Dr Penny Olsen from the Australian National University has written widely on Australian ornithology and natural history, most notably her recent books on the Paradise Parrot (Psephotus pulcherrimus)in Glimpses of Paradise: The Quest for the Beautiful Parrakeet, her book for CSIRO Publishers on the Wedgetailed Eagle (Aquila audax) and her magnificent work on 300 years of Australian ornithological art, Feather and Brush.
The latest edition of the National Library Magazine, from the Australian National Library in Canberra has a fascinating article by Penny on the life and works of the French naturalist and ornithologist François le Vaillant.
Le Vaillant’s career as an ornithologist was largely based upon his extensive work in Africa on behalf of his sponsor and financier Coenraad Jacob Temminck, a leading collector later to become the director of the highly influential Natural History Museum in Leiden, the Netherlands.
Le Vaillant’s career was not with out controversy, both because of what appear to be methodological shortcomings and his trenchant opposition to the then scientific mainstream:
Le Vaillant was vehemently opposed to the newly introduced, standardised Linnaean system.
Instead, the fierce individualist invented his own French epithets.
Le Vaillant’s first ornithological work, Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux d’Afrique (Natural
History of the Birds of Africa), began to appear in 1796. It was the earliest substantial work on the ornithology of that continent.
But [soon] doubts were being raised about the veracity of the accounts of le Vaillant’s African
adventures, even allowing for his fondness for enthusiastic exaggeration. Historian Vernon
Forbes, among others, has concluded: ‘the long journey that he claims to have made into
what is now South West Africa, to which he devotes 370 pages, can only be regarded as
imaginary’. There were numerous contradictions and his maps and illustrations of homes and
artefacts were careless. His few defenders argued that his books were primarily intended
to entertain, with the result that historians and anthropologists have largely rejected le Vaillant’s
travel books. His contributions to ornithology were not to be fully embraced either.
Le Vaillant described some 134 South African species, another 50 recognisable species that
he claimed occurred there but do not, ten species that ‘have no existence in nature at
all‘ and 110 that are unrecognisable.
But le Vaillant’s work was not totally without value and historical importance:
Although the Frenchman had serious defects as an ornithologist, his contributions
were not without merit or influence. His books were among the handful of precursors
to John Gould’s Birds of Australia (1848, supplement 1869) and other lavishly illustrated
Le Vaillant never made it to Australia but his Histoire Naturelle des Perroquets contained references to a number of Australian parrots:
Perroquets included nine species collected in Australia but viewed by le Vaillant in
captivity in the Netherlands and, mostly, the skin collection of Temminck. Included were
eastern, crimson and green rosellas (Many- coloured Parakeet, The Broad-tailed Parakeet
and The First Variety of Broad-tailed Parakeet), the Australian king parrot (The Female Great
Blue-collared Blue-rumped Parakeet), the ground parrot (The Nimble Parakeet), the swift parrot
(The Banks Parakeet), the musk lorikeet (The Red-fronted Parakeet), the little lorikeet (The
Red-faced Parakeet) and the orange-bellied parrot or, alternatively, turquoise parrot (The
Four other species were included that occur in Australia but, at the time, were known only
from islands to the north: the palm cockatoo (Trunked Black Ara and Trunked Grey Ara) from
Batavia (now Jakarta); the rainbow lorikeet (The Blue-headed Parakeet) and the Eclectus parrot
(The Great Lory Parrot), from the Moluccas and thereabouts; and the red-cheeked parrot (Geoffroy Parrot), probably from Timor.