Audubon and Ornithology in Early America

A Bird Watcher’s Perspective

To the ornithologist, the bird watcher, or anyone captivated by birds and art, the exhibit “Bird Watching: Audubon and Ornithology in Early America” at the Colby Museum of Art offers insights into a lost era when North American birds were plentiful and the land still open to exploration. The art of John James Audubon is available here for fresh inspection and insight. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the magnificent Bien Edition of Audubon’s The Birds of America (1858–1860) on loan from Dr. and Mrs. Gerald Dorros.

Audubon’s contributions to ornithology derive from his love of birds, exquisitely expressed through his keen observations and arresting visual depictions. Although his work has been criticized by the ornithological and art communities as appearing exaggerated, a closer look reveals details that are accurate and could only have been produced by someone intimate with their subjects.

These details exist not only in Audubon’s art but in his writing. Science demands precision in dates, places of observation, and naming conventions. In that regard Audubon is somewhat unreliable as a storyteller. But in terms of his observational evidence conveyed through descriptions of bird behavior, depictions of ecological settings showing birds with plants and insects, and plumage details, Audubon clearly was someone with keen powers of observation.

Many of the plants and insects associated with birds in Audubon’s plates were added by colleagues, such as Joseph Mason and Maria Martin, but we know through examination of Audubon’s original watercolors that he too illustrated these elements. Insects and arachnids are prominent in the plates and act as foils to the birds’ behaviors. Audubon broke scientific illustration norms by depicting his birds in action and not merely as static profiles for identification. Wherever an insect or stylized morsel is placed in the illustration, it is the focus of the bird’s attention, beak and eyes turned toward the prey.

Audubon’s iconic plate of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers shows an unmistakable passalid beetle, either Horned Passalus or “Florida” Passalus, on a decaying tree branch. The large and nutritious larvae of these beetles were indeed eaten by the ivory-bill. As evidence of Audubon’s attention to the life histories of his subjects, this plate shows a pair of adult ivory-bills with their young in tow, extended parental care in these birds being true to their nature. This plate is bittersweet because these magnificent woodpeckers no longer roam the forests of huge trees once found in North America’s southeastern riverine swamps.

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers (Picus principalis)

These vignettes allow us to see a natural world as it existed in Audubon’s time. The large flying insects that are the chief food for some of our nocturnal birds are now in decline, and, as a consequence, so are the birds that depend on them. Audubon’s plates of the Eastern Whip-poor-will and of the Common Nighthawk are two examples available in the Bien Edition plates that evoke bygone times when these birds and their insect prey were much more common and widespread. In rare specificity, Audubon labels the Cecropia and Io Moths on the Whip-poor-will plate and depicts a male nighthawk pursuing two large beetles, a Grapevine Beetle and a Broad-necked Root Borer, these identified recently by Frank Guarnieri, who has completed a detailed review of the insects in Audubon’s work.


Eastern Whip-poor-will (Caprimulgus vociferous)

Common Nighthawks (Caprimulgus Virginianus)

An important Maine contribution is Audubon’s plate of the Tufted Puffin, which Audubon says was drawn from a specimen taken at the mouth of the Kennebec River (this plate may be seen in the octavo edition inside the exhibition). This species is normally found in the Pacific Ocean, not the Atlantic Ocean. For that reason, some have questioned this claim. Nevertheless, it is likely correct given the particulars of Audubon’s written account and a compelling detail he illustrated. Look closely and one can see the unique inner toenail of the puffin, a prostrate, inwardly curved toenail that aids in digging burrows. The Maine Bird Records Committee recently reviewed and accepted this record, the first for Maine and the Atlantic.

Tufted Puffins (Mormon cirrhatus)

Audubon’s combined works—Birds of America (1827–1838) and the accompanying Ornithological Biography (1831–1839)—provide something like a gigantic field guide to American birdlife. Audubon’s written observations are all we have from an era that is now lost. He witnessed numbers of birds that seem unimaginable today. For example, while on the Louisiana coast Audubon calculated that forty-eight thousand golden plovers were shot in a single day at one site in the spring of 1821. Stories like this and Audubon’s early contributions to the idea of wildlife conservation no doubt inspired commemoration of his name by the National Audubon Society.

Let’s place Audubon in context, something the exhibit does well. Before Audubon, several Europeans visited North America and drew its birds—John White drew birds in 1587 while governor of the Roanoke Colony, and Mark Catesby published his illustrated Carolina Natural History in the mid-1700s. Alexander Wilson built on these works with scientific accounts also accompanied by illustrations. Hence, the appetite for more knowledge about American birds was building.

Wilson clearly influenced Audubon. They met once, in March of 1810 at Louisville, Kentucky, when Audubon was twenty-four and Wilson was forty-three. Reading their accounts, I am struck by a shared passion for the study of the living bird. This passion was their distinctly American contribution to early ornithology.

Audubon modeled his work after Wilson’s nine-volume American Ornithology, published from 1808 to 1814. Like Wilson, Audubon emphasized behavior, ecology, migration, and distribution of birds. Importantly, like Wilson, Audubon adopted the Linnaean classification system, inventing new names for birds he found, using genus and species. Audubon first described thirty-eight taxa: twenty-four species and fourteen subspecies. Not all he named were new.

Within three months after meeting Wilson, Audubon began annotating his paintings in English instead of French and began keeping detailed notes, progressively incorporating scientific standards. Audubon’s drawings and paintings were far superior to those of Wilson, and his life-sized representations established his place in ornithology.