John James Audubon, author of The Birds of America and patron saint of American wildlife, was, to tell the truth, an awful writer. His spoken English was strongly accented with the French of Haiti, where he was born in 1785 to a Spanish Creole mother and a father who ran a sugar plantation. By his own admission, his written English was a lot worse than his written French, which was pretty bad, too.
It’s best to take a few indigestion tablets when you tackle the raw text of his prose, before it was edited by William MacGillivray, his Scottish collaborator. Here he is on the Ruby-throated Hummingbird:
No sooner has the vivifying orb began to warn of spring once more the season, and caused millions of plants to spread the beauties of its benefiting rays, than the little hummingbird is seen advancing on fairy wings, visiting carefully every opening calix and like an anxious florist, remove from each of them the injurious Insects…
Even though he gave his name to America’s leading wildlife preservation charity, the National Audubon Society, he could hardly be called much of a wildlife campaigner, either. He was disappointed if he shot fewer than 100 birds a day. When he went in search of the Brown Pelicans of the Florida Keys in 1832, he wanted to kill 25 in order to draw a single male bird. He said of the trip, “I really believe I would have shot one hundred of these reverend sirs, had not a mistake taken place in the reloading of my gun.”
Later, on the same trip, bored of killing birds, he took to spraying the alligators with gunshot, noting how the brains of one leapt out of its head and exploded in midair. Audubon was rarely painted without a gun nestling in his hands, often with gundog at his side. So how did this semiliterate, bloodthirsty man end up producing The Birds of America, one of the great American wildlife books?
The answer is, of course, his 435 pictures, published in 87 sections between 1827 and 1838. It was their beauty, yes, but, most originally, their size—life size—that did it. Audubon insisted on printing in the punishingly expensive Double Elephant folio format, with its 39 x 26 inch pages. Original subscribers paid an elephantine $1,000 for The Birds of America, the equivalent of about $17,000 now. A later miniature edition was a bestseller, too, but it was still drawing on the success of its mammoth predecessor. The full-size book was perhaps the finest picture book ever made—a copy in good condition was sold at Christie’s in 2000 for $8,802,500, a world record for any printed book.
Surpassingly beautiful as Audubon’s bird pictures are, his skills as an artist were limited. His human portraits—his principal source of income after he went bankrupt and was sent to prison in Louisville, Kentucky for debt in 1819—are awkward and ill-proportioned. His birds, though, are far more accomplished and much more lifelike than the cold, stuffed still lifes—or still deaths—painted by earlier artists, including his chief rival, Alexander Wilson, the Scot who compiled the nine-volume American Ornithology between 1808 and 1814.
It’s easy to see why Audubon was better with birds than people. He was obsessed with their behavior before they flitted into his crosshairs. In 1804, he carried out the first known bird banding, on some peewees in Pennsylvania, tying “a light, silver thread on the leg of each, loose enough not to hurt the part, but so fastened that no exertion of theirs could remove it.”
His desperation to record the birds in pencil and watercolor was all-consuming, too. On his trip to Labrador in 1833 to capture (in both senses of the word) puffins, auks, guillemots, and Black-headed Gulls, he developed a kind of paralysis in his shoulders, neck, and fingers from all the drawing.
On top of his close observation of birds, Audubon insisted on painting his subjects almost immediately after death. A former taxidermist, he was adamant that the bird must be painted unstuffed, posed on wires very soon after it was killed or while it was still alive; he didn’t mind if the bird was in agony as long as he got its live plumage right. “I have ascertained that feathers lose their brilliancy almost as rapidly as flesh or skin itself,” he wrote in 1832 in St. Augustine, Florida, “and am of the opinion that a bird alive is 75 percent more rich in colors than 24 hours after its death.”
When he didn’t paint them fresh, his likenesses suffered. His picture of the Brunnich’s Murre, a thick-billed sea bird, looks flat and stiff—not unlike his human subjects—because he painted from a specimen that had been sent to him packed in ice. His Hawk Owls, which he never saw in the wild and had to be sent from Canada, look a little embarrassed, too.
Some critics complain that Audubon’s determination to fill the birds with life meant they ended up with practically human expressions—more human than the people whose portraits he painted. Certainly, one of his Pileated Woodpeckers—painted in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, gobbling caterpillars and pecking away at a branch—looks almost Disney-ish in its animated row with another woodpecker.
He did take liberties with the truth. His Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are depicted in a flock of 12—highly unusual for the species—because Europeans were so keen on the birds that they wanted to see them in all sorts of poses. On the whole, however, it’s the real-life atmosphere of the paintings—even if it’s mixed with a little showmanship and aw-shucks-ain’t-that-sweetness—that gives Audubon an edge.
He painted House Wrens feeding their three young in a battered old top hat, snagged on a branch. A Summer Red Bird swallows a fat black beetle; Purple Grackles munch a half-eaten corncob; a Whooping Crane flips over a baby alligator for lunch. His White-headed Eagle grasps a catfish in its talons. A Trumpeter Swan is actually trumpeting. He was criticized by ornithologists for all this animation, in particular for painting mockingbirds on a tree with a rattlesnake, its fangs curled outward. Rattlesnakes didn’t climb trees, they said, and their fangs never curled outward. They turned out to be wrong. Audubon 2, ornithologists 0.
The birds’ surroundings, often painted by George Lehman, are also crucial to Audubon’s most successful pictures—like the wildflowers that frame his meadowlarks or the luscious palm trees of the Florida Keys, used as a backdrop for the Louisiana Heron. All this was very daring, a touch of Barnum and Bailey livening up the clinical world of ornithological art. That daring was the silver lining to Audubon’s vanity—he was tremendously keen on his looks, on his mass of thick ringlets and his leather frontiersman’s clothes, lovingly caught in several self-portraits.
Like a lot of egomaniacs, Audubon was a disastrous businessman and particularly useless with other people’s money. His steam-mill business in Henderson, Kentucky went the way of his taxidermy and portrait-painting careers —belly-up, taking the fortunes of several investors with it, including that of George Keats, brother of the poet. John Keats wrote to his brother, saying, “I cannot help thinking Mr. Audubon a dishonest man. Why did he make you believe him a Man of Property? How is it his circumstances have altered so suddenly? I cannot help thinking Audubon has deceived you. I shall not like the sight of him.”
Most self-centered types are too wrapped up in themselves to turn their inner eye outward. Yet after half a lifetime of failure, Audubon, at the age of 35 in 1820, did manage to channel his frustration into the project of his life, heading off from New Orleans towards Cincinnati.
As the watercolors piled up, so did the corpses; on his first day, he shot 30 partridges, a woodcock, 27 gray squirrels, a Barn Owl, a turkey buzzard, and a Rump-yellow Warbler. Today, it aches the heart to look at Audubon’s picture of the Carolina Parakeets, painted in Louisiana in 1825. The last of the species died in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo; the last Passenger Pigeon died there, too, in the same year.
Still, things have gotten better in recent years, not least because of the National Audubon Society, founded in 1905. Among the society’s triumphs are the survival of the Greater Flamingo of southern Florida, the puffins on Eastern Egg Rock off the coast of Maine, the Whooping Crane (at 5 feet, America’s tallest bird), the Bald Eagle, the Peregrine Falcon, the California Condor, the Spotted Owl, the Cerulean Warbler, and the Red Knot.
The revival of birdlife is being encouraged across the country, not least near Minnie’s Land, the house on the Hudson River that Audubon bought with his royalties not long before his death in 1851. His 35-acre plot has now been swallowed up by Washington Heights, New York City, from 155th to 158th Street, between the Hudson and Amsterdam Avenue. The deer, elk, moose, foxes, wolves, and bears have all gone, but the birds are flourishing.
Next time you’re in New York, take one of the boat trips organized by the National Audubon Society. You will see Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Glossy Ibises, Cormorants, Great Black-backed Gulls, and Night Herons—all roosting within a wing’s flap of the Empire State Building.
Harry Mount is author of Carpe Diem: Put A Little Latin in Your Life, among other books.
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