John James Audubon

John James Audubon (1785 – 1851) is considered to be one of our country’s earliest naturalists. Audubon was born to French parents in what is now Haiti in 1785. Soon after his birth, Audubon was relocated to France, where he lived with his wealthy parents until 1803 when he immigrated to America. It was at this time that Audubon discarded his French name and became John James Audubon. Even at an early age, Audubon had an affinity for nature, in particular, birds. Through various studies, Audubon became very adept at ornithology (the study of birds,) taxidermy, and other scientific studies. The young Audubon also became enamored with drawing, and finally, painting which he put to good use for his interest in preserving the natural world and making extra income from portrait paintings.

Originally, Audubon settled on the family farm in Mill – Grove Pennsylvania near Philadelphia, where he met and married Lucy Bakewell Audubon. Soon after their marriage, the Audubon’s relocated to Kentucky to raise a family and run a general merchandise business. After a brief career as a businessman, Audubon sold the business to his partner in 1811, and the Audubon family assumed a more frontier lifestyle. This gave Audubon more time to study birds and nature, and perfect his skill as an artist. Over the years, Audubon would travel between Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Missouri, and France for various reasons.

Credit: - John Syme

Between the years of 1820 -1822, Audubon decided to concentrate on studying nature and painting. It was during this period that he launched the idea to create the publication “Birds of America.” To do this, Audubon left for England in 1826 with nearly 300 of his own paintings, and images from other painters, as well. He found a sympathetic audience in England where he was able to raise a considerable sum (about $120,000) to create this publication. The English were enamored with his painting, prose, and frontiersman persona. The first edition of this book detailed nearly 300 species of birds. After the book was published, Audubon took lengthy trips to Florida and Maine, as well as the Maritime Provinces of Canada to study and record additional birds. Eventually, there were 435 species of birds catalogued in “Birds of America.” In his later years, Audubon turned his attention to wildlife other than birds, and he creating many paintings of these creatures, as well. Audubon died in 1851 of what is now known as Alzheimer’s disease. Audubon’s son, John W. Audubon, followed in his father’s footsteps as a naturalist, finishing much of the work that his father started before he became ill.

Many of John James Audubon’s paintings are in museums now, and his book, “Birds of America,” still stands the test of time. He is credited with discovering 25 new bird species over his lifetime. In 1905, the Audubon Society was created with the expressed purpose of conserving and restoring natural ecosystems, especially for birds. There are a number of museums that contain Audubon paintings and animal mounts, including the John James Audubon Center in Mill- Grove, Pennsylvania. In addition, many parks, streets, museums, and other natural areas were named in this pioneering naturalists honor throughout the US, Canada, England and France. Audubon was one of the first to describe and record this nation’s diverse wildlife.

Article by FCFCDB