EDWARDS, George (1694-1773). The Black Bellied Whistling Duck. London: For the Author at the college of Physicians, [1739] -1743.

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EDWARDS, George (1694-1773). The Black Bellied Whistling Duck. London: For the Author at the college of Physicians, [1739] -1743.


 Single sheet (12 x 9 ½ inches, full margins showing the plate mark). A fine etched portrait of a male whistling duck in breeding plumage against a field background including purple flowers and a tree stump, with fine original hand coloring in full, captioned along the lower edge, “The Whistling Duck… published 1843 by George Edwards,” plate 193 (some minor spotting and a bit toned).

From the first edition of A Natural History of Uncommon Birds, one of the most important of all eighteenth-century natural history works, "at its date of issue, the "Natural History" was one of the most important of all bird books, both as a fine bird book and as a work of ornithology. It is still high on each list" (Fine Bird Books). 

This is an exquisite depiction of a Black Bellied Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis), a gregarious bird that forms large flocks in subtropical lakes and rivers in the southern USA and Central and South America. This species (as well as other species of Whistling Ducks) has a unique, whistling call, that carries far and can be heard from a great distance, unlike other ducks, who’s vocalizations tend to consist of quiet quacking. The Whistling Duck also spends more time in trees than any other duck, and strictly nests in tree cavities. For a duck, this species actually spends a good deal of time outside of water, and I can recall seeing thousands of them perched on fence posts lining fields in Florida quite a distance away from water. Edward’s painting of the Whistling Duck, which in this case is situated in a grassy field, is therefore accurate, as these birds are often seen foraging for insects on golf courses and fields across the south. Edwards may have drawn this bird from memory, as some of the details in the plumage are slightly inaccurate – i.e. the black speckled belly (should be completely black), or the red on the upper chest (which should cover the entire breast). However, aside from these minor incongruences, this is a beautiful depiction of a Whistling Duck that also accurately captures its natural behavior.  

 As a young man Edwards soon found himself in the company of the most influential natural historians, collectors and artists of the 18th-century. Among Edwards' first patrons was Sir Hans Sloane, he was taught to etch by the celebrated Mark Catesby (in 1754 he would publish the second edition of Catesby's "Natural History..."), he worked with the Bartrams of Philadelphia and Linnaeus in Sweden.

The first volume of "A Natural History of Uncommon Birds" was published to great acclaim in 1743, and gained him nomination for fellowship of the Royal Society although he withdrew his candidacy. Second and third volumes followed in 1747 and 1750 which won him the coveted Copley medal of the Royal Society. The last volume appeared in 1751 at which time he stated that age and infirmity precluded further work.