Wilson grew up in the industrial town of Paisley, the son of a weaver, and his youth was filled with desires to be remarkable, but his educational opportunities were precarious. He was a man of letters and art and nature was part of his interests as well, but the trade of weaver was imposed on him by tradition and he had to dedicate years to this while he made his way to what he really loved.
At the age of 22 he embarked for the United States in search of a better life that took time and sweat to achieve as he faced many difficulties.
He is a great example that passion can move mountains; with little money, no family, unstable jobs and in a foreign country, birds were what kept alive his desire to continue looking for opportunities in the young nation that had adopted him.
His foray into ornithology was enhanced by his friend and notable American naturalist William Bartram, who was also his mentor. He made expeditions in which he explored the flora and fauna and collected the specimens that would be the raw material of his great project, about which he spoke to his friend Alexander Lawson:
I am most earnestly bent on pursuing my plan of
making a collection of all the birds in this part of North America,
Now, I don’t want you to throw cold water, as Shakespeare says,
on this notion, Quixotic as it may appear. I have been so long
accustomed to the building of airy castles, and brain windmills,
that it has become one of my earthly comforts, —a sort of rough bone, that amuses me when sated with the dull drudgery of life.
(Wilson, 1803, cited in Jardine. 1832, p.xl).
Wilson was aware that despite his enthusiasm for birds, he did not have the skills or knowledge to carry out such an ambitious project, so in less than five years he concentrated on learning about nature, developing his drawing skills and collecting more specimens.
Watson, J. (1832). Alexander Wilson [Engraving], American Ornithology Vol. IV.
Wilson, A.; Bonaparte, C.L.; Jardine, W. (1832). American ornithology or, The natural history of the birds of the United States Vol. I y Vol. IV.