John James Audubon by John Syme, December 31, 1825. Public domain.
He wasn't the first person to try and document all the birds of America, but he was certainly the most famous, and the legacy of John James Audubon lives on through The National Audubon Society and their diligent work to protect America's precious birds.
Trumpeter Swan by John James Audubon, The Birds of America, 1836. Public Domain.
As many of you know, I also write the blog Blessed Little Creatures and have a special place in my heart for the lovely birds that seem to congregate around my home wherever I live, from the tiny House Sparrows that fill the evergreens beside the house to the magnificent Turkey Vulture that perches in the tree at the end of the road, waiting for a speeding truck driver to provide his meal.
I have participated in activities through The National Audubon Society on many occasions and contributed to assist them in their work, but always wondered how the organization started, so I decided to begin the A to Z Bloggers Challenge with a post on John James Audubon, who did not start The National Audubon Society, but he did influence those who did start the society. Read on, it does make sense, I promise.
Portrait of John James Audubon from 19th century book. Public domain.
Although John James Audubon was not the first person to try and document all of the birds of America (this was first attempted by the Scottish-American poet and illustrator Alexander Wilson) Audubon did create the stunning collection of 435 life-size prints collected in his book Birds of America. The collection consists of hand-colored. life-size prints of each bird made into 39 by 26 inch engraved plates first published as a series between 1827 and 1838 in Edinburgh and London,
Passenger Pigeon by John James Audubon. Public Domain.
It was the careful details, brilliant colors and lovely poses that made the book popular. In contemporary society we have cell phones and high-tech cameras, but in Audubon's day, people relied on the artist to introduce them to the wonders of nature in America, particularly the Old West where turkey vultures and hawks of many kinds rule the skies.
Turkey Vulture by John James Audubon. Public domain.
However, when it came to documenting all of the species he wanted to display, Audubon had a problem. He lived in the North.
A Short Biography of John James Audubon
John James Audubon was born in Haiti. His father was French, a ship's captain, and his mother was his French mistress. He spent much of his childhood in France with his stepmother where he learned about birds, nature, music and art. When he turned 18 he escaped to America to avoid Napoleon's army and lived at another family-owned estate--Mill Grove near Philadelphia, where he also met his wife, Lucy Blackwell.
Audubon also enjoyed hunting, and it was during this time that he invented what we now know as banding as a method of tracking bird and animal migration--he tied strings around the legs of Eastern Phoebes to see if they returned to the same nest each year. They did.
Audubon continued to draw as a hobby while working as a businessman and helping his wife raise two sons--Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse--but in 1819 he was jailed for bankruptcy. When he was released, Lucy and the children moved in with wealthier families in town to work as a tutor and John left with a young assistant, his art supplies and his guns to document the plants and wildlife of America.
The Barn Owl by John James Audubon. Public domain.
The Mystery of the Missing Birds
For many years now scientists have puzzled over five of Audubon's bird paintings. To put it simply, they could not locate the birds! These birds include The Townsends Bunting; Cuvier's Kinglet; Carbonated Swamp Warbler; Small-Headed Flycatcher; and Blue Mountain Warbler. It has been speculated that the birds became extinct before the formation of The National Audubon Society increased awareness of the importance of saving the species. Audubon preferred to paint his birds live, so it's also possible that he made mistakes when identifying birds. However, it is also rumored that Audubon sent for bird carcasses from a friend in order to complete the book because he could not travel across the country and needed examples to work with while painting. It's possible we will never know the answer to the question of the mystery birds.
Marsh Hares by John James Audubon. Public domain.
A Different Approach
Audubon traveled America on many more occasions to complete his work, then in 1843 he traveled to the American West for a different project, documenting animals for his book Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which was completed by his sons.
Lutheran Pastor John Bachman, Audubon's close friend and author of the text of Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.
The text for Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America was composed by Audubon's friend, Lutheran Pastor John Bachman. Both of Bachman's daughters were married to Audubon's sons. John James Audubon was 65 years old when he died and was buried at the Trinity Cemetery in New York.
The National Audubon Society
The formation of The National Audubon Society is interesting considering John James Audubon generally used dead birds as models for his portraits. George Bird Grinnell, Editor of Forest and Stream magazine believed the wanton slaughter of birds in North America was reckless and appalling. In his time, Christmas bird hunts took place where young boys would take their guns into the forests and shoot as many birds as they could find to win the Christmas contest. Now we have a bird count.
When Grinnell came across Ornithological Biography by John James Audubon he became determined to stop the slaughter of birds. The fact that he found this book was not a coincidence. Grinnell was a student at a school for boys run by Lucy Audubon. Grinnell founded The National Audubon Society and within a year of its founding had recruited 39,000 members.
(I apologize for the late post. I generally write at night, but I woke up this morning to find an entire blog had disappeared! It's been a rough start. Thank you for reading.)
- "Audubon." The White House Historical Association website. Accessed April 1, 2016.
- "John James Audubon." History. Audubon website. Accessed March 30, 2016.
- Pollack, Michael. "Five Mystery Birds Among Audubon's Paintings." The New York Times. Published August 21, 2015. Accessed March 30, 2016.
- Tanner, Ogden. The Canadians. The Old West. Time Life Books. 1977: Canada.