Birds of America, John James Audubon’s survey of America’s winged wildlife, is now available online to the public through a revamped digital library from the National Audubon Society.
This version of Birds of America is from an 1840 ‘First Octavo Edition’ of Audobon’s comprehensive seven volume text. This archive presents both his illustrations and original, un-modified textual descriptions. Their reference not only to his encounters with birds but chronicling his travels makes this archive invaluable to those researching the life of Audubon as well.
With over 435 watercolors of North American birds, made from hand-engraved plates, access has never been so easy to the text that is now considered the archetype of wildlife illustration. Excitingly, each print is available as a free high-resolution download for personal use.
The new website allows you to sort the images chronologically, alphabetically, or by endangered species. Accompanying each plate is a full analysis of the species, including quantitative data such as average height, weight, and wing length. This collection, however, really comes to life with Audubon’s qualitative observations about the species. The descriptions include visual identifiers of particularly species, but also the charmingly-written passages from the original publication of Birds of America. These passages not only identify the species depicted, but also discuss Audubon’s travels as he made his way across America to record his images. From these passages, interesting details such as who his traveling companions were, details of collaborative illustrations, and environmental descriptors further animate the already vivid paintings.
On plate 112, “Downy Woodpecker,” Audubon writes, “If you watch its motions while in the woods, the orchard, or the garden, you will find it ever at work. It perforates the bark of trees with uncommon regularity and care; and, in my opinion, greatly assists their growth and health, and renders them also more productive. Few of the farmers, however, agree with me in this respect; but those who have had experience in the growing of fruit-trees, and have attended to the effects produced by the boring of this Woodpecker, will testify to the accuracy of my statement.” Telling passages such as these clearly convey Audubon’s unending desire to know and understand these creatures.
Of Plate 342, Columbian Owl, Audubon writes of their behavior based on his personal interactions with them, ” The burrow selected by this bird is usually found at the foot of a wormwood bush (Artemisia), upon the summit of which this Owl often perches, and stands for a considerable while. On their being approached, they utter a low chattering sound, start, and skim along the plain near the ground for a considerable distance. When winged, they make immediately for the nearest burrow; and when once within it, it is impossible to dislodge them.”
Regardless of whether or not you are an Audubon scholar, these illustrations are a beautiful preservation of North American Birds, and are truly a joy to look through due to their unique character and capturing of details rarely seen by the eye.
To see Audubon’s illustrations in person, stop by the reference room on the second floor of the Main Library to see plates from Abbeville Press’ 1985 facsimile.