John James Audubon is perhaps the most famous birder in the United States. The name “Audubon” appears on a wide range of places and his life work, The Birds of America, produced iconic, beautiful paintings of birds realistically portrayed as living. Some of these paintings include birds that are now extinct.
Beyond his paintings, John James Audubon was an excellent and prolific writer, taking detailed notes about birds, their habitat, and their population. He was easily one of the first naturalists to discuss conservation issues facing birds, well ahead of his time.
While the name Audubon is synonymous to birds, I realized quickly that I didn’t really know all that much about him. Thus, I gathered up a pile of books about his life and dove in.
The Audubon Reader was the perfect place to start. This collection of Audubon writings was edited by Richard Rhodes, the author of the biography John James Audubon: The Making of an American. It turns out, I also started reading this latter book and are like two perfectly matched cogs.
In The Audubon Reader we are rewarded with the poetic, detailed observations of a true naturalist and lover of birds. While Audubon is famous for his art, his writing is a work of art on its own. Whether they be essays, letters, or ornithological passages, Audubon produced some great pieces of natural history literature.
“Whether or not this term be appropriate to the case I leave for you to determine; but my opinion is that the animal truly deserving to be called stupid yet remains to be discovered, and that the quality designated by that epithet occurs nowhere else than among the individuals of that species which so thoughtlessly applies the opprobrium.”The Audubon Reader, pg 100
His observations on now extinct birds: Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Passenger Pigeon, and Carolina Parakeet bring the birds back to life, even if temporarily. This information, and his observation on the inevitable declines of these birds, helps form a foundation of history and a warning to the future. While his focus wasn’t always on conservation, much of his ideas were well ahead of his time. John James Audubon can certainly be thought of as a conservationist.
Audubon also wrote extensively on non-bird subjects including turtles and the American Bison. His thoughts on this noble mammal were spot on, noting that they were quickly heading to extinction due to unchecked killing.
Also included in The Audubon Reader is the full Labrador journal, a rarity as this has been out of print for a long time. This oft forgotten journey to look for seabirds is exciting and well worth reading. It is also the subject of a heavily researched, massive tome by Peter B. Logan titled Audubon: America’s Greatest Naturalist and His Voyage of Discovery to Labrador.
“I have pleasure in saying that my enemies have been few and my friends numerous. May the God who granted me life, industry and perseverance to accomplish my task, forgive the former and forever bless the latter!”The Audubon Reader, pg 610
The Making of an American covers the life and travels of John James Audubon, mixing in passages from the aforementioned book. Rhodes does an excellent job of putting Audubon’s life into context. Yes he shot the birds in order to study and paint them. But this was the only way to do this at the time. Besides his quest to paint birds, we get a lot of insight into the private life of Audubon, including his business and relationship struggles.
Audubon was well-liked and remarkable, but his travels strained his family relations, particularly with his wife Lucy and his two sons. He also struggled with business ventures which again is put into context. His failings were common at the time and he spent a great deal of time on the brink of destitution. (He was even jailed briefly for his debts.)
Under a Wild Sky by William Souder covers more than Audubon’s life in America and rise to success. This book includes a lot of information about other influential people during this time, specifically the work of Audubon’s contemporary and competitor, Alexander Wilson. Wilson’s contribution to ornithology was important and his publication had some impact on Audubon’s pursuit to create the Birds of America.
Souder interjects a lot of his own theories, many which are questionable or rebuked in other works about Audubon. Most notably the idea that Audubon was a derelict business owner and family man, more interested with traipsing through the woods. Both of these notions are better described and defended in other works.
Overall, Under a Wild Sky does a good job of broadening the view of Audubon’s life by expanding on the time period.
National Audubon Society
Founded in 1905 largely by John Muir and George Bird Grinnell, The National Audubon Society is one of the largest non-profits dedicated to birding and conservation. With over 450 local chapters, you are bound to have a local group of like-minded conservationists within an easy drive.
We’ve been members of Audubon for several years and their quarterly magazine is full of beautiful articles, photos and conservation information.
The National Audubon Society also hosts a digital version of John James Audubon’s Birds of America. The images are courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove in Audubon, Pennsylvania.