Who Is Audubon?

Yellow-Rumped Warbler - Audubon's Subspecies
The Audubon's subspecies of the yellow-rumped warbler is named for John James Audubon. Dan Pancamo

The name John James Audubon is familiar to every birder, but why? Learning more about this man's life and legacy can help every birder appreciate just how much Audubon has influenced what birding has become today.

Name: John James Audubon (Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon)
Birth: April 26, 1785, Les Cayes, Haiti
Death: January 27, 1851, New York, United States

About John James Audubon

John James Audubon was an illegitimate child, born on his father's sugar plantation in Haiti. His mother – his father's mistress – died when he was just a few months old. In his early childhood, slave revolts and general unrest in the Caribbean French colonies prompted his father to return to France, and Audubon grew up near Nantes, on the Loire River in western France. As a child, Audubon loved being outdoors, whether it was hunting, fishing, riding, hiking or, of course, enjoying birds. He was also interested in art and music.

In 1803, Audubon emigrated to the United States and anglicized his name, becoming John James instead of Jean-Jacques. He first lived at Mill Grove, an Audubon family estate in Pennsylvania 20 miles from Philadelphia, learning to oversee mining operations on the property. He began studying American birds, and further developed his talents in art. He also met Lucy Bakewell, a young woman from a neighboring estate who shared many of his interests in the natural world.

When the property's mining potential proved less profitable than believed, Audubon moved to Kentucky, marrying Lucy Bakewell in 1808. They would eventually have four children – two daughters, Lucy and Rose, both of whom died very young – and two sons, Victor Gifford Audubon (1809-1860) and John Woodhouse Audubon (1812-1862).

As economic times fluctuated, Audubon became a frontier version of a jack-of-all-trades, trying various jobs to support his family. He was a successful portrait painter, taught drawing classes and spent several years as a merchant. He also founded a flour mill and worked in taxidermy. During this time he traveled extensively, spending time in Mississippi, Missouri, Alabama, Florida, Ohio and Louisiana. He often worked with Native Americans, and developed a great appreciation for their philosophies. Everywhere he went, however, he continued to study birds, drawing them learning more about their behavior.

In 1812, as war with Great Britain began, Audubon gave up his French citizenship and became a naturalized United States citizen.

In the early 1820s, Audubon began to focus more on his personal goal of painting every bird in America. He traveled even more to seek out ornithological specimens – birds he hunted in order to study in the hand. He posed specimens using wires to prop them into the proper positions, based on his intimate field observations of how each bird actually moved and behaved. In 1824, he attempted to publish his work – which he had christened Birds of America – in Philadelphia, but without success.

In 1826, Audubon traveled to England to attempt publication again, and finally succeeded in publishing his artwork in a piecemeal fashion, with subscribers paying for prints as they were completed. In this way, the 435 prints that make up the first edition of Birds of America were published in stages from 1827 to 1838.

Throughout the 1830s, Audubon continued to travel between England and the United States, always seeking more opportunities to observe birds he hadn't yet seen in detail. As his work continued to gain popularity, his prominence increased and he was awarded several honors. In 1839, he purchased an estate in northern Manhattan, New York, from which he continued to travel to publicize new editions of his work, which often included new plates not part of previous editions.

Though Audubon did travel to the American west and hoped to document many western species, his health was failing. In 1848 he began to show symptoms of dementia, which likely would have been diagnosed as Alzheimer's disease today. After his death in 1851, he was buried near his home in Manhattan.

Contributions to Birding

Throughout his life, John James Audubon was a naturalist, ornithologist and artist, and his contributions to modern birding cannot be overestimated.

  • Birds of America revolutionized avian artwork, as Audubon illustrated life-size birds in realistic poses, showing typical postures and often including unique behaviors or bits of habitat that further distinguished each species. The realism of his artwork appealed to birders and non-birders alike, and spread awareness of American birds and how intriguing birds can be.
  • In his travels and ornithological observations, Audubon discovered 25 previously undocumented bird species in the United States, and noted 12 previously unknown subspecies.
  • Audubon's personal interest in ornithology led him to tie strings around the legs of eastern phoebes, the first recorded instance of bird banding in North America. He observed that the birds returned to the same nesting grounds each spring.
  • Though it was founded long after his death, the National Audubon Society is named in his honor. The organization continues to promote the conservation of birds and their habitats, topics which Audubon addressed vigorously in his later writings.
  • More than 30 places are named in Audubon's honor, including many parks, refuges and sanctuaries, as well as schools, roads and bridges. Places in both the United States and France bear his name.

Birds Named After John James Audubon

Despite his immense influence on American ornithology, few birds are directly named after Audubon, the highest honor any birder could imagine and one that insures his name will be remembered.

  • Audubon's Oriole (Icterus graduacauda)
  • Audubon's Shearwater (Puffinus lherminieri)
  • Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Audubon's subspecies (Setophaga coronata auduboni)

Photo – Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Audubon's Subspecies © Dan Pancamo