Ask Audubon

Audubon’s writings for Birds of America are as revealing and magnificent as his artwork. Dr. Robert Cushman Murphy, a former curator at the American Museum of Natural History, wrote in “John James Audubon, An Evaluation of the Man and His Work” (New-York Historical Society, 1956), that the writings...

“...have become a half forgotten treasure. They are surely replete with information that compilers of later works have not yet used. Many ornithologists have had the experience of making some new discovery in bird behavior, which has proven unknown to their most erudite colleagues, only to find that keen eyed Audubon had minutely described the same phenomenon a hundred years before. A case in point is the life history of the beautiful Roseate Spoonbill, of Florida Bay and the Gulf Coast, which was exhaustively studied just before World War II by Robert Allen of the National Audubon Society. Mr Allen found that of all the published accounts of this extraordinary bird, Audubon’s was the freshest and soundest a well as one of the most exhaustive.”

Audubon’s birds, plants and habitats, and locations can be listed and searched in the following ways.

Audubon’s Birds

When John James Audubon published the double elephant folio edition of Birds of America, he grouped his drawings in sets of five to form a Number. Initially, each drawing was supposed to represent a species that would then become a Plate. Later, Audubon placed more than one species onto a Plate in order to complete his book and set in motion his immortal name in ornithology and conservation. In all, the double elephant folio edition of Birds of America contains 435 Plates. Within each Number, Audubon placed “one of the largest Drawings, one from the second size, and three from smaller Drawings.”

In 1826, Audubon paid for the production of the first 50 copies of the first Number of Birds of America and resold them. For all of the rest of the copies of the Numbers, Audubon produced them only for those who agreed to be a subscriber to Birds of America. A subscriber then paid Audubon for each Number that he delivered. With the production taking place over 12 years, much of Audubon’s list of subscribers stayed in a state of flux. Of the 435 Plates that were finally used for the double elephant folio edition of Birds of America, an estimated 134 complete copies of are still intact. On June 14, 2018, Christie’s sold a double elephant copy of Birds of America for $9.6 million.

For the smaller octavo editions of Birds of America, Audubon created 500 Plates, and each Plate is dedicated to a different species and placed in taxonomical order. Therefore, there is no correlation between the Plate numbers in the double elephant folio edition of Birds of America and the later octavo editions of Birds of America. Furthermore, Audubon took his notes from his Ornithological Biography and re-organized them according to each bird in the octavo editions of Birds of America.

The first Volume of the octavo edition of Birds of America appeared in 1844. Even though there are many more copies in circulation of the octavo edition than the double elephant edition, they are long out of print and remain scarce.

In the birds section of our site, you can do the following...

  • Search for birds featured in Audubon's Birds of America.
  • View Audubon's Plates according to their number in the double elephant folio edition and the octavo edition of Birds of America.
  • See current day information about each bird.
  • See the locations and habitats of each bird according to Audubon’s Ornithological Biography.

Audubon’s Plants and Habitats

One aspect of Audubon’s art that gave it such astounding originality was that he attempted to draw his birds exactly as they appeared in nature. Just as Audubon was overambitious finding and drawing all of the birds of North America, he also struggled to place all of the birds in their proper habitat. It is highly unlikely a bird like the Bay-breasted warbler which nests in Canada and winters in the tropics would be spotted in a flowering cotton plant. Most of the birds that Audubon received from Thomas Nuttall and John Townsend are lucky to be pictured while perching on anything more than a bare branch. Then there are the large birds that Audubon sometimes contorted in order to fit the bird onto the page, such as the American Flamingo.

Nonetheless, the shape and form of most of the birds in relation to the plants are so powerful and original that scientific irregularities are often excused, as exhibited by the fact that the prints with the best images of flowers, vegetation, landscapes, and birds, regardless of their relationships in nature, are comparatively so much more valuable. Furthermore, Audubon more than made up for the occasional questionable combination of plants and birds in a picture with extensive and accurate descriptions of habitats and plants in his notes associated with the birds. Audubon referenced hundreds of different types of plants and habitats.

In the habitats section of our site, you can do the following...

  • View information about the habitats and plants that Audubon wrote about including their current common names, current scientific names, common name per Audubons, and the scientific name per Audubons.
  • See the birds and locations according to Audubon’s Ornithological Biography for each habitat.
  • Visit other sites that list information about each habitat.

Audubon’s Locations

John James Audubon travelled great lengths and endured the most extreme conditions in his quest to observe, gather (which almost always was by shooting the bird), document, and draw birds. In between his bird collection, bird study, and artwork, he was walking the roads, sailing the seas, and touring cities to recruit subscribers to his Birds of America and to monitor his engravers, printers, and deliveries.

In the locations section of our site, you can do the following...

  • List all of the birds that Audubon believed were common in a given location.
  • View links to the best remnants of the landscapes that Audubon and his correspondents visited, explored, and documented.