Happy Birthday, John James Audubon

Audubon

One of America’s first great success stories began 230 years ago today. Back then Audubon’s rise to fame was far from certain and definitely not easy. Viewing him as a controversial figure, the scientific community in his adopted homeland even initially rejected his work. Only due to his perseverance and talent was the man whose name today is synonymous with all things bird-related able to secure his rightful place in history.

Born on a Caribbean Plantation

On April 26, 1785, our hero’s unlikely story started in a French colony in an area known today as Haiti. An illegitimate child born to the owner of a sugar plantation, the boy initially resided in the Caribbean. Within a few years, though, his father brought him to France. There he began drawing. Audubon later in life attributed several childhood experiences with his passion for birds, one of which oddly enough involved a parrot-killing monkey. Reportedly, the young Audubon wailed for the dead pet bird, which was later “buried with all the pomp of a cherished lost one” (1).

Immigrating to the United States, where he soon married and became a citizen, Audubon continued his lifelong fascination of studying and illustrating birds. His travels took him through much of the continental United States, including parts of New England, the Ohio River Valley, and the Louisiana territory. He interacted with the Native Americans of the frontier, especially the Osage tribesmen (2). On one occasion while hunting a great horned owl, Audubon reported falling into “quicksand up to my armpits” but was pulled free by his companions (3, 4). Like other ornithologists of that day, he often had to kill his specimens. Instead of photography—cameras had not been invented yet—he had to rely on his shotguns (5, 6).

Continuing to perfect his artistic skills, Audubon developing a special grid-board with wires for mounting his avian specimens in life-like poses. The belted kingfisher was the first bird he painted via this new system, a method that he would eventually share with other ornithologists (7). His first successful depictions of birds in flight were of a whippoorwill and nighthawk (8). Throughout his lifetime, Audubon illustrated at least 440 species of birds, according to an estimate made in William Souder’s Under a Wild Sky (9). Among these creatures, the wild turkey ranked among his favorites, its image used for his own personal seal (10, 11). Known primarily today for his paintings of birds, Audubon also illustrated other animals (12). He even made a living during some of his travels by working on portraits (13).

A Few Missteps

Richard Rhodes’s John James Audubon: The Making of an American and Souder’s book, both published in 2004, are wonderful sources for an in-depth view of Audubon’s triumphs and struggles. Much of the information cited here is available in those two biographies. From these books, one can easily sense that Audubon was a man of remarkable expertise, talent, ingenuity, and fortitude. Yet, all these traits beg an important question: Why was he forced to seek endorsement and financial assistance in Britain to publish his magnum opus?

Part of the problem likely involved Audubon’s personality. He was known on occasion to stretch the truth. He frequently misrepresented his origins, but understandably so due to social stigma and legal issues (14, 15). Other statements he made, though, seem less reasonable, such as his dubious claims about receiving instruction from the French portrait painter Jacques-Louis David and hunting with Daniel Boone (16, 17). Some of his field studies and accounts drew ridicule for misinformation, in particular those regarding rattlesnake behavior (18) and his claim that turkey vultures cannot smell (19, 20). While such circumstances are notable blemishes, one must keep in mind that reputable ornithologists of that time period were not immune to mistakes.

Like all great men and women in history, Audubon had his share of flaws. For instance, he and his wife for a few years owned several slaves (21). As noted above, he may have been dishonest at times. Some people, too, may find fault in that he killed hundreds of birds to complete his drawings. Let’s not overlook the fact, though, that he also kept several as pets (22), and that he was concerned about the effects of industrialization on avian habitats (23). But most importantly, besides being the foremost expert on American birds in his day, Audubon was a pioneering artist.

Success First in Britain then America

Some influential people in U.S. ornithological circles refused initially to acknowledge the value of his work, most notably, George Ord, who held prominent positions in the Academy of Natural Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Believing Audubon lacked the necessary integrity and aesthetic style for science illustrations, Ord and others within the establishment treated the outsider with disdain. Most likely, Ord, who had played a role in the late Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology, felt Audubon a personal threat (25). No such resistance occurred in Britain, where Audubon was able to secure the means to print volumes from 1827 through 1838 of his Birds of America, a masterpiece of unequaled quality and scope.

Unlike previous illustrations of ornithological specimens from the United States, Audubon painted his birds in life-sized proportions. He also chose to represent his subjects interacting with one another and their environment. And, as a special thank-you to his supporters, Audubon named several species of birds for international ornithologist-friends, such as Charles-Lucien Bonaparte (Napoleon’s nephew), William Swainson, and William MacGillivray (26).

Later, praises and admiration followed in his adopted homeland. The National Audubon Society, one of the oldest and most respected conservation groups in the world, was named in his honor. In fact, digital reproductions of Audubon’s work are featured on the group’s website. Also, several historic sites in the U.S. share his namesake, including John James Audubon State Park in Henderson, Kentucky.

Sources:

  1. Rhodes, R. John James Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. pp. 4–5, 21–22.
  2. Rhodes, R. pp. 82–83.
  3. Rhodes, R. p. 116.
  4. Souder, W. Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of the Birds of America. New York: North Point Press, 2004. p. 147.
  5. Rhodes, R. pp. 11, 73–74.
  6. Souder, W. pp. 97–99.
  7. Souder, W. P. 71.
  8. Rhodes, R. pp. 101–102.
  9. Souder, W. p. 286.
  10. Souder, W. p. 245.
  11. Rhodes, R. p. 273.
  12. Rhodes, R. pp. 240–241, 262–263, 335.
  13. Rhodes, R. pp. 145, 216.
  14. Rhodes, R. pp. 4–5, 315.
  15. Souder, W. pp. 11, 19–21.
  16. Rhodes, R. pp. 315, 346.
  17. Souder, W. pp. 11, 264–266.
  18. Souder, W. pp. 223–225.
  19. Souder, W. p. 219.
  20. Strycker, N. The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 2014. pp. 53–54, 62–63.
  21. Rhodes, R. p. 115.
  22. Rhodes, R. pp. 117–118.
  23. Rhodes, R. p. 280.
  24. Rhodes, R. pp. 221–223.
  25. Souder, W. pp. 286–287.
Advertisements

WANTED: The “Real” Robin

robins

Just about everything—no matter its size, location, or value—has a name. After all, the process of getting to know something involves identifying it. Your street and city have names. Days, months, and years have them, too, as do galaxies, stars, planets, rocks, plants, atoms, viruses, etc.

Obviously, some folks more than others need a precise and well-established system of naming things. This is true in particular for those working in scientific fields, such as ornithology. As specialists studying birds, many of which migrate from one region to another, ornithologists around the world must be in agreement on what to call a particular bird; otherwise, misunderstandings are bound to ensue. Below is a look at just how easily problems can occur.

A Case of Stolen Identity?

Confusion easily arises when two different species of birds have the same common name. This happens more often than you may think. The popular robin is a prime example. The one chirping in the backyard of an American home is not the same robin singing around the English countryside. In fact, as far as birds go, they’re not even closely related. The American robin—on the left in the line-up above—belongs to the thrush family, while the European robin—the one on the right—is considered a chat (1). This means that nineteenth-century poets Emily Dickinson and John Clare, both well-known for their poems involving robins, were actually referring to two different kinds of birds.

The two songbirds do possess similar characteristics, mainly the red breast amid an otherwise dark-feathered body. The likeness in their appearance is primarily why the American bird came to be known by the same moniker as another across the Atlantic. Overall, European explorers and settlers encountered lots of birds overseas that were unfamiliar to them. And in many cases, these folks referred to the New World creatures with Old World labels, based primarily on similarities in how the birds looked (2). Unfortunately, the American robin is just one of several birds with a borrowed name.

Borrowed Names Hatch Confusion

In Europe, the yellowhammer is a bunting known for its golden color and erratic flight. The poet John Clare wrote at least a couple poems about the bird, including “The Yellowhammer’s Nest” where he describes the female creature’s most peculiar attribute, laying what looked like “pen-scribbled” eggs (3). On the other hand, when reading Clark Ashton Smith’s short poem “Boys Rob a Yellow-Hammer’s Nest”, one can’t help but notice a critical discrepancy—he describes the eggs as “porcelain-white” (4).

It’s as if the two men are writing about two different types of birds. And, in fact, they are. Though better known today as the yellow-shafted northern flicker of the woodpecker family, the creature in Smith’s poem is also often regarded in the U.S. as the yellowhammer—perhaps in part due to the hammering sounds produced by the wood-pecking bird. Alabama, nicknamed the “Yellowhammer State”, has even named this flicker its official bird (5, 6). However, these two creatures, just like the aforementioned robins, are not closely related.

More Birds in Name—but Not the Same

As with the yellowhammer, New World versions of orioles, warblers, and blackbirds belong to different families than their Old World namesakes (7). For a couple common examples in literature regarding the latter, the North American subject of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is different from the thrush “blackbird” of the popular English nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence.” But despite issues such as these, the most confusing instance in identification has to lie with the nightingale. This is because that name has been applied on several continents to a host of different birds.

The songbirds mentioned in the poems of John Keats, Ryokan, and Hafiz of Shiraz are all called nightingales, yet each are from different avian families. A chat’s “plaintive anthem” inspires a terminally ill Keats to write what perhaps is his most famous ode (8). This is the bird we here in the West, of course, still commonly regard as the nightingale. Meanwhile, the uguiso, a Japanese warbler renowned as well for its vocals, is the nightingale cited in the verse of Ryokan, a contemporary of Keats (9). And then there’s the bird featured in the work of Hafiz, the fourteenth-century Persian poet. His nightingale is the bulbul, a songbird in the Middle East celebrated as the unrequited lover of the rose (10, 11).   And to further complicate matters, some Americans have thought of the virtuoso mockingbird as a “nightingale” (12). Interestingly, seventeenth-century English ornithologist Francis Willughby even refers to the cardinal as a “Virginian Nightingale” in his Ornithologiae libri tres (13).

Some Simple Solutions

One can easily see that a nightingale is not always the same nightingale another person may have in mind! Location, of course, dictates language, but less so when global communication is at stake. For worldwide conversations, relying on common names can be problematic. But what’s one to do, outside of learning the Latin-based scientific nomenclature? Well, one helpful approach entails cultivating an awareness of possible discrepancies in usage when looking back at historical documents, literature, art, and the like. This method particularly seems feasible for dealing with past occurrences in writings.

For present-day usage, many people, especially scientists, have introduced another solution. To help thwart the confusion that has arisen due to such nomenclature issues, the International Ornithologists’ Union has established a standard set of common English names for all birds (14). This group’s recommendations ensure that no two birds end up sharing the same name. Overall, the uniform standards are helpful. I’m still acclimating myself to the guidelines, a few of which I may continue to skip (e.g., capitalizing names). Nevertheless, at least there’s some clarity available when attempting to speak about two different birds with the same common moniker.

Next week, we will look a little bit deeper at bird names, exploring some of their more unusual and humorous aspects.

Sources:

  1. Wells, D. 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2001. pp. 212-214.
  2. Wells, D. p. xiv of introduction.
  3. Clare, J. “The Yellowhammer’s Nest.” Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179904.
  4. Smith, C.A. “Boys Rob a Yellow-Hammer’s Nest.” PoemHunter.com: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/boys-rob-a-yellow-hammer-s-nest/.
  5. Wells, D. p. 72.
  6. “Official Symbols and Emblems of Alabama: State Bird of Alabama.” Alabama Dept. of Archives and History: http://www.archives.state.al.us/emblems/st_bird.html.
  7. Wells, D. pp. 12-14, 156-157, 263-266.
  8. Keats, J. “Ode to a Nightingale.” Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173744.
  9. One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan. Stevens, J. (translator). New York: Weatherhill, Inc. 2004. p. 40.
  10. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 49.
  11. Wells, D. p. 151.
  12. Wells, D. pp. 147, 150.
  13. Page, J. and Morton, E.S. Lords of the Air. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 1989. p. 49.
  14. Gill, F. and Donsker D. (Editors). 2014. IOC World Bird List (v 4.4). doi: 10.14344/IOC.ML.4.4.: http://www.worldbirdnames.org/.