“I know I am not a scholar, but meantime I am aware that no man living knows better than I do the habits of our birds; no man living has studied them as much as I have done.”
These are the words of John James Audubon, the great ornithologist, naturalist, and artist. Today, April 26th, is Audubon’s birthday. He was born 232 year ago 1785. Audubon is known for his double-elephant folio prints of The Birds of America, which was a spectacular achievement and contribution to the study of ornithology. In honor of Audubon’s birthday, here are some interesting facts about The Birds of America.
- Audubon’s love for birds and nature stem from his childhood in France. His father encouraged him to study birds and draw. As he grew up, his artistic abilities improved, and he developed a unique way of sketching birds. After shooting the bird, he would pin it up on a grid. At the time, many artists would draw a bird in profile on a plain background. Audubon however, wanted his birds to look like they were moving, so he positioned them so it looked like they were either flying, hunting, or feeding and placed them in elaborate scenes.
- As a young man, Audubon never considered publishing his illustrations, until he met the famed ornithologist of the time, Alexander Wilson. For a time, Audubon owned a general store, and Wilson came in to try to sell a subscription of his work American Ornithology. Audubon thought his illustrations were better, and that encounter sparked his interest in eventually publishing his work (perhaps to outdo Wilson’ work, which he eventually did).
- The Birds of America was published between 1827-1838. It contained 435 life-sized watercolors on hand-engraved plates. Audubon insisted the birds be illustrated to scale, so he would position large birds in poses so that they would find the page. The pages of the double-elephant portfolio are 39 by 26 inches. Subscribers were sent sets of 5 prints per month (usually one large bird, one medium-sized, and three small birds).
- The opening plate of The Birds of America is the Wild Turkey, a bird that Audubon was particularly fond of. He encountered his first Wild Turkey while on an expedition down the Ohio River.
- There are 6 birds in the portfolio that are now extinct: the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Labrador Duck, Pinnated Grouse, Great Auk, and Eskimo Curlew. Audubon identified 25 new species.
- Audubon originally tried to find a publisher in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which during his time was the cultural and scientific center of the United States. However, he was met with enmity by the scientific community, many who believed Audubon was too conceited and remained loyal to ornithologist Alexander Wilson. Due to this failure, Audubon looked for a publisher in Liverpool, England. The British were fascinated by Audubon’s “American backwoodsman” image so much that he became extremely popular.
- It took 14 years of studies, expeditions, and engraving to complete The Birds of America.
- Audubon not only loved illustrating birds, but enjoyed writing about them as well. Between 1831-1839 Audubon published Ornithological Biography, an octavo version that was 5 volumes. Ornithological Biography is an accompaniment to the prints where Audubon vividly describes his field observations and avian behavior.
- A complete bound set of The Birds of America would sell today for upwards of $8,000,000. In 2000, a complete set sold at Christie’s, New York, for $8,802,500, setting the world auction record for any printed book. There are around 120 complete sets still in existence.
The love John James Audubon felt for birds will forever live on through The Birds of America. Ornithology was his passion, and through diligence and dedication, Audubon persevered to achieve his goal of his “Great Idea”. Happy birthday, John James Audubon! Thanks for being an inspiration to bird and nature lovers by sharing your passion with the world.
If you would like to see prints of the birds from The Birds of America, you can see them all on the National Audubon Society’s website:
What’s your favorite Audubon print? Tell me in the comments. (My favorites are the Great Horned Owl, Ospreys, and American White Pelican).