The Birds of America

The Birds of America, by French-American painter and naturalist John James Audubon, is one of the classic works of ornithology and of nature-art in general. It earned Audubon the position of Fellow of the Royal Society (as well as many other honours), while the Audubon Society has kept his name alive.

The Birds of America consists of 435 hand-coloured prints, published between 1827 and 1838. Sets of high-resolution images can be found at the University of Pittsburgh and on Wikimedia Commons. The accompanying five-volume Ornithological Biography (written with William MacGillivray) can also be found at the University of Pittsburgh (with Volume 1 only at archive.org and at WikiSource). About the Goosander (below), Audubon writes, for example, “This species may be said to be a constant resident with us, as many individuals breed in the interior of the states of New York, Massachusetts, and Maine. When I first resided in Kentucky, some bred there also, although at the present day none pass the summer in that country…

Even in an age of photography, the timeless quality of Audubon’s work stands out. In some cases, the birds that Audubon captured so brilliantly are no longer with us – the Great Auk, for example, is now extinct, and Audubon’s illustration is as close to the bird as we can now come:

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