World Migratory Bird day was Saturday, May 11. To celebrate the research of great ornithologists (scientists who study birds), the STEM Center is featuring John James Audubon as this week’s STEM Like Me scientist. Audubon was an American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter who was the first to document 25 species of birds. One of his greatest works is the color-plate book The Birds of America, which is considered to be one of the finest ornithological works ever completed. In his early life, Audubon was born in Haiti but soon thereafter moved to France where he lived until his father sent him to the United States to escape a war. Once in the United States, Audubon wanted to study and illustrate American birds in a more realistic manner than many other artists. He set ambitious goals of finding and painting all the birds of North America and to surpass the earlier ornithological work of Alexander Wilson.
He also began the first known bird-banding on the continent. He tied pieces of yarn to the legs of eastern phoebes, discovering that individuals of this species returned to the same nesting spots year after year. His study of birds included drawings and paintings, but he also systematically recorded the behaviors of the birds he illustrated. When working on The Birds of America, Audubon attempted to paint one page each day. He also re-painted earlier works as he learned new techniques in his painting. Audubon sought to publish his work in the United States, but North American publishers rebuffed his work. This led him to travel to England with over 300 drawings. His work of American wildlife was well-received in England, and he raised enough money to publish The Birds of America. This work consists of 435 hand-colored, life size prints of 497 bird species that are made from engraved copper plates. After publication of The Birds of America, Audubon came back to America and wrote a follow-up manuscript, Ornithological Biographies. This book is a collection of life histories for each species in The Birds of America.
Audubon inspired nearly all later ornithological works with his artistry and high standards. His book, The Birds of America, is still considered one of the greatest examples of naturalist book art. Today, The Birds of America is one of the world’s most expensive books, and one edition recently sold at auction for over $11 million. In Audubon, Pennsylvania, there is a museum open to the public that presents all of his major works. Henderson, Kentucky hosts the Audubon Museum at John James Audubon State Park where many of his original watercolors, engravings, and personal memorabilia are held. Audubon also had the National Audubon Society named in his honor, with the mission “to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds”. He has many other parks, towns, and more named in his honor.
Image: Public Domain, John James Audubon in later life