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 America. 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, an estimated 134 complete copies are still intact. Depending on the condition of a copy, its value is well into the millions of dollars, if not tens of millions.

Audubon created 500 Plates for the smaller octavo (10 ¼”x 6 ½”) editions of Birds of America. For these editions, Audubon achieves his idea 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 taken from his Ornithological Biography that he published separately from the first edition of Birds of America, i.e. the double elephant folio.

The first of seven volumes 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. Depending on the printing and the condition of the copy, the purchase price can be as high as $100,000.

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 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 audubonimages.org
  • Commentary about the bird (not complete)
  • The locations and habitats and plants associated with the bird as named in 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 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 typical habitats. 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. Furthermore, most of the 90 or so birds that Audubon received from Thomas Nuttall and John Kirk Townsend are lucky to be pictured while perching on anything more than a bare branch or rock.

Audubon’s drawings essentially prove that scientific irregularities have little effect on artistic value. It was the scale, shape and form of the birds in relation to whatever plants or background Audubon used that made Audubon’s art like none before him and few others have been able to match since.

Audubon goes to great lengths to offset the artistic license that he took with his drawings of birds by providing extensive and detailed field notes of exactly how he saw the birds appear in nature. In the biographies of the birds he drew, Audubon referenced hundreds of different types of plants and habitats.

In the habitats section of askaudubon.net, it is possible to search for plants and habitats by either various categories that are listed or by common names or by a plant’s binomial. For each plant or habitat, the following is provided.

  • An image of the plant or habitat with a link to its source. For specific plants, the common name and the binomial that Audubon used and the current common name and binomial are also given.
  • The locations and the birds associated with the plant or habitat as named in Audubon’s Ornithological Biography.

Audubon’s Locations

John James Audubon walked, rode a horse, or went by boat, carriage, or train in search of birds and subscribers to his Birds of America. Along the way he had to overcome one obstacle after another, from swarming mosquitoes and snapping alligators to war and disease. The places on the planet in which Audubon lived and traveled to during his lifetime and some of the conditions he endured are as remarkable as the birds and plants that appear 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.

  • Links for the best remnants of what Audubon or his correspondents might have seen and experienced.
  • The birds and the plants or habitats associated with a location as named in Audubon’s Ornithological Biography.