CATESBY, Mark (1683-1749) Appendix Pl. 14, The Tropick Bird, The Storm-Finck or Pittrel

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Painted and etched by Mark Catesby (1638 - 1749)
Etching with hand color, paper dimensions: approximately 14 x 19 inches
From the Appendix (Part 11) to Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands
London: 1747 - 1771

Currently known as the, red-billed tropicbird, Phaethon aethereus and European storm-petrel, Hydrobates pelagicus*, Catesby described these subjects as follows:



The tail of this Bird is generally tho' erroneously, reported by unobserving Mariners to consist of but one feather. Mr. Willughby’s description of it, tho' very particular, was from a dried cafe of the Bird, which, by being defective, seems to be the cause why his I description differs somewhat from ours, which was made from the living Bird. The legs in his, by long keeping, had lost their red colour, which all that I have seen, while living, have. This Bird is about the size of a Partridge, and has very long wings. The bill is red, with an angle under the lower mandible like those of the Gull kind, of which it is a species. The eyes are encompassed with black, which ends in a point towards the back of the head. Three or four of the larger quill feathers, towards their ends, are black, tipt with white; all the rest of the Bird is white, except the back, which is variegated with curved lines of black. The legs and feet are of a vermilion red. The toes are webbed. The tail consists of two long straight narrow feathers, almost of equal breadth from their quills to their points. 

These Birds are rarely seen but between the Tropicks, at the remotest distance from land. Their name seems to imply the limits of their abode; and tho' they are seldom seen but a few degrees north or south of either Tropick, yet one of their breeding-places is almost nine degrees from the northern Tropick, viz. at Bermudas, where, from the high rocks that environ those Islands, I have shot them at the time of their breeding; but those clifts being inaccessible, prevented my feeing their nests and eggs. They breed also in great numbers on some little Islands at the east-end of Porto-Rico

Larus minimus marinus, naribus tubulatis. 

The Storm-Finck, or Pittrel. 

This is about the size of a Chaffinch, The whole Bird, except the rump, which is white, is of a dusky-brown colour; the back being somewhat darker than the belly. The bill is half an inch long, slender, dark brown, and crooked at the end. By opening the head of one of these Birds, I found that the nostrils confided of two parallel tubes, proceeding from within the head, and running half way along the upper mandible of the bill, forming thereon a protuberance. The wings extended an inch beyond the tail. The legs were slender. The feet were webbed with a very small claw on each heel, without a toe. They rove all over the Atlantick Ocean, and are seen on the coasts of America as well as on those of Europe, and many hundred leagues from each Shore. Their appearance is generally believed by Mariners to prognosticate a storm, or bad weather; and I must confess I never saw them but in a troubled Sea. They use their wings and feet with surprising celerity. Their wings are long, and resemble those of Swallows, with which they are equally swift, but without making such angles or short turns in their flight, as Swallows do, but fly in a direct line. Tho' their feet are formed for swimming, they are likewise so for running, which use they Teem most to put them to, being oftenest seen in the action of running swiftly on the surface of the waves in their greatest agitation, but with the assistance of their wings. 

The Storm-Finck, in Hoier’s Epistle to Clusius, is the Bird here described; and tho' its nostrils give it so singular a characteristick, and that they are so numerous in all our adjacent seas, yet they have not been figured before nor sufficiently described. As contrarily remarkable It is, that Mr. Edwards in his Ornithology, lately published, has fortunately brought to light the knowledge of three more of this Genus not known before, which he has well described and figured. This Bird, with the three beforementioned, seem to me apparently of the Gull-kind. 

Mark Catesby (1683 – 1749)

Facts regarding Catesby’s early years are scant. It is known that he was born in the ancient market town of Sudbury, England to a father who was a legal practitioner and mayor of Sudbury and to a mother from an old Essex family.  It seems that he received an understanding of Latin and French and was familiar with the eminent naturalist Reverend John Ray. Following his father’s death, he was endowed with the means to pursue his interest in the natural history of North America.

Catesby arrived in Virginia in 1712 as the guest of his sister and her husband, Dr. William Cocke, an aid the Governor of the colony.  Soon he was acquainted with the well-connected William Byrd, a Fellow of the Royal Society whose diary contains passages discussing Catesby’s strong curiosity with all things relating to North America. 

This included plants native to the fields and woods of Virginia through which Catesby traveled, collecting examples of botanical specimens unfamiliar in England, which he illustrated and sent back to his uncle, Nicholas Jekyll and the apothecary and botanist, Samuel Dale.

Catesby’s first trip to the New World was extensive and included a visit to Jamaica. Although he felt that his approach to a larger understanding of its natural history was lacking in structure, his experience would inform his future expeditions. 

Following his return to London in 1719 Catesby resolved to return to the colonies and gather additional information for his illustrated Natural History... He gained the financial support of members of the local scientific community, many of who were members of the Royal Society keen to send a naturalist to Carolina who could provide an accurate account of its resources.  Among those who belonged to the Royal Society was William Sherard, who after examining Catesby’s drawings, was key in advancing the project. With further backing by Sir Hans Sloane, court physician and naturalist whose collection would form the basis for The British Museum, Catesby sailed to Carolina in 1722.

Catesby’s four years of travels following his second arrival in North America brought him throughout South Carolina, parts of Georgia, and the Bahamas. He was 

intent on visiting the same location at different times throughout the year in order to observe his subjects as they developed. In addition to gathering botanical specimens of potential horticultural importance, he also acquired birds and other creatures.  

Catesby’s patrons in London were eager to receive examples of the varieties of plants and animals he encountered but collecting, packaging, and sending them back to England served as a distraction to his intended Natural History...  Nevertheless, he continued to observe, paint, and write descriptions of the previously un-investigated wildlife he encountered on the shores and in the swamps, woods, and fields of the middle American colonies.

Catesby returned to England from his final voyage to America in 1726 and spent the next seventeen years preparing his Natural History... He envisioned his work containing colored plates reproducing his studies from nature in a substantial, folio-sized format, an achievement nearly unprecedented in earlier natural history publications. Catesby arranged for financing in the form of an interest-free loan from the Quaker Peter Collinson, a fellow of the Royal Society. Nevertheless, the cost of paying professionals to prepare his delineations on copper plates for printing was too great. To this end, with the assistance of Joseph Goupy (1689–1769), a French artist living in London, he taught himself to etch.  In addition to producing nearly all of the plates for his publication, Catesby closely supervised the coloring of the engravings, either painting the impressions himself or closely overseeing the work to insure its fidelity to his preparatory work. To further finance the project Catesby sold subscriptions, offering his book in sections of 20 plates to be published every four months.

The first volume of Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands, containing one hundred plates, was completed in 1731 and no doubt facilitated his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in February, 1733. The second volume, also containing one hundred plates, was finished in 1743 and was supplemented with twenty plates based on information sent to Catesby by John Bartram and others in in America appeared in 1746–1747. Of the approximately 180 - 200 copies of the first edition produced, roughly 80 copies remain complete and accounted for and there are an unknown number in private collections. A second edition was issued by George Edwards in 1754 and a third edition, published by Benjamin White, in 1771 who continued to print examples of the plates until at least 1816. As early as 1749 editions were produced for the European market with translations of the text in German, Latin, and Dutch. In these the plates for the first volume and appendix were re-etched by Johann Michael Seligmann and the plates for the second volume re-etched by Nicolaus Friedrich Eisenberger and Georg Lichtensteger.  

Catesby’s tenacity resulted in a sweeping and compelling study of American plants, animals, and marine life native to little documented lands in which he strove to assign scientific nomenclature to his subjects. Indeed, Linnaeus, in his 1758 Systema Naturae, made use of much information brought to light by Catesby using it as the foundation of his system of binomial nomenclature for American species.

Throughout the production of his Natural History…Catesby lived in London with his Elizabeth Rowland with whom he had four children and married in 1747, before his death in 1749.

*From James L. Reveal’s Identification of the plants and animals illustrated by Mark Catesby for The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama islands in the appendix of The Curious Mr. Catesby, University of Georgia Press.