Thursday, January 9, 2014

The most famous birder of them all

It might surprise you to know that John James Audubon began his career as a relatively unskilled artist, spending years honing his craft before publishing his masterwork, Birds of America. He destroyed many of his early drawings, but a goodly selection remain in the collections of Harvard’s Houghton Library and the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. These charming works by one of the most important figures in American natural history exemplify the beautifully detailed, scientifically accurate, and lifelike qualities that made his later images so famous. The examples at left and below come from Audubon: Early Drawings, from Harvard University Press. Never before published as a group, the 116 depictions of American, European, and exotic birds date from 1805–1823, and many include Audubon’s own notes. Pictured here are male and female ivory-billed woodpeckers, northern shoveler, male wood grouse, passenger pigeon, osprey, cassowary, blackbird, owl, and red-shouldered falcon.
The January 6 New Yorker has a gripping article by Jonathan Rosen about the extinction of the passenger pigeon, once the most numerous species in North America. "In 1893, John James Audubon saw a flock—if that's what you call an agglomeration of birds moving 60 miles an hour and obliterating the noonday sun—that was merely the advance guard of a multitude that took three days to pass."
In the book's introduction, biographer Richard Rhodes writes that Audubon formed his fondness for birds as a young boy. His father encouraged him to observe birds in the woods in France, even catching birds for him. By late childhood Audubon began drawing them, a hobby he continued when his father later sent him to America to avoid conscription into the French army.

"One of the great pleasures of Audubon: Early Drawings, with its lavish reproductions and scientific notes, is that it allows us to see the naturalist turning into the artist, laboring not merely to give his birds scientific accuracy but an almost uncanny life force…. His bird drawings are vaguely anthropomorphic and yet tinged with a deeper sort of knowledge, too, that we are also birdlike. It is an artistic intuition of the understanding Darwin would later articulate."—Jonathan Rosen, New York Times


  1. I was just reading about Audubon last night in A Fierce Green Fire, Philip Shabecoff's history of environmental activism in the U.S. In the early 19th century, when he was a shopkeeper in Louisville who wanted instead to be in the woods, Audubon claimed to have spent time with the elderly Daniel Boone, who had returned to Kentucky at the end of his life. During their visits together, Shabecoff writes, "Boone regaled Audubon with tales of his adventures on the wild frontier and showed him how to shoot squirrels from trees." Audubon later painted a portrait of Boone (with no birds in it).

  2. WAY cool! thanks for sharing that. Handsome fellow.