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The Bird Painter

Three of my favorite things are birds, bacteria, and books. I may someday write a book about the bacteria found on birds. Or perhaps a better idea would be a book a human might actually want to read. So for now, I’ll offer little-known morsels that make birds and bacteria fascinating. On occasion, I’ll offer a tidbit on the utterly mystifying business known as publishing.

This month’s topic is birds. Overlooked everyday by people absorbed by their phones, birds are all around us. You can find them in pristine nature and the grittiest urban places, from pole to pole, at 30,000 feet and at 200 feet beneath the sea surface. And yes, even various phone apps help you find birds.

Birdwatching is a billion-dollar industry. From the simple act of seeing a bird, finding a book with colorful bird pictures, and matching picture to creature, this hobby has turned into a massive enterprise with tentacles into arts and crafts, fashion, and ecotourism. Don’t forget the sophisticated optical equipment that enhances birdwatching and can quickly empty your wallet. But it’s all good. Studying birds allows us to monitor our environment. Serious birdwatchers (called “birders”) note the birds they spot. Their notations are called checklists. The birds named on a checklist, including when and where a bird was seen and how many, help scientists monitor trends on our planet. Birding is therefore a window to climate change, habitat loss, and human population growth. Birds alert us to the subtle ways traffic noise, streetlights, and even bright green lawns affect the way the Earth works.

Birdwatching has something for everyone. Birders climb the Andes with researchers to assess native condors. Or you can spend a day in your LazyBoy, beer at elbow, and watch feathery things at the feeder. For the truly outdoors-averse, birds have made their way into photography and other visual arts, clothing, handbags, stationary, dinnerware, clocks, and kitchen gadgets. If you’re pretty good at drawing a bird, you can slap that sketch on just about anything. Sooner or later a birdwatcher will want to buy it.

How did this madness start? People have watched bird behavior and made simple drawings since antiquity. We trace our modern hobby, however, to a quirky and slightly mysterious fellow of the 18th Century: John James Audubon. (Read more below)

John James Audubon portrait by John Symes
A pensive John James Audubon [Painting by John Syme courtesy of White House Historical Association]
Mill Grove Farm, 1820

Mill Grove Farm and Perkiomen Creek, Pennsylvania

Lucy Bakewell Audubon, 19th Century portrait
Lucy Bakewell Audubon, 1787-1874.  [Unknown Photographer, from Audubon Aviary,]

The name “Audubon” is attached to bird sanctuaries and a national society with hundreds of local chapters. But few people know the man behind the name. He was born in 1785 in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) as Jean Rabine to a French naval officer and a local creole working woman. It may have been an illegitimate birth; he remained coy about this throughout his life. Before turning four, his father packed him off to France to avoid the island’s swelling violence between sugar plantation owners and their slaves. France offered a strong and varied education. Living on an estate in Nantes and being raised by his aunt – as Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon – the youngster became rather pampered with an aversion to hard work. One activity did catch his imagination: catching, killing, and stuffing birds. Rather than for macabre purposes, Audubon pursued birds because of his love and fascination for them. Before Audubon turned 18 his prescient father recognized trouble brewing in France as Napoleon conscripted men for the army. He arranged for his son to be shipped away yet again, this time to America, to manage his father’s estate at Mill Grove, near Philadelphia.

Mill Grove enchanted Audubon but he maintained his disenchantment with work. He preferred a life of satin breeches, silk stockings, and ruffled shirts. He wore his hair long and flowing and convinced himself that women found this irresistible. Perhaps. On the country estate party circuit, he soon met his bride-to-be, raven-haired Lucy Bakewell, who lived on the estate next to Mill Grove. After they married in 1808, Audubon lost all thoughts of running estates and disappeared every morning into the dew with gun toward the Schuylkill River in search of small songbirds and herons.

Audubon grew skilled at pinning bird carcasses in “lifelike” poses onto a board and then drawing them. This was an innovation in depicting game and wildlife as art. Previous artists invariably chose to portray animals as slaughtered game hanging from a hook. Audubon was one of the first to present his subjects as living things interacting with each other and their surroundings. Said Audubon: “Immediately after the establishment of this style, I destroyed and disposed of nearly all the drawings I accumulated, (upwards of 200,) and with fresh vigour (sic) began again, having all my improvements about me.”

During his time in Pennsylvania, Audubon was probably also the first person to put a small identifying band on a bird’s leg – now known as bird banding – to see if the same birds return to their nests each year. (Many of them do!)

Before long, Audubon repeatedly waved good-bye to Lucy to join expeditions or travel alone to seek birds and perfect his art. By 1812, the property at Mill Grove began to fail. The couple moved to Louisville, KY, to open a general store and raise a family. But the store faltered as Lucy desperately tried to keep it afloat while her husband chased birds through woods and fields, blasting away. He improved on methods to suspend the birds he returned with on wires and threads to accentuate their personality in three dimensions. The resulting paintings were exquisite and very dramatic. Some critics would eventually complain of them being melodramatic.

By 1820, challenges overwhelmed the Audubons. Two of their four children had died. Audubon did a stint in jail for unpaid debts. But he kept alive his dream of painting every bird in North America and publishing the art in a huge portfolio. With the ever-patient Lucy encouraging him, Audubon sought sponsors in New Orleans, Edinburgh, London, and Paris. This was a time when nature study captivated the public. All Audubon needed was one or two wealthy benefactors. While he searched for funding, Lucy taught music, sewing, grammar, social skills, as well as swimming and horsemanship.

The tide of good luck shifted in 1826 with two well-received art exhibitions in Scotland and England. The name Audubon was gaining gravity in nature study, bird behavior, and art. Now with an audience and modest funding, he could promote his art collection, Birds of America. Always comfortable in a spotlight, Audubon relished each public appearance. He wowed the crowds at his art exhibitions as the American Woodsman, rugged in hunting garb under a wolf skin jacket, fur cap complete with bushy tail, and hair flowing to his shoulders. His audiences fixated on his stunning eyes while he mesmerized them with tales of mountains, rivers, prairies, and forests. He embellished the stories about his youth along the Louisiana bayous (not true), his father the Admiral (not true), and his genuinely unique skill in presenting exotic birds and their lifestyles. By this time, Audubon befuddled his critics – was he a genius or was he a nut? – by deftly shifting between accounts of fending off grizzlies and quoting Shakespeare and Milton. Despite the eccentricities, Audubon’s brilliance emerged through his paintings. (What happened next? See below)

Great Blue Heron, Plate 211 in Birds of America
Plate 211 in Birds of America; Great Blue Heron.

In Birds of America, each bird appears in life-size watercolor. This was easy enough for a hummingbird or even a duck, but quite a trick when drawing a pelican, which explains why the original printing measures 28.5 inches wide and 39.5 inches tall. Even at these dimensions the artist was forced to depict the tallest, such as a flamingo, in unnatural, sometimes off-putting, poses.

London’s Havell & Son printed Birds of America in four volumes between 1827 and 1838. They contain a total of 435 plates each showing a different species. The main method consisted of copperplate etching with watercolors added by hand. Only 120 complete sets are known to exist. Some holders of an original complete set, such as the University of Pittsburgh, make the collection available to view online.

In 1831, Audubon set off with a healthy wallet to expand his collection. He found specimens in Florida, then Labrador, then Texas. In 1840, the Rocky Mountains beckoned and, though nearing 60 with failing eyesight, he was eager to head for the prairies and high peaks. But he increasingly needed help from his sons and fellow bird enthusiast, the Reverend John Bachman of Charleston, SC. (Two North American birds named for Bachman are currently struggling with habitat loss. Bachman’s Sparrow numbers are threatened. Bachman’s Warbler is critically endangered. It was last seen in 1988.) Before reaching all his goals, Audubon suffered an incapacitating stroke in 1848. He died in January 1851, in New York City. John James Audubon lies in Trinity Cemetery at 155th Street and Broadway.

The indefatigable Lucy carried on the exhibition schedule. She exhibited her husband’s work at the New York Historical Society in 1862. And Lucy had learned a lesson or two on showmanship. She regaled crowds with the stories behind each painting and spoke for hours on the idiosyncrasies of swallows, chickadees, and warblers. In addition to her husband, she survived her two sons and raised her grandchildren to adulthood. Lucy Bakewell Audubon died in 1874.

The John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove is now home to several ambassador birds. These are birds that have been rescued, usually injured, and cannot be released back into the wild so they help naturalists teach people about birds and bird behavior. The Center also offers a museum, trails, and education programs.


A wonderful bird is the pelican,

His bill would hold more than his belican.

He can take in his beak

Food enough for a week,

But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

Dixon Lanier Merritt, The Pelican, 1910

[Tennessean Dixon Merritt (1879-1972) was a poet, humorist, historian, and newspaper editor as well as avid birdwatcher. In 1915, he was one of six founders of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. As a tip of the hat to Merritt, a sketch of a pelican adorns the trail sign at the Cedar Forest State Park Nature Center in Lebanon, TN.]

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Gull sitting on car hood, Morro Bay, CA

Gull sitting on car hood, Morro Bay, CA

Snowy Owl taking off in the mist
Almost every birder loves owls. This one is a Snowy Owl taking off into the mist. [Daniel Behm, 2013]