John James Audubon
John James Audubon was one of the world’s most acclaimed ornithologists and bird artists, known best for his studies and illustrations of North American birds in their natural habitat. As a bird artist myself, I’ve always been fascinated by his life and dedication to his craft.
He was born in Haiti on April 26th, 1785, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and a servant. His father eventually brought him home to France where he was raised. Audubon had an interest in nature and wildlife from a young age. As a child, he would frequently go off into the woods and collect items to study and draw.
Drawing and Painting Birds
At the age of 18, Audubon was sent to America by his father where he lived on his family’s estate near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. There, his interest in nature continued to deepen. He learned English and became an avid hunter and fisherman, with a passion for drawing. He was particularly fond of studying birds and creating illustrations based on his observations. Since this era was before the time of cameras and binoculars, the only way to get close enough to a bird to draw it accurately was to, unfortunately, shoot it dead; an accepted practice of the day.
Young Audubon created his own unique system for shooting birds, then inserting wires into their bodies and posing them in natural looking ways in order to sketch them. He worked in a variety of media including pencil, pen, watercolor, and oils. His paintings are respected for showing the birds in their native habitats and accurately depicting the anatomy and behaviors of each species.
He eventually married and had two sons. After several years as a store owner, Audubon left home to document the birds of America. His wife, Lucy, became a tutor to earn money for the family in order to support her husband’s expedition. Leaving his family behind, he set off into the wilderness to discover and paint the birds of the continent. Audubon eventually brought his works to England where they were immediately regarded with great admiration.
The Birds of America
Over a period of thirteen years, John James Audubon painted 435 different species of North American birds. When he was finished, the paintings were compiled into his greatest work, The Birds of America, published in 1827. The book was so large, it is divided up into seven volumes. Here’s a view of my copies.
Tragically, at least seven species of birds included in Audubon’s book have since become extinct: Carolina Parakeet, Pinnated Grouse, Labrador Duck, Great Auk, Eskimo Curlew, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and the Passenger Pigeon, There were an estimated 3 billion passenger pigeons in the world in the early 1800s — in fact about one in every three birds in North America was a passenger pigeon at the time. Their flocks were so large, it took hours and even days for them to pass. Here’s Audubon’s portrait of the passenger pigeon.
Several years after the publication of Birds of America, he collaborated with fellow ornithologist, William MacGillivray, on a sequel titled, Ornithological Biographies. He then began working on another collaboration, Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which his sons published after his death.
Eventually settling down with his family in New York, Audubon published an updated edition of The Birds of America and spent much of his time promoting it. In his early sixties, he began developing dementia and then suffered from a stroke. He died a short time later on January 27, 1851.
National Audubon Society
John James Audubon was not involved in the National Audubon Society, whose mission is to protect birds and their habits. However, the name of the organization was chosen by George Bird Grinnell. Having been tutored by Audubon’s wife, Lucy. Grinnell chose the name based on Audubon’s dedication to studying, drawing and protecting birds.
Learn More About Audubon
- One of the best places to learn more about Audubon’s life is to visit the John James Audubon Center in Audubon, Pennsylvania. I’ve visited twice and I really enjoyed their wonderful museum and lovely hiking trails.
- See samples of Audubon’s paintings and learn interesting facts about each species.
- Biography and +400 images of Audubon’s paintings at the National Gallery of Art.
- Audubon in his own words; read Audubon and His Journals edited by his daughter Maria Audubon.
- Audubon’s original book and paintings of 435 species; The Birds of America by John James Audubon.
- An in-depth article about Audubon’s life in The Smithsonian Magazine.
- 12 Things You Might Not Know About John James Audubon.
- Learn about Audubon’s unique media and methods of bird painting from The American Institute for Conservation.
Audubon For Youth
- Book: The boy who drew birds: A story of John James Audubon by Jacqueline Davies.
- Audubon’s Birds of America Coloring Book: a great resource for kids and adults alike to learn more about Audubon and see coloring-friendly versions of his artwork.
Short Film on Audubon’s Life
More Bird Resources on this Website
Here are some more stories, videos, and bird sketching resources I’ve written.
World Migratory Bird Day and Why Birds Migrate
My Costa Rica Birding Big (sketching) Day
Identifying Warblers in the Spring
A Black-headed Grosbeak Nest (video)
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