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John James Audubon an Early American Icon {ornithologist}

Updated on August 8, 2015


" He made his way deep into mother nature's heart"

The Audubon societies , formed as a protection for wild birds in America have carried forward the work not only in the name of Audubon but also the spirit of the great man. John James Audubon was a lover of nature. he made his way deep into the heart of mother nature and held his place throughout his lifetime. Not enough is known by the general populace about this man , so here I try to give a glimpse of the mans life and times.

John James Audubon 1826

Public domain -wikipedia
Public domain -wikipedia

Orchard oriole

From Birds of America by John James Audubon
From Birds of America by John James Audubon

Historical facts about Audubon

John James Audubon was accused of being other than practical and of being a dreamer. The world in my opinion is a far better place for having 'dreamers'. The city man who cares more for his material possessions and of counting his money with an obsession, tends to look upon, with a pitying arrogance, the man who loves the woods, rather than the money in his bank.!

Thus, Audubon the dreamer, has been remembered for centuries after those that called him a dreamer have long been forgotten. John James Audubon was born April 26 1785, in St. Tammany Parish -Louisiana, about twenty miles from New Orleans. He was the son of a French Navy officer, Admiral Jean Audubon, who served under Rochambeau, in the fleet which aided America in establishing independence.

The Admiral, with his wife, were visiting Louisiana at the time of the birth of the boy who was destined to become one of the best known of all American Naturalists, and although French by extraction he became wholly American in pride and loyalty. Sadly, Audubon's mother was killed in 1793 in Santa Domingo, where the admiral possessed a property and plenty of land. She was killed during a slave rebellion on that island.

Admiral Audubon took his children to France, where, in time he remarried to a woman that was to be the only mother John James Audubon ever knew. Within the confines of this article it would be impossible to convey all there is to be told of Audubon's life. A life that was of immense interest from the moment of his birth until the last hour of his life.

During the early years his love was of wild places and their inhabitants, in particular birds. It is on record about his boyhood days in France. He said of those times-" Instead of going to school when I aught to have gone, I usually made for the fields" On these excursions he studied birds, flowers, trees and shells as a somewhat limited field of observation. Fortunatley his father realised the value of education and had the good sense to appreciate the knowledge his son had gained about the beasts of the fields and the birds of the air. However, he also realised that this knowledge would have to be accompanied by knowledge of other subjects if he was to be taken seriously.

In his later years he was known to play down this additional knowledge he had attained, perhaps this was the nature of the man? Although Audubon lived in France until he was approaching manhood when he returned to America, which he called "My beloved country" Where on arrival stated " I came here with intense and indescribable pleasure". Years before his arrival, his father had purchased the farm of Mill Grove where the Perkiomen creek runs into the Schuylkill River.

Audubon spent a lot of time at Mill Grove where he devoted much of his time to his bird studies. He writes at that time--" The Mill was a source of Great joy to me, and in the cave, which you too,remember, where the Peewees were wont to build, I never failed to find Quietude and delight"

Snowy heron

From Birds of America by John James Audubon
From Birds of America by John James Audubon

Kentucky flycatcher wabler

From the book Birds of America J.J. Audubon
From the book Birds of America J.J. Audubon

The marriage of John James Audubon

Audubon married a devoted and loyal lady, whom later bore him sons. In a letter to his sons he wrote of the first time he ever saw her. " O! may God bless her! it was, my dear sons, who afterwards became my wife and your mother"

However, this meeting was a meeting that almost did not occur. His soon to be wife was the daughter of an Englishman, one Mr, Blakewell who owned the adjoining property to Mill Grove. Mr. Blakewell had asked Audubon to call by.However, because of the prejudice of the French, and, most Americans at that time against any naive of that 'tight little isle', it was a long time before he was wont to meet him. When he finally decided to visit the first person to meet him was this beautiful daughter, he was at once smitten.

Sometime later he returned to France where he askedfor hid father's consent to his marriage. Audubon returned to America and following the advise of his father he tried to make a go for himself a mercantile business, but it did not suit him-Birds not Business filled his head.!

Audubon was married in the year 1808 in Philadelphia, and the day after, along with his bride, left for Louisville, Kentucky. Here with Ferdinand Rozier he opened a store. However his thoughts and attention was still, as ever, on his beloved birds, and eventually because of this passion and lack of commitment the store was doomed to failure. he wrote at the time " The store went prosperously when I attended it, but birds were birds, then as now, and my thoughts were anon turning towards them as objects of my greatest delight" In another letter to his sons he states-" Your mother is well and the effects of poverty troubled us not.". He continued to draw pictures of birds, that led to him being ridiculed by people who said it was a willful waste ot time, would evntually prove to be the bedrock of his future fame.

Meadow lark

From Birds of America-John James Audubon
From Birds of America-John James Audubon

Yellow crowned Warbler

Birds of America by John James Audubon
Birds of America by John James Audubon

Onwards and----

Another business venture that led to an even bigger failure for Audubon was a Steam Mill in Henderson Kentucky , and although he tried harder to make a go of it, he walked away from this one with only the shirt on his back and the drawings of his birds under his arm, after paying of his creditors. From the his Journals we learn that he wrote of this traumatic time " your mother felt the pangs of misfortune, but never for an hour lost her courage. Her brave and cheerful spirit accepted all and no reproaches from her beloved lips ever wounded my heart, With her was I not always rich?"

Audubon was not a man to feel sorry for himself and thus resorted to his talents and for some time drew portraits of his birds. It was by this means that he etched a living. Some time later the naturalists went to New Orleans when the idea of publishing his portraits came into the minds of both him and his wife.Poverty was no stranger to Audubon and his family during those times in the deep south but he some how managed to keep his heart and his cheer.

During March of 1824, Audubon found himself in Philadelphia where his drawings became the center of attention and it was from this point that his talent was recognized for the first time by many people. For over a year he traveled through the woods and fields of New York and around the Great Lakes before returning to New Orleans.

He had accrued by various means the sum of 2000 dollars and decided to travel across the water to England. Ironically after his earlier prejudices, it was there that he received encouragement for his work and recognition for his scientific research. Because of this encouragement Mrs Audubon, rewrote the an entire manuscript ' Ornithological Biography', so that it might be sent back to America.

From England he traveled to Scotland and the European main land. He managed to find subscribers for his work on birds , and this gave him the means to pursue his passion.On returning to America he made journeys to all parts of the American wilderness, a thing he loved, and a thing that eventually the world would love him for. John James Audubon was probably the greatest of American ornithologists, for it was he that gave the inspiration for countless others to study birds.

He died on Monday January 27 1851. It is a fitting memorial of his work in the guise of his societies which were formed for the protection of American Wildlife and still carries his name.

Audubon is buried close to the location of his former home in Manhattan. There is an imposing monument in his honor at the Cemetery which is the center of the Heritage Rose District of New York City. The Audubon Society has nearly 500 local Chapters which organize bird watching trips and other conservation activities

Canada flycatcher

From the book Birds of America -John James Audubon
From the book Birds of America -John James Audubon

Audubon's Resting Place by Jennie Pendleton Erving

" The cold spring morning wears an icy lace,

The climbing sun will scarcely coax away

Till noon from these long slopes, where still a trace

Of winter's while is lurking, shrunken, gray

Among the mossy shafts that rise to show

That hundreds dream below.

For this calm pleasance is a burial place.

Today no prudent daffodil will blow

And yet the birds chirp on with savey grace;

A sturdy robin with a russet breast,

A flock of blackbirds darkening trees,

Their feathers ruffled by by the holden breeze,

And so bold-so quick to stow a nest,

In these bare crotches; Though there roars about

The clang of city streets, the birds fear naught,

What insticnt can have taught

Each wee sharp brain and ear, that neath this pillar, wrought,

With chiseled bird and beast, flung quaintly out

Their friend, their gossip, Audubon lies here?"

Boat-tailed grackle

Birds of America-John James Audubon
Birds of America-John James Audubon


During my research into the life and times of Audubon I was greatly assisted by the information collated from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.


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    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 4 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      DDE, Once more,Thank you for your kind comments they are appreciated. Best wishes to you.

      Aviannovice, Thank you Deb for pointing out that oversight, and for your encouraging comments. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Beautiful plates and an excellent work on Audubon. Check your last Bold line for Black tailed Grackle. It is a Boat tailed Grackle.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      You have such informative hubs on the various birds, an interesting way of learning more and you have approached each one with proper research.