Bonaparte was the son of Lucien Bonaparte and Alexandrine de Bleschamp, and a nephew of Emperor Napoleon I. Born in Paris, he was raised in Italy. On 29 June 1822, he married his cousin, Zénaïde, in Brussels. Soon after the marriage, the couple left for Philadelphia in the United States to live with Zénaïde's father, Joseph Bonaparte. Before leaving Italy, Carlo had already discovered a warbler new to science, the moustached warbler, and on the voyage he collected specimens of a new storm-petrel. On arrival in the United States, he presented a paper on this new bird, which was later named after Alexander Wilson.
Bonaparte then set about studying the ornithology of the United States and updating Wilson's American Ornithology. The revised edition was published between 1825 and 1833. In 1824, Bonaparte tried to get the then unknown John James Audubon accepted by the Academy of Natural Sciences, but this was opposed by the ornithologist George Ord.
At the end of 1826, Bonaparte and his family returned to Europe. He visited Germany, where he met Philipp Jakob Cretzschmar, and England, where he met John Edward Gray at the British Museum, and renewed his acquaintance with Audubon. In 1828, the family settled in Rome. In Italy, he was the originator of several scientific congresses, and lectured and wrote extensively on American and European ornithology and other branches of natural history. Between 1832 and 1841, Bonaparte published his work on the animals of Italy, Iconografia della Fauna Italica. He had also published Specchio Comparativo delle Ornithologie di Roma e di Filadelfia (Pisa, 1827), presenting a comparison between birds of the latitude of Philadelphia and Italian species. He created the genus Zenaida, after his wife, for the mourning dove and its relatives. He was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1845.
In 1849, he was elected to the Roman Assembly and participated in the creation of the Roman Republic. According to Jasper Ridley, when the Assembly convened for the first time: "When the name of Carlo Bonaparte, who was a member for Viterbo, was called, he replied to the roll-call by calling out Long live the Republic!" (Viva la Repubblica!). He participated in the defense of Rome against the 40,000 French troops sent by his cousin Louis Napoleon. He left Rome after the Republican army was defeated in July 1849. He landed at Marseilles, but was ordered to leave the country by Louis Napoleon. He reaffirmed his political beliefs the following year in naming Wilson's bird-of-paradise (Cicinnurus respublica) in honor of the republican idea.
He travelled to England, attending the meeting of the British Association in Birmingham. He then visited Sir William Jardine in southern Scotland. Charles then began work on preparing a methodical classification of all the birds in the world, visiting museums across Europe to study the collections. In 1850, he was allowed to return to France and made Paris his home for the rest of his life. In 1854, he became director of the Jardin des Plantes. In 1855, he was made a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He published the first volume of his Conspectus Generum Avium before his death, the second volume being edited by Hermann Schlegel.
Bonaparte also studied amphibians and reptiles, and is the author of Vipera ursinii, commonly known as Orsini's viper.
Lucien Charles Bonaparte died in Paris at age 54.1845: Member of the Royal Academy of Science, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium.
Prince Charles and Princess Zénaïde Bonaparte had twelve children, listed below :American Ornithology, or, The Natural History of Birds Inhabiting the United States (4 vols., Philadelphia, 1825-'33). This work contains more than 100 new species discovered by Bonaparte.
Conspectus Generum Avium (Leyden, 1850)
Revue critique de l'ornithologie Européenne (Brussels, 1850)
Monographie des loxiens (Leyden, 1850) in collaboration with H. Schlegel
Catalogue des oiseaux d'Europe (Paris, 1856)
Memoirs (New York, 1836)
In conjunction with M. de Pouancé, he also prepared descriptive catalogue of pigeons and one of parrots which were published after his death. Among his papers published are:“Observations on the Nomenclature of Wilson's ‘Ornithology,’” Journal of the Academy of Philadelphia
“Synopsis of the Birds of the United States,” Annals of the Lyceum of New York
“Catalogue of the Birds of the United States,” Contributions of the Maclurian Lyceum of Philadelphia