, RA 1791)—one of the few engravers elected to the Academy.
Shaw deferred birds until Volume VII, published in 1809, continuing through Volume XIII—more than half of the entire work. In these later volumes, most engravings were executed by “Mrs. Griffiths” (as spelled on the title pages) or, as she herself spelled it, “Griffith”:

Griffith signature

We know next to nothing about her—not even her first name. It would be nice to think she was related to well-known engraver Moses Griffith(s), who also worked on some of Shaw’s earlier volumes.
Bewick Quadrupeds
Thomas Bewick, A General History of Quadrupeds, here from the 1792 third edition.
Bewick Birds
Thomas Bewick, History of British Birds in two volumes, 1797 and 1804. Only the first volume, Land Birds, was available to Bingley, but I’ve used both.
If the title sounds familiar, it may be because Bewick’s Birds is the book that gave such comfort to young Jane Eyre.
Pennant British Zoology
Thomas Pennant (1726–1798), British Zoology in four volumes, 1776–1777. The same author’s Arctic Zoology and Quadrupeds are sometimes cited in foot­notes, but didn’t contribute any illustrations.
John Latham (1740–1837), A General Synopsis of Birds, three volumes plus supplement, 1781.
For Lewin, Insects, see the Insects section under Butterflies. He probably intended to do more, but died the year the first volume was published.
For Pallas, Icones, see the Insects section under Chafers (what you and I call beetles).

The Science

If this book had been written a century earlier, it would have been a very different book. The 18th century saw the development of biology as a science, thanks in large part to two enormously important naturalists, Buffon (Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, 1707–1788) and Linnaeus (Latinized from Carl Linné, later upgraded to von Linné, 1707–1778).

Tangent: That same year of years, 1707, gave us mathematician Leonhard Euler and writer Henry Fielding, not to mention Frederick, Prince of Wales (son of George II and father of George III). Challenge: Pick any other random year in the 18th century. Name more than two significant people born in that year.

Taxonomy Then

In William Bingley’s time, living things were either plants or animals—an either-or division that survived until well into the 20th century. Fortunately this book is only concerned with animals. Linnaeus’s approach to plants was immeasurably goofier, beginning with an overall classification based on the number of male and female sexual organs. (If you know how the orchid got its name, this will come as no surprise.)

Under the Linnaean system, animals were divided into six classes: Mammalia (generally called Quadrupeds), Birds, Amphibious Animals (including reptiles and a few fish), Fishes, Insects, and finally Worms. Everything within a given class had to be shoehorned into just two further grouping levels, the Order and the Genus, before you get to the Species. For comparison purposes, the current sequence goes: domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. (There is undoubtedly a mnemonic, should you require one.) And that’s only the named layers. To fill in the gaps there are super­orders and suborders and infraorders, et cetera ad lib, as needed. Two centuries ago, the word “tribe” was used interchangeably with “genus”. Today a Tribe is the final, narrowest and most rarely seen subdivision, between subfamily and genus.

Although Linnaeus had laid the foundation, and was viewed with great respect, his work wasn’t holy writ. Here and there Bingley tells us of recent researchers who disagreed with Linnaeus, and lived to tell the tale. A century earlier, scientists would have had no authority but Aristotle—and nobody disagreed with Aristotle. Even in the realm of animals, there was room for continued loopiness. One early-19th-century model that didn’t catch on was the Quinary or Quinarian system. In this beautifully symmetrical arrangement, each of the five (not six) classes of animals was divided into exactly five orders, which in turn had exactly five genera.

Taxonomy Now

A fair number of this book’s species have since been downgraded to subspecies. Contrariwise, members of some of the named “tribes” have nothing to do with each other. If you’re lucky, a Linnaean genus corresponds to a modern-day family . . . or at least to a suborder.

With the aid of the assorted sites listed below, I’ve filled in current species names where possible. Most of the time, the change happened because a Linnaean genus was broken into smaller pieces, calling for a change in the first half of the binomial. Sometimes a species becomes the flagship of its own genus, resulting in a doublet: Hyaena hyaena, Vulpes vulpes, Gryllotalpa gryllotalpa.

In some cases, names had to be tweaked simply because they don’t follow today’s more precise rules, as laid out by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature:

29.2. Suffixes for family-group names. The suffix -OIDEA is used for a super­family name, -IDAE for a family name, -INAE for a subfamily name, -INI for the name of a tribe, and -INA for the name of a subtribe. These suffixes must not be used at other family-group ranks. The suffixes of names for taxa at other ranks in the family-group are not regulated.

. . . and, finally, genus and species names have to be in grammatical agreement. Linnaeus’s Greek being what it was, this can sometimes pose problems.

Bingley’s Sources

Unlike some writers of similar vintage, William Bingley didn’t put me to work hunting down his sources; they are all listed and described near the beginning of the book. In addition, almost every paragraph has a footnote specifying the source. For “source”, read “donor”. Look at any random page of Bewick, Pennant or Shaw, and you will see that Bingley . . . borrowed rather freely. In particular, look at illustration captions in the Quadrupeds and Amphibians sections. Plate numbers from Shaw move forward in steady progression from I.1 to III.107; Bingley simply cherry-picked the best parts, keeping them in the order that he found them.

Bingley’s scrupulousness about footnoting his sources extends only to nonfiction. He apparently took it for granted readers would recognize his favorite poems, Thomson’s Seasons and Somervile’s The Chase. In the Fish section he brings out another particular favorite, Oppian’s Halieutica. Although Bingley consistently footnotes it as “Jones’ translation”, at least half of the work was done by William Diaper. (Diaper died in 1717, so it was honorable of John Jones to give him credit when the full work was published in 1722.)


Edgar A. Mearns signature

small picture of Edgar Mearns Volumes I and III of the scans I used (Volume II came from a different library) were signed by a former owner, Edgar A. Mearns. That’s ornithologist and naturalist Edgar Alexander Mearns (1856–1916), whose library became the Mearns Collection of the Smithsonian Libraries. His fans include the Mearns Bird Club, who offer this admiring note:

At the time of his death, in 1916, it was estimated that he had collected or contributed more than a tenth of the total number of bird specimens in the U.S. National Museum (now part of the Smithsonian).

They don’t say what part of this figure represents birds that got caught in his mustache.


The author tends to use domesticate interchangeably with tame when describing individual animals. The word “reclaim” doesn’t mean bring back (to some earlier state), but to bring towards humans in some way.

The word “wingspan” didn’t come into use until the 20th century. Instead, the book will routinely refer to the “breadth“ of a bird.

“Front teeth” means incisors, while “grinders” means molars.

A few words that you may have to tell your spell checker to shut up about:

The printer didn’t have a capital Œ though he did have Æ, resulting in an apparent mismatch between “Oe” and “Æ”. The printer also doesn’t seem to have been inter­ested in accents, so expect to see plenty of French words like “Pere”. The word Ménagerie has an accent in the body text but not in the footnotes, suggesting that the smaller font didn’t have diacritics.

As you might expect of a second edition—any second edition—dating from the early years of the 19th century, there are a scattering of long esses (ſ) that the editor overlooked. There aren’t enough of them to interfere with readability, so I’ve retained them for flavor. (It can’t be blamed on a last-minute typographic modernization; the first edition didn’t use long esses either. They must have fallen into the printer’s cases by mistake.)


This ebook is based on the 1804 second edition: Volume I; Volume II; Volume III. Some apparent errors were checked against the first or third editions.

To make it easier to keep track of footnotes, the original markers—* † ‡ § and even ‖—have been replaced with asterisk-and-number combinations: one⁕1 two⁕2 three⁕3 and so on, renumbered for each animal. “Synonyms” footnotes are unnumbered.

Missing or incorrect punctuation in the List of Sources and in the Synonyms footnotes (only) has been silently regularized. Wherever—haha—the word “wherever” fell at a line break, it was printed “where-/ever”. This, too, has been silently regularized. Other typo­graphical errors are marked with mouse-hover popups and are listed again at the end of each section. The word “invisible” means that the letter or punctuation mark is missing, but there is an appropriately sized blank space.