A news story popped up in my Facebook feed this week about a great new exhibition opening at the Berkshire Museum in Massachusetts next weekend – Taking Flight: Audubon and the World of Birds. This exhibit includes more than 30 original Havell prints from his famous The Birds of America and helps visitors understand Audubon’s passion for birds.
Audubon’s name comes up frequently when you’re a bird-lover, but how much do you really know about him? Here are five fascinating facts about this beloved ornithologist and artist.
His family called him Jean-Jacques.
Audubon was born in 1785 in the French colony of Saint Domingue – now known as Haiti. He was first named Jean Rabin after his mother Jeanne Rabin, who was his father’s mistress. He was not formally adopted by his father until 1794, after his father had returned to France. His full name was Jean-Jaqcues Fougere Audubon. When left France in 1803 to come to America, he adopted the version of his name by which he is best known: John James Audubon.
He introduced bird-banding to the New World.
Bird-banding has been used for centuries to study birds and their travels (the earliest known use dates back to Roman times), but Audubon is the first person known to use the process in the Americas. He tied yarn (some say thin silver wire) to the legs of Eastern Phoebes, monitored their movements, and discovered that this species returns to nest in the same spot each year.
Audubon was quite the taxidermist.
Audubon was determined to illustrate birds as they’d rarely been seen before – in lifelike poses that depicted their behavior in the wild. He spent a great deal of time observing his subjects, but in order to capture detail exactly for his drawings, it was necessary for him to capture and kill specimens. He used wire to position them to his exacting standards, then creating his drawings from these displays. It’s tempting to judge him harshly by today’s standards for killing thousands of birds as part of his research, but his methods were typical of the time and helped to create an incredibly vast bank of knowledge about birds and their behavior. He documented six species that are now extinct, including the Carolina Parakeet (shown below).
He was also an explorer.
Audubon’s goal was to document all the birds of America. He traveled extensively in the south, including Florida, where he did many of his most famous works at the house of Captain John H. Geiger (now the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens – well worth a visit if you’re ever in Key West). He was in New Madrid, Missouri at the time of the famous 1812 earthquake. He traveled north, too, visiting Labrador and Newfoundland. In addition to documenting 25 new species of birds in his travels, he also studied other creatures including mammals. His final work, published posthumously, was the delightfully-named Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.
His works may not be priceless, but they come awfully close.
Even at the time of publication, Audubon’s magnum opus, The Birds of America, was pricey. The cost of printing the complete work, taking more than 14 years from 1827 to 1838, was $115,640 – over two million dollars today. Subscribers paid for the work and received their installments in sets contained in tin cases during the publication years. A subscriber who stuck it out and bought them all would have paid over $1000. Of course, that investment would pay off in the future – in 2010, a complete first edition copy of the work sold for more than $11 million dollars in London.
You can see all of the images from The Birds of America here at the Audubon Society website, and learn much more about his life in the book John James Audubon: The Making of An American by Richard Rhodes.