Thursday, April 26, 2007

Happy Birthday to John James Audubon

Today is the birthday of John James Audubon (1785-1851). Audubon was born in Haiti (then Saint-Domingue) and educated in France. He first came to the United States in 1803 and settled near Philadelphia. In the course of his career as a naturalist and painter, he lived and worked in Louisville, Kentucky; Cincinnati, Ohio; New Orleans, Louisiana; and several other American cities. He died in 1851 and is buried in New York City.

John James Audubon was one of several naturalists who studied North American birds in the early years of the United States. Along with Alexander Wilson, Charles Bonaparte, William Bartram, and others, Audubon helped to discover and describe the continent's avifauna. Audubon himself described 34 birds (both species and subspecies) for the first time. The western subspecies of the yellow-rumped warbler still bears his name.

As with the article that I wrote about last week, reading Audubon's accounts of the birds he painted can be a reminder of the different standards for naturalists then and now. Since he worked without the benefit of binoculars, spotting scopes, or cameras, he needed to shoot birds before he could paint them. The species descriptions that accompany his illustrations usually include some notes about where and how he captured his specimens. When possible, he painted from freshly killed and mounted specimens. In the course of his work, he sometimes would sample a bird's meat and describe its quality. The American white pelican received a poor review:

Its flesh is rank, fishy, and nauseous, and therefore quite unfit for food, unless in cases of extreme necessity. The idea that these birds are easily caught when gorged with fish, is quite incorrect, for when approached, on such an occasion, they throw up their food, as Vultures are wont to do.
The advantage of painting from recently-killed models was that Audubon could paint the birds in more lifelike positions than his predecessors managed. His paintings often show the birds in action - hunting and being hunted, foraging, and interacting with other birds. Audubon did not always achieve perfectly lifelike stances, but sometimes was quite successful. His painting of blue jays is one of his better depictions of birds in action.

John James Audubon had no personal connection with the National Audubon Society. The organization was founded at the turn of the twentieth century - about fifty years after Audubon's death. His name was chosen for his early contribution to North American ornithology and for his well-known book, Birds of America.