John James Audubon’s Birds of America
John James Audubon’s initial idea for Birds of America was to produce a drawing for each type of bird found in the United States. The drawing would then be used for a Plate on a size of paper called double elephant (39 ½” x 29 ½”). Once a Plate was finished, it was added to a Number. Every Number was made up of five Plates. As soon as a Number was complete, it was distributed to Audubon’s subscribers to Birds of America. The exigencies of time and money demanded that some of the Plates include more than one species. Of the 435 Plates that were finally used for the double elephant folio edition of Birds of America, a little over 100 copies are still intact. Depending on the condition of a copy, its value is well into the millions of dollars.
Audubon created 500 Plates for the smaller octavo (10 ¼”x 6 ½”) editions of Birds of America. For these editions, Audubon achieves his goal of dedicating each Plate to a different species. He also arranges the birds in taxonomical order along with a biography for each bird. The biographies are, for the most part, those that appeared in his Ornithological Biography which he published separately from the double elephant edition of Birds of America.
In the birds section of askaudubon.net, it is possible to search for birds in Audubon's Birds of America by family, common name, or the scientific binomial. For each bird, the following is provided.
- Audubon’s drawing of the bird. Clicking on the drawing provides a full-screen image of the drawing.
- The common name and the binomial that Audubon used for the bird and the current common name and binomial.
- The Plate number in the double elephant folio edition and the octavo edition. Each plate number for the octavo edition is also a link to Audubon’s biography of the bird at www.audubonimages.org
- Commentary about the bird's current range and population compared to Audubon's observations.
- The locations and landmarks associated with the bird as named in Audubon’s bird biographies.
Audubon’s Plants and Landmarks
One aspect of Audubon’s art that gives it such an importance was Audubon's ability to draw birds as they appeared in nature. Although some he did better than others. For instance, it is highly unlikely a bird like the Bay-breasted warbler which seeks conifers in Canada for nesting and winters in the tropics would be spotted in a cotton plant that flowers primarily in the summer in the southeastern United States. Also problematic were the 90 or so birds which Thomas Nuttall and John Kirk Townsend collected during their exploration of North America's western frontier. Those birds are lucky to be with anything more-in the drawing than a dead branch or bare rock.
Over time, the value of the prints from Audubon's Birds of America have varied according to how accurately Audubon captured the bird in its natural state. And the quality of a drawing is often reflected in the amount of detail and description.
Audubon provides in the bird's biography. Bird's of America demonstrates that to draw a bird well is to be very familiar with the bird's behavior and its surroundings.
In the landmaks section of askaudubon.net, it is possible to search for a bird's preference for plants and habitat. When Audubon uses a scientific binomial for a plant, there is an attempt to match the name to the current common name and scientific binomial. For each plant or landmark, the following is provided.
- A drawing of the plant or landmark with a link to its source. Whenever possible, the drawing is one that appears in Bird's of America.
- The locations and the birds associated with the plant or landmark as named in Audubon’s bird biographies.
John James Audubon walked, rode his horse, or travelled by boat, carriage, or train thousands of miles in search of birds and subscribers to his Birds of America. Audubon negotiated his way through slave rebellions, wars, seas filled with enemy ships, air thick with mosquitoes, marshes and swamps teeming with snakes and alligators, and constant other discomforts and hazards. The amount of land and water that Audubon covered in his lifetime and in the fashion that he did are as remarkable as the birds and plants that he produced in his "Great Work".
In the locations section of askaudubon.net, it is possible to search for towns, cities, states, and other places where Audubon was able to document either seeing a bird or was reported to him as being seen. For each location, the following is provided.
- A drawing of the location with a link to its source. Whenever possible, the drawing is one that appears in Bird's of America.
- Links for the best remnants of what Audubon or his contemporaries might have experienced at the location.
- The birds and the plants or landmarks associated with a location as named in Audubon’s bird biographies.