Not so long ago I allowed an obsession to take its course and loft me right into the wonderful world of ornithology – the study of bird song, species, and habitat. This wasn’t exactly something I’d planned out, nor was I prepared for it’s arrival, but I was hungry for some delectable new research. We find sanctuary through fascination, a trait that interacts nicely with its ever so bold predecessor: desire, a childlike trait, an internal force seeking a nice warm place to set off its sparks.
Do you ever find yourself setting your alarm for 2am, just to hop out of bed and get field recordings of the night birds outside your bedroom window? Then you’ve come to the right place. It very well may be that you share common interests with the ornithologist, naturalist and painter, John James Audubon. And although he passed away back in 1851, his influence in each of these fields still inspire ornithologists (and painters) to go that extra mile amidst their studies.
As a child, James Audubon was very curious. He had an intimate connection with birds and preferred to spend all of his time roaming free in the woods; being a taurus, some might argue that his affinity for nature was in the blood from birth. Although his father (a French naval officer) had wanted him to become a seaman, it became obvious that James’ strong points had nothing to do with navigating the sea. By Audubon’s early twenties, he had not only preserved massive amounts of bird nests & eggs and produced hundreds of illustrations of birds, he had also mastered the art of taxidermy. Yet, with his unsuccessful business endeavors in the trade inherited from his father, Audubon, along with his wife Lucy Bakewell and their two sons, acquired an abandoned cabin in the town of Henderson, Kentucky. But luck wasn’t on his side. Upon his return to Kentucky (after visiting Philadelphia and giving up his French citizenship), James slipped into a deep depression. His entire archive of bird drawings had been eaten up by some sly, deviant rodents – yes, rats. But our boy JJ didn’t give up that easily. It was here that he set sail to indulge, full force, in his obsession.
There are many collections of Audubon’s drawings, but here are a few titles to look for:
Audubon: Painter of Birds in the Wild Frontier by Jennifer Armstrong – If you were to run into James Audubon while he was at work, you’d find him in common frontier clothing, sporting proudly a tomahawk on his belt, and a gunpowder filled buffalo horn in his hand. Audubon established a spiritual relationship with the Native Americans, and he acquired his hunting methods from the Osage and Shawnee tribes. This is a great intro for kids.
A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House by Danny Heitman – Although it may seem that things were sorta’ looking up for James, he spent some time penniless in prison – due to his massive debt and poorly executed business deals (1819). Some of his works of art were traded for goods, but he also gave art lessons while teaching at Jefferson College, Mississippi. Some say he was even known for hyper-realistic portraits, deemed his “death-bed sketches”. I haven’t been able to locate a copy of these artworks, but Heitman’s book reminisces on this part of Audubon’s life in great detail.
Quadrupeds of North America by John James Audubon – This is James’ final work before his own death and a bit of a sidestep from bird watching, but it’s still great.
As I was saying…my own obsession with ornithology took various forms. While searching the bookshelves of an older Jewish woman’s collection – for whom I was serving as a caretaker – I discovered a book that seemed to have somehow never made it into my own collection. The old woman hurried off her cot, when she saw my interest in her shelves. Dropping her bowl of sugar-free key lime pie yogurt onto the carpet, her eyes lit up. One by one she began to pull down books from the shelf, and read to me an excerpt or two. As she turned the pages for me, her thin veined fingers slid down the spine of one book, picking apart the bits and pieces that fell off into her palm.
On Opening a Window by Robert Nurok – She made me promise that as soon as I got home I’d sit down with my favorite bowl of cereal and read the whole thing through. Nurok’s book is a humble testimony, both philosophical and mildly impulsive; a prerequisite for every research-a-holic’s own set of field studies in that curious place we call nature. This playful introduction to ethology and ornithology, contains an intimate view on the pervasive patterns of animal and human behavior. Each chapter evolves like a memoir, unlike most books you might find on the subject matter. Chapter Three, Chemistry in Migrations, is a savory mid-point. As you approach Chapter Six, The Hostility Mechanism– you may feel yourself side by side with Nurok and his conjectures about the organisms of time, profit, chemistry, and other ‘somatic cravings’. [We couldn’t find an image for this one, as it is kinda rare – – but we bet your local library system would have it.]
Living On the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul – A much more committed read; 373 pages. Weidensaul shares multiple accounts of his research on snow geese in the Gulf of Mexico, facts on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, as well as in depth accounts of his time spent with biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (U.S.F.W.S.). I can assure you that tales of broad-winged hawks roosting alongside scissor-tailed flycatchers along the Mississippi offer engaging accounts for all of your ornithology-induced needs.
Water Birds of California by Howard L. Cogswell – From river banks to lakes, bogs and the coastal plains, Cogswell presents us with an informative introduction to our humble, winged friends in the skies, from diet to belly color to the meaning behind the absence of a snow goose’s grin. Encounter the Family Anatidae ( Waterfowls ) and the various musings of a Parakeet Auklet’s cry. The Cyclorrhynchus pittacula is a breed that will make its demands known to its mates and predators alike. There are plentiful color illustrations by Gene Christman, and other visual stimuli, such as graphic calendars on habitat distributions, biotic districts, and even a how-to section for identifying and observing specific types of water birds.
Perhaps most interestingly, several of Audubon’s journals have been published, providing a glimpse into his thought, artistry and intensity. You are now following in his footsteps; don’t be afraid. No one’s gonna’ clip your wings, I promise.
(And hopefully rats will not eat all your sketches.)
Happy birthday, John James Audubon!
If you’re interested in joining an organization that fights extinction, contact the American Bird Conservancy.