2021 Edit: The print Oiseaux of the two ibises below is not by Alexander Wilson. The glossy ibis on the left is by Pierre-Joseph Redoute. The white one on the right is by Jacques Barraband. The print is from a book commissioned by Napoleon and is a compendium on the birds of Egypt. The book was authored by Jules-Cesar Savigny (1777-1851) and is called Description de l’Egypte, ou Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont ete faites en Egypte pendant l’Expedition de l’Armee francaise, (Paris, 1809-1830). The book, (Description of Egypt in English), documents Napoleon’s (1769-1821) military and scientific expedition to Egypt in 1798.
Today, thanks to our computers, smartphones, and tablets, we can observe fascinating wildlife within the comfort of our homes. In turn, this is possible thanks to our cameras, which allow us to capture photos and videos on the go and view them at our discretion. Yet, before cameras became popular and widespread and LONG before the first computer was conceived, people relied on other media. You couldn’t just click on a YouTube video and watch a monkey playing with puppies or a meteor fly across the Russian sky. You couldn’t like a bunch of cute animals pictures on Facebook. No. Back then, books, drawings, and paintings provided the best glimpse into the natural world.
When famed artist and naturalist John James Audubon published his master work The Birds of America, he revolutionized ornithology, documenting all known bird species in North America as well as 25 new species and 12 new subspecies. From 1827 to 1838, he gradually published his 435 images in the United Kingdom for the viewing pleasure of wealthy subscribers (sort of like an old school blog). Over the next couple centuries, his work would influence millions of naturalists worldwide, including Charles Darwin, who quoted him three times in On the Origin of Species and later works.
Yes, it’s true that Audubon did shoot and kill just about all the birds he depicted and used wires to set them up in lifelike positions, and yes, that does seem counterproductive to conservation. But, at that time, cameras weren’t nearly as advanced or widespread, and telephoto lenses were just a dream. Back then, you’d have no chance of capturing all the details of a wild bird without scaring it away. Wildlife shots were literally wildlife shots.
Having said that, thanks to Audubon’s impressive efforts over the course of 18 years, he changed the way we view nature. Prior to the publication of The Birds of America, depictions of animals had been static, rigid, and somewhat uninspiring. Audubon’s predecessor Alexander Wilson, who was dubbed the “Father of American Ornithology”, followed the old style of depicting wildlife, which you can see in the print below.
For identification purposes, Wilson’s work was great. However, outside of that, his prints were not too exciting. Today, the equivalent would be a wildlife photo where the animal is in focus and all the features are identifiable, but there is nothing particularly creative or memorable about the shot. (I have my share of those.)
In this regard, Audubon was very different. His prints had character. They not only depicted easily identifiable birds, but they depicted their behavior. Have a look for yourself at the prints below.
As you can see, Audubon’s work contrasts starkly from Wilson’s. Even though he rendered his subjects based on dead models, he positioned them in lifelike stances. He shows them feeding, preening, and communicating. To accurately portray these scenes, he ventured out in the field and spent countless hours observing their behavior. In the next few prints, you will see some of his depictions of birds’ nests and the birds’ nesting behavior, which was wholly unprecedented.
When painting some nests, Audubon added drama, wherein hungry snakes scaled branches and limbs to feast on eggs and birds alike. These depictions of realistic predation were also unprecedented, and they captured animal behavior in ways no other naturalist had before. In the print below, and eastern rat snake raids a brown thrasher nest.
His other nest-raiding snake print was particularly controversial. In this print, he depicted a timber rattlesnake attacking a mockingbird nest. Enemies of Audbon were quick to pounce upon this fantastical behavior. “Rattlesnakes don’t climb trees!” they moaned. Yet, today, we know that rattlesnakes can and occasionally do climb trees.
Of course, with all these snakes eating birds, Audbon had to include the reverse: a bird eating a snake, which you can see in the print below.
In fact, he depicted a variety of raptorial birds catching and eating different prey items. He had ospreys and eagles catching fish; he had owls chasing and eating rodents; and he had hawks and falcons chasing and eating birds and mammals. Today, these prints are impressive, but back then, they were mind-blowing.
Notably, Audubon’s work also included bird species that are now extinct or on the brink of extinction. Species such as the great auk, the Carolina parakeet, and the passenger pigeon no longer exist today. In 1852, just a year after Audubon’s death, the great auk went extinct, although the last breeding pair (and egg) was killed in 1844 while he still drew breath.
The passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet, would disappear from American skies over half a century later. Their stories are just as captivating and saddening as that of the great auk, but I will discuss them in more detail in later blog posts.
After viewing the sad prints above, here’s some happier prints for your viewing pleasure. Isn’t the Internet awesome?
The Birds of America is among the world’s most expensive books, and one of the 119 complete copies was sold in London for $10.3 million. As you can see from these beautiful prints, there’s a good reason behind the high value. If you’re interested in downloading the wonderful prints, the National Audubon Society has fully restored them, and they are available here. Currently, I am in the process of compiling all of these prints, so I can make a new gallery here on my site, so if you’re interested in seeing them in a more viewable format, check back here in a couple weeks.
Like birds? Check out these other bird-brimmed articles:
Walking with Dinosaurs: The Cassowaries of Etty Bay