Birds of America

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Birds of America

Book excerpt

By: John James Audubon

Date: 1842

Source: Audubon, John James. Birds of America. Philadelphia: J.B. Chevalier, 1840. Online at 〈〉 (accessed on March 10, 2006).

About the Author: Born in Haiti and raised in France, American ornithologist and naturalist John James Audubon (1785–1851) showed a great inclination for drawing as a boy, and was sent by his father to study with the French Neoclassical painter, Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825). Audubon left France in 1803, at the age of eighteen, in order to avoid serving in Napoleon's army and settled near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There he hunted and cultivated his interests in drawing and birds. Traveling through North America, Audubon studied birds closely as they moved about in their natural environments. His monumental study of the birds of America was published in four volumes in Edinburgh and London between 1827 and 1838, and became popular throughout Europe and America. Birds of America contained 1,065 paintings of individual birds. After publishing the prints, Audubon worked with the Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray writing Ornithological Biographies—life histories of the birds he had painted.


In Audubon's paintings, birds are dramatically posed and brilliantly colored. More than rendering anatomically precise and authentic reproductions, which he did, Audubon attempted to represent birds as they were in nature, in action, conveying their nervous dynamic in a still picture. The birds were not painted against a blank background but in their environment, interacting with each other. Audubon's prose has the same meticulous concern for detail as his paintings, as well as the same impulse to get inside the bird, to show living birds in their natural habitat.

In the following account of the ivory-billed woodpecker, Audubon shows the variety of his interest and the great range of his skill and knowledge. He describes the woodpecker's environment as if he were painting it and as it would appear to someone inside that environment, drawing the reader to experience it as nearly as possible through a prose rendering. Whether he is tracing the pattern of the bird's flight; describing the mechanics of flying; watching the woodpeckers build their nest and interact with each other; describing the bird's eating habits; offering ornithological, anatomical, and environmental data; or describing the woodpecker's experience of death, Audubon's command of his subject reveals the intensity and closeness of his own observation.

His painting and his prose both reveal that Audubon was not a detached observer of nature. He physically ventured into out-of-the-way places to see birds and imaginatively traveled into the realm of the bird itself. His greatest power was the power of minute observation; his greatest skill, the ability to convey it through images and words.


… I wish, kind reader, it were in my power to present to your mind's eye the favourite resort of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Would that I could describe the extent of those deep morasses, overshadowed by millions of gigantic dark cypresses, spreading their sturdy moss-covered branches, as if to admonish intruding man to pause and reflect on the many difficulties which he must encounter, should he persist in venturing farther into their almost inaccessible recesses, extending for miles before him, where he should be interrupted by huge projecting branches, here and there the massy trunk of a fallen and decaying tree, and thousands of creeping and twining plants of numberless species! Would that I could represent to you the dangerous nature of the ground, its oozing, spongy, and miry disposition, although covered with a beautiful but treacherous carpeting, composed of the richest mosses, flags, and water-lilies, no sooner receiving the pressure of the foot than it yields and endangers the very life of the adventurer, whilst here and there, as he approaches an opening, that proves merely a lake of black muddy water, his ear is assailed by the dismal croaking of innumerable frogs, the hissing of serpents, or the bellowing of alligators! Would that I could give you an idea of the sultry pestiferous atmosphere that nearly suffocates the intruder during the meridian heat of our dogdays, in those gloomy and horrible swamps! But the attempt to picture these scenes would be vain….

The flight of this bird is graceful in the extreme, although seldom prolonged to more than a few hundred yards at a time, unless when it has to cross a large river, which it does in deep undulations, opening its wings at first to their full extent, and nearly closing them to renew the propelling impulse. The transit from one tree to another, even should the distance be as much as a hundred yards, is performed by a single sweep, and the bird appears as if merely swinging itself from the top of the one tree to that of the other, forming an elegantly curved line. At this moment all the beauty of the plumage is exhibited, and strikes the beholder with pleasure. It never utters any sound whilst on wing, unless during the love-season; but at all other times, no sooner has this bird alighted than its remarkable voice is heard, at almost every leap which it makes, whilst ascending against the upper parts of the trunk of a tree, or its highest branches. Its notes are clear, loud, and yet rather plaintive. They are heard at a considerable distance, perhaps half a mile, and resemble the false high note of a clarionet. They are usually repeated three times in succession, and may be represented by the monosyllable pait, pait, pait. These are heard so frequently as to induce me to say that the bird spends few minutes of the day without uttering them, and this circumstance leads to its destruction, which is aimed at, not because (as is supposed by some) this species is a destroyer of trees, but more because it is a beautiful bird, and its rich scalp attached to the upper mandible forms an ornament for the war-dress of most of our Indians, or for the shot-pouch of our squatters and hunters …

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker nestles earlier in spring than any other species of its tribe. I have observed it boring a hole for that purpose in the beginning of March. The hole is, I believe, always made in the trunk of a live tree, generally an ash or a hagberry, and is at a great height. The birds pay great regard to the particular situation of the tree, and the inclination of its trunk; first, because they prefer retirement, and again, because they are anxious to secure the aperture against the access of water during beating rains….

Both birds [male and female] work most assiduously at this excavation, one waiting outside to encourage the other, whilst it is engaged in digging, and when the latter is fatigued, taking its place. I have approached trees whilst these Woodpeckers were thus busily employed in forming their nest, and by resting my head against the bark, could easily distinguish every blow given by the bird. I observed that in two instances, when the Woodpeckers saw me thus at the foot of the tree in which they were digging their nest, they abandoned it for ever. For the first brood there are generally six eggs. They are deposited on a few chips at the bottom of the hole, and are of a pure white colour. The young are seen creeping out of the hole about a fortnight before they venture to fly to any other tree….

The food of this species consists principally of beetles, larvae, and large grubs. No sooner, however, are the grapes of our forests ripe than they are eaten by the Ivory-billed Woodpecker with great avidity. I have seen this bird hang by its claws to the vines, in the position so often assumed by a Titmouse, and, reaching downwards, help itself to a bunch of grapes with much apparent pleasure….

The Ivory-bill is never seen attacking the corn, or the fruit of the orchards, although it is sometimes observed working upon and chipping off the bark from the belted trees of the newly-cleared plantations. It seldom comes near the ground, but prefers at all times the tops of the tallest trees. Should it, however, discover the half-standing broken shaft of a large dead and rotten tree, it attacks it in such a manner as nearly to demolish it in the course of a few days…. The strength of this Woodpecker is such, that I have seen it detach pieces of bark seven or eight inches in length at a single blow of its powerful bill, and by beginning at the top branch of a dead tree, tear off the bark, to an extent of twenty or thirty feet, in the course of a few hours, leaping downwards with its body in an upward position, tossing its head to the right and left, or leaning it against the bark to ascertain the precise spot where the grubs were concealed, and immediately after renewing its blows with fresh vigour, all the while sounding its loud notes, as if highly delighted….

When wounded and brought to the ground, the Ivory-bill immediately makes for the nearest tree, and ascends it with great rapidity and perseverance, until it reaches the top branches, when it squats and hides, generally with great effect. Whilst ascending, it moves spirally round the tree, utters its loud pait, pait, pait, at almost every hop, but becomes silent the moment it reaches a place where it conceives itself secure. They sometimes cling to the bark with their claws so firmly, as to remain cramped to the spot for several hours after death. When taken by the hand, which is rather a hazardous undertaking, they strike with great violence, and inflict very severe wounds with their bill as well as claws, which are extremely sharp and strong. On such occasions, this bird utters a mournful and very piteous cry.


In his study, his painting, and his biographies of the birds of America, Audubon created more than a decorative, descriptive catalogue of birds. He rendered a map of the natural environment of America, of its forests, marshes, and swamps; of its dark, nearly unapproachable regions; of its insects and its trees, and of its birds. His work served as a bridge for the human species to cross in order to enter a new and unexplored territory, one that was more than a land mass, but a living environment that people were endeavoring to appropriate, to become part of, and to make theirs. Audubon showed the contours and the nature of this world. As much as the great territorial explorers who revealed both the vastness and the wonders of the North American continent, Audubon, through his exploration and his art, revealed the diversity and the particularities of the continent's natural environment. He also simply made a record of the continent's environmental wealth, not only regarding its birds, but their habitats as well.

Audubon's inventory and the wonders it presented inspired a preservationist consciousness in Americans, one that was expressed concretely through the formation of the Audubon Society for the Protection of Birds in 1886 by American naturalist George Bird Grinnell (1849–1938). Grinnell's group, which he soon disbanded because its membership became too large for him to handle, was the beginning of the National Audubon Society, founded in 1905. From its beginning as a society of bird lovers dedicated to safeguarding birds, the Audubon Society has grown into a citizen's organization devoted to environmental protection and conservation as well as bird-watching and education.



John James Audubon in the West: The Last Expedition, Mammals of North America, edited by Sarah E. Boehme. New York: Harry N. Abrams/Buffalo Bill Historical Center, 2000.

Rhodes, Richard. Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

Souder, William. Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of the Birds of America. New York: North Point Press, 2004.

Steiner, Bill. Audubon Art Prints: A Collector's Guide to Every Edition. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.

Web sites

Audubon society. 〈〉 (accessed November 14, 2005).