Friday, April 1, 2016

Audubon: North America's Birds and the Bird Mystery

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. 

In 1862, Audubon returned to England with his collection of paintings, found a printer for Birds of America in Edinburgh, then in London, and became an overnight success. He later worked with Scottish Ornithologist William MacGillvray to document the life history of each bird.

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.


Corinne Rodrigues said...

Amazing artist and I marvel at his contribution to the world.
Good luck with the A to Z, Darla.

Nicola said...

There is nothing more beautiful, first thing in the morning, than to hear birdsong. Lovely post. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Look forward to B. Enjoy the challenge and have a lovely day.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I agree! My yard is filled with robins right now and it's a beautiful sight. Thank you for reading!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Thank you, Corrine! I have always been a bit in awe of Audubon's work. I would love to have a copy of his original paintings. I could spend days staring at his photos! Nice to hear from you again!

Ravyne said...

I always wondered about Audubon, but never had the opportunity to research him. Fascinating about those missing birds! Enjoyed this so much!
Have a great weekend!

My A2Zs @ As the Fates Would Have It & Promptly Written
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Darla Sue Dollman said...

Me too--that's why I chose him for this post! I had a feeling he was a quiet, introspective man who simply enjoyed the beauty of this world and I was right. You can see it in his art.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Rayne, I wrote a long comment about your post on Adele, but cannot log in to your blog. I'm sorry. I did enjoy the post.

Kat said...

A perfect post for this month, given how the birds here, where I am, are just starting to fly about and sing their spring songs!

I've always heard about the Audubon Society but never knew much about the man himself. He has such an interesting story. Thank you for providing another piece of history well explained, to enjoy! :)

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I thought so, too. When I was growing up we always watched for the robins to appear. We'd see one or two hopping around and know spring was coming. This week I've seen dozens flying around the house, along with doves, hawks, and even a bald eagle. It just felt right to post about Audubon! I wish I had a copy of his book. It must be magnificent.

SL said...

What an interesting post. I learned something new today. Given the times and attitudes as evidenced in the Christmas hunts, it seems entirely possibly the five species went extinct.

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...