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Mark Catesby (1682-1749)

The Goat-Sucker of Carolina c.1722-6

Watercolour and bodycolour | 27.1 x 37.2 cm (sheet of paper) | RCIN 924821

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  • A watercolour of a bird with a wide open beak, attempting to catch a cricket. The bird is shown in profile to the left. It appears to be a composite of three different species: the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor (J.R. Foster)), the chuck's-will-widow (Caprimulgus carolinensis J.F. Gmelin) and the whip-poor-will (Caprimulgus vociferus A. Wilson). The cricket is a northern mole cricket (Neocurtilla hexadactyla (Perty)). Inscribed in pencil at top centre: '8'. Inscribed in ink at top right: '8'.

    Mark Catesby was born in Suffolk and was interested in natural history from an early age. In 1712, he travelled to the east coast of America with his sister Elizabeth, who had married a doctor who practised in Williamsburg, Virginia. Catesby spent seven years in Virginia collecting specimens and seeds for London buyers before returning to Britain. In London his drawings of birds and plants met with praise and a group of benefactors paid for his travel to Carolina in 1722. There, he made numerous drawings of the flora and fauna, working hard to ensure that his depictions were as helpful for an understanding of their subjects as possible. On his return to Britain, his drawings were reproduced in The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, which appeared in a series of volumes between 1729 and 1747. The first volume was dedicated to Queen Caroline, the second to Augusta, Princess of Wales. The original drawings from the volumes, which had been in the possession of Catesby’s widow until her death, were purchased by George III from the London bookseller Thomas Cadell in 1768.

    This watercolour was used as the basis for plate 8 in the first volume of the Natural History ('The Goat-Sucker of Carolina'). Catesby’s name for the bird was the ‘Goat Sucker of Carolina’, from a belief that nightjars drank milk from goats. In fact these nocturnal birds often gather around pens containing goats and other livestock at dusk in order to catch insects attracted to the animals’ droppings. The nightjar’s beak is fringed with sensory hairs, which help it to capture insects in flight.

    For identification of the species depicted see James L. Reveal, ‘Identification of the plants and animals illustrated by Mark Catesby for his Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands’ in Phytoneuron 2013 and revised online version.


    Thomas Cadell; from whom bought by George III, 1768

  • Medium and techniques

    Watercolour and bodycolour


    27.1 x 37.2 cm (sheet of paper)

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