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John James Audubon

John James AudubonJohn James Audubon (26th April 1785 – 27th January 1851) was a French-American ornithologist, naturalist, hunter, and painter. He painted, catalogued, and described the birds of North America in a form considered by many to be much better than what had gone before.

'What', or rather 'who', had gone before was actually Alexander Wilson, first person to attempt to paint and describe all the birds of America. Wilson was soon eclipsed by Audubon whose Birds of America, a collection of 435 life-size prints, is still considered a classic. His larger-than-life personality and achievements, seemed to represent the new spirit of nationhood of the United States.

Audubon was present at one of the massacres of the Passenger Pigeon in the United States. He gave a vivid account of the death and destruction meted out to the hapless birds. The species is now extinct. [1]

Waterton and Audubon met only the once - in Philadelphia at the house of Dr. William Mease in July 1824 where the Audubon portfolio was often made available. As they took tea together, Waterton was shown Audubon's portfolio of drawings of birds. [2]

From what was apparently an unpromising start, a bitter acrimonious quarrel ensued. Waterton started it and kept it going. Audubon did not become publicly involved, leaving his defence to his admirers. Audubon's reputation did not suffer, although there was an adverse effect on Waterton's.

However, the quarrel came to an end in 1833, when Robert Bakewell, a distant relative of Audubon, compared Audubon's solitary wanderings in the forests of America to Wateron 'tranquilly seated in a magnificent English manor'. Waterton replied describing some of his hazardous adventures in South America, but following a rejoinder from Bakewell comparing Audubon with dog and gun to the foolhardy Waterton wrestling with snakes and crocodiles, there was to be no more. Waterton lost the quarrel that he had started. Julia Blackburn gives a fascinating account of the quarrel. [3]

Audubon visited the Peale's Museum and had formed a poor opinion of the work of Titian Peale (son of Charles Willson Peale): 'from a want of knowledge of the habits of birds in a wild state, he represented them as if seated for a portrait, instead of with their own lively ways when seeking their natural food or pleasure.' (4)

References to Audubon abound in the U.S.A. and a good starting point is America's National Audubon Society.

The Father of Ornithology - the £7.3 million book. (pdf)

The Passenger Pigeon.The Passenger Pigeon
This North American species went from being one of the most abundant birds in the world during the 19th century to extinction early in the 20th century. Estimates of the population at its height range from 2 to 5 billion.

The last known survivor of this species died in captivity in Cincinnati in 1914.


1. Audubon's Wildlife, E.W. Teale (Thames and Hudson, 1965)
2. John James Audubon, Alice Ford (University of Oklahoma Press, 1964)
3. Charles Waterton 1782 - 1865, Traveller and Conservationist, Julia Blackburn, 1989. Vintage.
4. The Life of John James Audubon, the Naturalist, Lucy Bakewell Audubon, Putnam, New Work, 1902.

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