Wednesday, August 4, 2010

John James Audubon

I've heard the occasional story about Audubon tying string around bird's legs (Eastern Phobe) to see if they come back to their nests after a winter migration. I've also heard about "Audubon Societies" being a common name for birding and naturalist groups. But I did not really know much about this John James Audubon fellow... So, I've actually read a little about him. Its so interesting to read about him, but even more interesting is to read his own work.This posting shares some links and sample works of his.

Life story from
Wikipedia Entry on John James Audubon:
Audubon's "Birds of America" (incredible resource):

Some examples of Audobons artwork & writting are as follows:

John James Audubon states of the Wood Thrush: "Kind reader, you now see before you my greatest favourite of the feathered tribes of our woods. To it I owe much. How often has it revived my drooping spirits, when I have listened to its wild notes in the forest, after passing a restless night in my slender shed, so feebly secured against the violence of the storm, as to shew me the futility of my best efforts to rekindle my little fire, whose uncertain and vacillating light had gradually died away under the destructive weight of the dense torrents of rain that seemed to involve the heavens and the earth in one mass of fearful murkiness, save when the red streaks of the flashing thunderbolt burst on the dazzled eye, and, glancing along the huge trunk of the stateliest and noblest tree in my immediate neighbourhood, were instantly followed by an uproar of crackling, crashing, and deafening sounds, rolling their volumes in tumultuous eddies far and near, as if to silence the very breathings of the unformed thought! How often, after such a night, when far from my dear home, and deprived of the presence of those nearest to my heart, wearied, hungry, drenched, and so lonely and desolate as almost to question myself why I was thus situated, when I have seen the fruits of my labours on the eve of being destroyed, as the water, collected into a stream, rushed through my little camp, and forced me to stand erect, shivering in a cold fit like that of a severe ague, when I have been obliged to wait with the patience of a martyr for the return of day, trying in vain to destroy the tormenting moschettoes, silently counting over the years of my youth, doubting perhaps if ever again I should return to my home, and embrace my family!--how often, as the first glimpses of morning gleamed doubtfully amongst the dusky masses of the forest-trees, has there come upon my ear, thrilling along the sensitive cords which connect that organ with the heart, the delightful music of this harbinger of day!--and how fervently, on such occasions, have I blessed the Being who formed the Wood Thrush, and placed it in those solitary forests, as if to console me amidst my privations, to cheer my depressed mind, and to make me feel, as I did, that never ought man to despair, whatever may be his situation, as he can never be certain that aid and deliverance are not at hand.

The Wood Thrush seldom commits a mistake after such a storm as I have attempted to describe; for no sooner are its sweet notes heard than the heavens gradually clear, the bright refracted light rises in gladdening rays from beneath the distant horizon, the effulgent beams increase in their intensity, and the great orb of day at length bursts on the sight. The grey vapour that floats along the ground is quickly dissipated, the world smiles at the happy change, and the woods are soon heard to echo the joyous thanks of their many songsters. At that moment, all fears vanish, giving place to an inspiriting hope. The hunter prepares to leave his camp. He listens to the Wood Thrush, while he thinks of the course which he ought to pursue, and as the bird approaches to peep at him, and learn somewhat of his intentions, he raises his mind towards the Supreme Disposer of events. Seldom, indeed, have I heard the song of this Thrush, without feeling all that tranquillity of mind, to which the secluded situation in which it delights is so favourable. The thickest and darkest woods always appear to please it best. The borders of murmuring streamlets, overshadowed by the dense foliage of the lofty trees growing on the gentle declivities, amidst which the sunbeams seldom penetrate, are its favourite resorts. There it is, kind reader, that the musical powers of this hermit of the woods must be heard, to be fully appreciated and enjoyed.

The song of the Wood Thrush, although composed of but few notes, is so powerful, distinct, clear, and mellow, that it is impossible for any person to hear it without being struck by the effect which it produces on the mind. I do not know to what instrumental sounds I can compare these notes, for I really know none so melodious and harmonical. They gradually rise in strength, and then fall in gentle cadences, becoming at length so low as to be scarcely audible; like the emotions of the lover, who at one moment exults in the hope of possessing the object of his affections, and the next pauses in suspense, doubtful of the result of all his efforts to please. " (Audubon)

Audubon John James, Wood Thrush, Obtained: Aug 4, 2010,

(image source:

There are so many other great entries in his work. I've been reading many of them, particularily birds that are familiar to me, such as a Blue Jay, Great Crested Flycatcher, and even some that I've only seen on few occasions, such as the Least Bittern or Marsh Wren. Its so interesting to read his work, because its in the context of the 1830's and there are subtle references to his life, weather, habitat, the economy, various states and provinces up and down the East coast. Very cool! If you get time, read his writeup on the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. His description of the bird, and its habitat are incredible. is a great listing of bird images and writeups. Audubon would have been an awesome blogger! On a final note, I have a quote he wrote about the Marsh Wren:

"It is a homely little bird, and is seldom noticed, unless by the naturalist, when searching for other species, or by children, who in all countries are fond of birds. It lives entirely amongst the sedges, flags, and other rank plants that cover the margins of the rivers, and the inlets of the sea. Its flight is very low and short, and is performed by a continued flirting of the wings, but without the motions of the tail employed by the Great Carolina Wren. Its song, if song I can call it, is composed of several quickly repeated notes, resembling the grating of a rusty hinge, and is uttered almost continuously during the fore part of the day, the performer standing perched on the top of a tall weed, from which, on the appearance of an intruder, it instantly dives into the thickest part+ of the herbage, but to which it returns the moment it thinks the danger over, and renews its merry little song." (Audubon)

Audubon John James, Marsh Wren, obtained: Aug 4, 2010,

One thing I find strange about his writings is how he often shots various birds with a gun for specimens. Also, it was very popular back then to have taxidermied birds. This is probably what finished the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. Lost habitat, and hunters & collectors shooting them! I can't help but think about the story of the golden goose. The owner killed the goose to get all the golden eggs inside, when he would have enriched himself by letting the thing continue living.

Just thought I would share a recently discovered "birding goodie" with you all :-)

Good birding,


  1. Interesting subject. I have some Post Cards with Audubon's paintings.
    Nice change for your masthead!

  2. Thanks Blake, It's an old photo from Nov 2009, but one of my favorites of the Tufted Titmouse. I think I captured its essence.



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