[MUSEALIA] Histoire de la nature des oyseaux , P. Belon

[Musealia : Histoire de la nature des oyseaux, P. Belon]

Every month, Sorbonne University invites you to discover an object from its heritage collections. This month, discover Histoire de la nature des oyseaux, by P. Belon.

Inherited from the Sorbonne's collections and now housed in the Geosciences and Environment Library, this Histoire de la nature des oyseaux is a rare edition of a treatise published in 1555 by French naturalist Pierre Belon.

The author, considered one of the first ornithologists of the Renaissance, in this richly illustrated work of 158 engravings, proposes a classification of birds according to their behaviour and anatomy. He compares beaks and talons to distinguish between birds of prey, waterfowl, omnivores and small birds.

This treatise is of major scientific interest because it is the first attempt at comparative anatomy : in one of the engravings, Pierre Belon compares the skeleton of a bird with that of a human (Book I, pp. 40-41). However, although he questioned the similarities between the bone structures of the two organisms, he did not draw any practical conclusions: it was not until the beginning of the 19th century that his method was taken up again, notably by Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Georges Cuvier.

Surprisingly, and perhaps in order to unify his classification, the author decides to include in his treatise several fantastic creatures that he calls 'oyseaux incognuz' (incongros birds). Thus we find a pegasus, a 'horse-headed bird' (Book I, p. 78), sirens and a phoenix. Because of its wings, he decides to place the 'bat' in the category of birds of prey, although he is well aware that it is a mammal and not a bird (Book II, p. 146-147).

Although Pierre Belon's treatise was partly overshadowed by the publication, in the same year, of the third book on birds, the Historiae animalium by the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner, from the 17th century onwards it became a reference in ornithological literature.

The copy kept at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France has been digitised and is available on Gallica.

 By Julie Arros, librarian at the Geoscientific and Environmental Library (BSU).


Data sheet

  • Name : Belon, Pierre (1517-1564). L'histoire de la nature des oyseaux, avec leurs descriptions, & naïfs portraicts retirez du naturel : escrite en sept livres (The history of the nature of birds, with their descriptions, & naive portraits taken from nature : written in seven books). Paris: Gilles Corrozet, 1555.
  • Type of document : Ancient book
  • Inventory number / call number : 4-RES-14
  • Description: [28]-381-[3] p. : ill. gr.s.b. ; in-2
  • Date : 1555
  • Place of storage : Geosciences and Environment Library
  • Online consultation :


  • GLARDON, Philippe, 1990. « Les comparaisons et les monstres : figures structurales de la description zoologique dans L’Histoire de la nature des Oyseaux de Pierre Belon du Mans ». Anthropozoologica. Vol. 13, p. 27‑44.
  • CERARD, Jean, 1971. « Pierre Belon, zoologiste ». Actes du Colloque Renaissance-Classique du Maine, Le Mans : Librairie A-G Nizet, p. 129-140
  • BELON DU MANS, Pierre, 1997. L'Histoire de la nature des oyseaux (1555). Facsimile of 1555 edition. Ed. Philippe Glardon. Genève: Librairie Droz.
  • GLARDON, Philippe, 2011. L’Histoire naturelle au XVIe siècle. Introduction, étude et édition critique de La nature et diversité des poissons de Pierre Belon (1555) [en ligne]. Genève : Librairie Droz. [Consulté le 28 juin 2021]. Available at :
  • City of Besançon, 2020. Les aventures d'un naturaliste au XVIe siècle : Pierre Belon. [en ligne]. [Consulted 26 june 2021]. Available at :


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