MacGillivray, Wilson, Swainson, Harris, Baird, Bonaparte and Bachman all share two common traits. First, these men of the early 19th century all have birds named in their honor. Secondly, all were known by one individual who was a shining light in the early days of American ornithology. His name was John James Audubon.
What readers will find in a book titled, Under a Wild Sky, by William Souder, is a rollicking tale of adventure surrounding a near-mythical American figure. Warts and all, the story (subtitled John James Audubon and the making of The Bird of America) is told using surviving papers, letters and documents from an age when ornithology, even science in general, was just finding its feet around the world.
Audubon was born to a French sea captain and his mistress on the island of Saint-Domingue, now called Haiti. After spending his formative years in France and developing a particular affinity for nature, birds, and drawing, Audubon settled near Philadelphia on family land.
He married a neighbor girl of British origin and set about trying to make it as a business man. The new family moved several times over the years, following growing pioneer populations along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Failure after failure beset the family financially.
Audubon, however, seemed to care more for his drawings than he did for business. Often he was gone for weeks and months at a time carrying little more than his gun and his drawings, which he toted virtually everywhere. He was known as an excellent woodsman and tireless walker, thinking nothing of trudging hundreds of miles through unmarked territory in search of new birds. In those days, shooting birds was the only real way to study them and shoot them he did. Thousands upon thousands of birds were felled at the hands of this handsome sharpshooter.
Even early on, Audubon's paintings were vastly different from the norm. He developed unique techniques for presenting birds to scale. Some specimens, bald eagle for instance, required very large paper and some skillful planning.
Up to this time, scientific specimens and their printed depictions were stilted prosaic objects meant for study. But Audubon would send the art and scientific worlds reeling with his colorful lifelike illustrations of birds in their natural surroundings. Still, his work was met with derision in America mostly due to the popularity of his rival, Alexander Wilson, who was in the process of finishing American Ornithology, which became the first major scientific publication in America.
It wasn't until he took his portfolio to Europe that Audubon's work became recognized for its inherent genius. Printing commenced on The Birds of America (it took twelve years to complete every volume) while Audubon was ultimately elected to the Royal Society in London.
Returning to America, Audubon finally achieved recognition for a life of adventurous wandering and was eventually elected to the prestigious Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
Of great interest to me was Audubon's trip to Dakota Territory in 1843, coming up the Missouri River on a steamboat loaded with fur trappers. He made it as far as Ft. Union, near present day Williston. While in Dakota, he described many new animals (he was working on another project, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America) and birds. The last bird he discovered in life is perhaps the one more closely associated with North Dakota than any other, the Baird's sparrow.
Like all historical figures that appear larger than life, Audubon, too, had his faults. His familial relationship was suspect. Then there was his penchant for stretching the truth (common to Kentuckians then) that today would be frowned upon.
Yet, he is remembered as a monumental figure in ornithology and natural science. His field observations (although many were wrong), contributed greatly to our understanding of American birds. And his vibrant drawings would come to inspire legions of artists for generations.
Perhaps even more than his artistic talent, while reading Souder's book I came to admire his drive, his perseverance, and his singular belief in purpose. Souder writes, "...Audubon's determination to do it his way was in the end one of the hallmarks of his genius as an artist. Audubon saw the world through a lens all his own."
Postscript: A number of original copies of The Birds of America exist today. The last one to sell at auction went for $8.8 million in 2000, still the most ever for a printed book.