British Birds
by Thomas Bewick

the voice of the Swan . . . is shrill, piercing, and harsh, not unlike the sound of a clarionet when blown by a novice in music

Newcastle-based Thomas Bewick (1753–1828) was one of the foremost wood-engravers of his time. He started out apprenticed to Ralph Beilby (1744–1847); in 1776 they became business partners and co-authors. Together they produced A General History of Quadrupeds, first published in 1790 with text by Beilby and illustrations by Bewick.

Beilby was supposed to do the same for British Birds, but most of it ended up being written by Bewick. The Advertisement to the second volume—seven years after the first—refers tantalizingly to “a separation of interests” between the two men. That may explain why Beilby’s name appears nowhere in the book except in the fine print at the bottom of the first volume’s title page.

Volume I: Land Birds

Volume II: Water Birds


The first volume features two entirely different types of illustrations. First and predictably come the birds themselves, typically drawn from a stuffed specimen. (No hand-tinting, alas; for information about colors you must study the prose.) At the end of some articles—when there is room on the page—Bewick throws in a smaller picture which generally has no clear connection to the bird under discussion. In fact many of them look like generic filler pictures, although this doesn’t seem to have been the case.

The second volume continues the theme, but adds a third category: detailed woodcuts of some birds’ feathers, and occasionally other body parts such as talons.

In a few cases, Bewick even re-uses a picture: in Volume I, pages 240 and 333 are definitely the same. (In this ebook, the two are literally the same picture; to save a few bytes, I used the same image file for both.) In Volume II, Water Birds, groups of tailpieces sometimes follow a theme. Pages II.46 and II.52 seem to show the same man fishing in the same river; later in the volume there are several pictures that look like various views of the same stretch of seashore:

tall rocks by seacoast

Language and Terminology

For general notes on taxonomy and technical terms, see the introductions to William Bingley’s Animal Biography and George Shaw’s Naturalist’s Miscellany, both from around the same time as Bewick’s Birds.

In descriptions:

The word Bewick gives as “granivorous” is properly graminivorous. The word “insectivore” or “-vorous” is missing because it didn’t come into general use until well into the 19th century.

A dra(ch)m is the weight of a teaspoon of water, then defined as ¼ tablespoon (⅛ ounce, or about 3½ grams). For still tinier birds, a scruple is ⅓ dram, or something over a gram.


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

Bewick is capricious about capitalizing his binomials. I have left them as I found them; today the pattern is Genus species. I have also left the misspellings, while noting the correct form. Binomials are generally from Linnaeus 1758 and 1766, rarely from others such as Latham. Although the second volume mentions Brisson several times, none of his genera are named.

Both volumes—not only the first from 1797, but also the second from 1804—used long ſ. Does it say “feed” or does it say “seed”? Close inspection may be required:

page image

The long ſ also means that the word “stuffed” consistently came out of the OCR as “fluffed”, which creates an appealing mental picture.

All French words were printed as shown, with or without the requisite accents. And, for reasons best known to the author, Volume I uses the modern spelling “chestnut” while Volume II goes back to the older “chesnut”.


This ebook is based on the Newcastle edition: Volume I, Land Birds, printed by Solomon Hodgson in 1797; and Volume II, Water Birds, printed by Edward Walker in 1804.

Typographical errors are marked with mouse-hover popups and are listed again at the end of each chapter. The word “invisible” means that the letter or punctuation mark is missing, but there is an appropriately sized blank space.