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Definition: Audubon, John James from Philip's Encyclopedia

US ornithologist and artist. His remarkable series of some 400 watercolours of birds, often in action, were published in Birds of America (1827-38).

Summary Article: Audubon, John James (1785-1851)
From Encyclopedia of the Environment in American Literature

John James Audubon, illegitimate son of French Lieutenant Jean Audubon and Jeanne Rabin, a servant girl, was a born naturalist, an indefatigable artist and a pioneer of conservation. Soon after his birth, his mother died, and until he was six he lived on his father's sugar plantation in Haiti. Volatile uprisings in the plantation caused his father to send him to Nantes, France, where his second wife, Anne Moynet, raised him as her own. Under her tutelage, he developed his love for birds. He narrates that Anne Moynet had several pet parrots, and a pet monkey who one day killed a parrot because it had been uppity. This killing so upset Audubon that he begged for the monkey to be killed; however, the monkey was restrained and the parrot given an appropriate burial. This incident triggered Audubon's passion for birds, which turned into an obsession to revivify dead birds through the art of bird imaging. His father was his first ecology teacher, taking him on long nature walks, pointing out to him the variety, beauty and cyclical nature of the natural environment.

At 18 Audubon was sent to America to escape conscription in Napoleon's army, and at 21 he became an American citizen. In Mill Grove, Philadelphia, he lived on his father's farm and spent his time walking in the woods, hunting, fishing, and drawing. Even then he felt a nascent mission to investigate the natural world, observing, collecting and drawing birds with fastidious accuracy. Armed with La Fontaine's Fables as guide, and William Turton's translation of Linnaeus as his companion, he taught himself ornithology. At Mill Grove, Audubon met his wife, Lucy, who sympathized with his passion for the outdoors and especially for birds. She was his best friend and greatest supporter, and made an independent living raising their children, while Audubon continued his peripatetic life looking for bird specimens and drawing them for posterity.

Eventually supporting himself through his art, within 15 years Audubon had created a comprehensive, illustrated book of North American birds called Birds of America. The first edition of the book, ironically published in England, was a four-volume, leather-bound, double-elephant portfolio of bird illustrations drawn on 26” by 39” sheets. It contained 435 individual plates of 497 species of birds, and featured 1,065 hand-sketched and colored images of life-sized birds. So devoted was Audubon to his task that he not only drew and illustrated the birds, but raised money to finance the book's printing and was involved in every stage of its publication. A subsequent edition of Birds of America, called the royal octavo edition, was later published in America in 1840. This edition was much less expensive, as it used the new lithography technique of reproduction and reduced the size of the sheets to 6.5” by 10”. Although this seven-volume edition of 650 hand-colored prints was one-eighth the size of the first edition, it had a longer (and definitively nationalistic) title: The Birds of America from Drawings made in the United States and their Territories.

To accompany his avian illustrations, Audubon produced the five-volume Ornithological Biography, containing bird biographies, and occasional sketches of American frontiersmen. These sketches, influenced by the idealized pastoralism of his time (American Pastoral), depict frontier living and the pristine condition of the American wilderness before it was settled. Audubon's frontier-living experience, in fact, caused him to sound the first alarm concerning the large-scale slaughter of birds, and the destruction of habitat, as settlers penetrated into the American wilderness. Although he himself hunted game for consumption and drawing, it was measured and pragmatic, and he bemoaned the indiscriminate slaughter of birds, and the wasted carnage that was left to rot, when flocks of migratory birds were rapidly and systematically shot down. Moreover, when Audubon first started sketching birds he did so without killing and stuffing them, as was the practice then, but his attempt to save the lives of the birds was not successful, and he was forced to resort to killing the very birds he loved so much, in order to immortalize them for posterity.

Audubon lived the hard life of a frontiersman, walked the forests, and drifted down rivers to observe, gather and draw birds, unafraid and largely unaware of potential dangers. To understand bird behavior he entered the dark hollows of trees, once falling into quicksand and almost dying as he pursued his specimens. He was the first to band birds, tying a silver thread to the leg of the fly-catching Phoebe. He also kept and raised birds, including hawks, turkeys and swans, and tracked birds through their droppings. Although his main focus was birds, he also spent time observing other animals in the wild, which he recorded in The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, later completed by his sons and longtime friend John Bachman.

Audubon's principal contribution to the empirical understanding and preservation of the American environment was threefold: his masterpiece, Birds of America, popularized the field of ornithology in America and made bird watching a serious pastime for subsequent generations; his bird illustrations led to the identification, cataloguing and understanding of bird species and their immense variety; and his rudimentary bird banding led to the understanding of avian migration, population and habitat. His contribution to America's imaginative environment is incalculable.

  • Ford, Alice ed. Audubon, By Himself. Natural History Press Garden City NY. 1969.
  • Rhodes, Richard. John James Audubon. Alfred A. Knopf New York, 2004.
  • Sukanya B. Senapati
    © 2013 Geoff Hamilton and Brian Jones

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