Be Your Own Birder

Celebrating John James Audubon!

Every birder knows the name “Audubon” – but why? There’s no disputing that John James Audubon was heavily influential in birding and naturalist circles. To celebrate his birthday – April 26 – it can be fun to learn more about the man behind the name!

Birthday Cupcakes - Photo by Neil Conway
Birthday Cupcakes – Photo by Neil Conway

Fun Facts About John James Audubon

  • His name wasn’t always John James Audubon.
    He was born Jean Rabin, and changed his name twice in his life. He was the illegitimate child of a French naval officer and a chambermaid, and his mother died a few months after his birth. When his father returned to France in 1791, he formally adopted his young son, and Jean Rabin’s name was changed to Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon. When he turned 18, he emigrated to the United States, and at that time anglicized his name to John James.
  • He was born in Haiti.
    Jean Rabin was born in Saint-Domingue, a French colony on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, in what would become Haiti. He was born April 26, 1785, and the colony would become part of Haiti when the island nation declared its independence from France in 1804. He would eventually give up his French citizenship and become an American citizen in 1812.
  • Audubon had many interests other than birds.
    While he’s well known for his love of nature and particularly birds, John James Audubon was also a talented musician, playing flute and violin. He also enjoyed riding horses and dancing, fencing, hunting, and fishing. He even had a wide variety of careers and job exploits, including founding a flour mill, starting a general store, drawing death-bed portraits, and teaching drawing and art.
  • Not all his birds existed.
    Audubon is noted for being among the first to document and illustrate many species of birds in North America, including 25 species he was the first to discover, but not all his birds were actually real. Several species Audubon noted, including the carbonated swamp warbler, Townsend’s bunting, and blue mountain warbler, aren’t distinct species at all, and in fact are more likely to have been either unusual color morphs, immature birds, or hybrids.
Audubon's Blue Jay Illustration
Audubon’s Blue Jay Illustration
  • Audubon killed every bird he drew.
    It seems harsh, but hunting birds to further observation was common practice in Audubon’s time. He would shoot the birds, then study them carefully in hand and use his self-taught taxidermy skills to mount the birds in order to draw them more accurately. Selling the mounted birds helped fund his work and publish The Birds of America.
  • The Birds of America is one of the world’s most expensive books.
    Today, original copies of Audubon’s The Birds of America, with its 435 artistic plates, can sell for as much as $13.5 million at auction. For comparison, William Shakespeare’s First Folio sells for $8.9 million, the Gutenberg Bible for $12 million, and J.K. Rowling’s handwritten, hand-illustrated, leather-bound Tales of Beedle the Bard (of which only 7 were ever made), has sold for a mere $6 million.
  • Audubon had nothing to do with the Audubon Society.
    John James Audubon died in 1851, and it wasn’t until 1886 that the Audubon Society was first founded by George Bird Grinnell, and named after Audubon’s wife, Lucy, who had been George’s teacher when he was very young. The Audubon Society folded due to financial difficulties in 1889, but would be revived in 1896 by a pair of women to raise awareness of (and to ultimately stop) the fashion trend of using wild bird feathers for ladies’ hats and other adornments. In 1905, the National Audubon Society was founded to continue their work and promote bird conservation.
  • Only three birds are named for Audubon.
    Despite his artistic influence on bird illustrations, his discoveries of new birds, his dedication as a naturalist, and his connections to conservation, only three bird species – the Audubon’s oriole, Audubon’s warbler, and Audubon’s shearwater – have been named in honor of John James Audubon. In contrast, 10 species have been named for ornithologist John Cassin, 7 species for ornithologist Alexander Wilson, and one species for naturalist Charles Darwin.
Audubon's Oriole - Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren
Audubon’s Oriole – Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

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