The two sides of John James Audubon (1785-1851)

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John James Audubon loved his waders but lived in a time with different sensitivities to our own today. Shooting birds simply to identify them or to see what they had eaten was quite the norm. In the first story here, that is the approach that Audubon employed, whilst still professing a sympathy with the creatures.

In June 1814 John James Audubon discovered, while riding on horse back, a small colony of American Avocets, a bird he had not encountered breeding before. The following day he spent many hours observing these avocets and wrote of them with great admiration, creeping to with three feet of a sitting bird.

“Lovely bird! how innocent, how unsuspecting, and yet how near to thine enemy, albeit he be an admirer of thy race! There she sits on her eggs, her head almost mournfully sunk among the plumage, and her eyes, unanimated by the sight of her mate, half closed, as if she dreamed of future scenes. Her legs are bent beneath her in the usual manner. I have seen this, and I am content. Now she observes me, poor thing, and off she scrambles,–running, tumbling, and at last rising on wing, emitting her clicking notes of grief and anxiety, which none but an inconsiderate or callous-hearted person could hear without sympathizing with her.”

His love and admiration for these birds is clear and yet he writes.

“How far such cries as those of the Advoset may be heard by birds of the same species I cannot tell; but this I know, that the individuals which had gone toward the Wabash reappeared in a few minutes after I had disturbed the first bird, and hovered over me. But now, having, as I thought, obtained all desirable knowledge of these birds, I shot down five of them, among which I unfortunately found three females.”

To modern eyes this seems callous in the extreme, but they were different times. Much of the knowledge we take for granted these days was learned through the death of the creatures being studied. Today of course we are fortunate that we do not have to kill to learn and observe.

On the other hand, in our second story, Audubon demonstrates a softer side where he did not like to see death where it wasn’t, in his eyes, necessary. He had a favourable view of Ruddy Turnstones. On a beach on Galveston Island one day he observed four of these birds while his companions were away hunting.

“I was delighted to see the ingenuity with which they turned over the oyster-shells, clods of mud, and other small bodies left exposed by the retiring tide. Whenever the object was not too large, the bird bent its legs to half their length, placed its bill beneath it, and with a sudden quick jerk of the head pushed it off, when it quickly picked up the food which was thus exposed to view, and walked deliberately to the next shell to perform the same operation. In several instances, when the clusters of oyster-shells or clods of mud were too heavy to be removed in the ordinary way, they would use not only the bill and head, but also the breast, pushing the object with all their strength, and reminding me of the labour which I have undergone in turning over a large turtle.”

But Audubon did not feel the need to kill these birds, indeed he felt strongly that they should live, displaying his true empathy with them as living beings.

“Among the sea-weeds that had been cast on the shore, they used only the bill, tossing the garbage from side to side, with a dexterity extremely pleasant to behold. In this manner, I saw these four Turnstones examine almost every part of the shore along a space of from thirty to forty yards; after which I drove them away, that our hunters might not kill them on their return.”


The above plates are from the famous Audubon book; Birds of America.











Audubon Society.