Wednesday, 8 December 2010

John James Audubon, a bird man to admire

In 1785 John James Audubon (Jean Jacques), ornithologist, naturalist, hunter, and painter was born on his father's sugar plantation in Haiti. He was the illegitimate son of Lieutenant Jean Audubon, a French naval officer. He was raised in France until he was 18 when his father arranged a false passport for him so that he could travel to America, thus avoiding conscription into the Napoleonic Wars. Risking conscription again he returned to France in 1805 to meet his father and discuss family business plans. His father arranged a partnership in a business for his son at Mill Grove in Pennsylvania. He lived here with the tenants on this 284 acre homestead and considered it to be a paradise. It was here that he met Lucy Bakewell to whom he was married 5 years later. Subsequently he sold part of the Mill Grove Farm retaining some land for investment, and went to New York. Unfortunately his general store in Louisville Kentucky did not thrive, so he moved to Henderson Kentucky. Lucy his wife gave birth to 2 sons Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse.
Audubon gave up his French citizenship in 1812 to become an American Citizen. Unfortunately when he returned to Kentucky he found that rats had eaten his entire collection of 200 drawings. In 1819 he went bankrupt and was thrown in to jail. He had no joy in raising subscriptions in America for his book, so he travelled to Europe first to Liverpool where Lord Stanley became an early subscriber, then to Edinburgh where he met the fine printer William Lizars. Audubon insisted on the huge double elephant folio size for his book- (26.5" x 39"). The 4 volumes each weighed 50 lbs! Unfortunately Lizars only managed to complete 10 plates before his colourists went on strike. Audubon then went to London where he met Robert Havell junior a reputable animal engraver who was later responsible for the production of Birds of America. For the next 2 years Audubon travelled round Britain and went to Paris in search of subscriptions, on returning to America he still had no joy in obtaining subscribers, so he returned again in 1829 to Britain with his 2 sons. He became well known, but because subscribers didn't always keep up payments,Audubon was not rich. In America he was lionized as the 'American Woodsman.' He had great respect for the native American.
It took him 14 years of field observation to collect the 700 North American bird species. During the 1830s Audubon continued making expeditions in North America rising at 3am every day, drawing throughout the day before returning to the field in the evening.
Finally in 1839 having completed the Ornithological Biography Audubon returned to the US with his family. He bought an estate on the Hudson river (now Audubon Park) in 1842. In 1848 his health began to fail, and he died at home in Manhattan 1851. He prophetically warned of the dangers that threatened the huge flocks of birds of his time from over hunting and loss of habitat. Several of the species he recorded have now become extinct.


  1. Good things have come from USA but he was an illegal imigrant but they will claim him as one of theirs because it suits them the believers of free speech when it doesnt (threaten security)!!

  2. J.J. has been one of my heroes American grandmother had a scaled down copy of his Birds of America, printed in the 1940s...wonder where that is now.......