Happy Birthday, John J.

It’s Audubon’s 232nd today. Backyard and Beyond will be noting this in several ways over the next couple of days. Some of you may be surprised to learn that John James Audubon retired to Manhattan. In 1841, upper New York County was still pretty wild, as the city more or less ended at 14th Street. Wishing to get away from their downtown home at 84 White St., the Audubons moved way up the island. They purchased 14 (or 20 or 30, depending on the source!) acres bordering the Hudson for 550 feet in the neighborhood now called Washington Heights. They caught an 8-foot, 200-pound sturgeon their first summer, had a menagerie and planted many fruit trees. But JJ, having lost most of teeth by then, still wasn’t quite ready to park it yet.

The prodigious walker and traveller — he crossed the Atlantic a dozen times when it could take 2 to 3 weeks to do so; his first trip from New Orleans to Liverpool took 7 weeks — had one more journey in him. Out West! Finally! He and companions journeyed up the Missouri in 1843. It was pretty grim going.  It took ages before there was any big game to shoot; at one point they were hungry enough to eat a wolf, but a bison was killed at the last moment.  Also, the land was in mourning: some 17,000 Native Americans had been killed by smallpox spread by the fur trade starting in 1837.

Audubon bagged* 11 bird species in time to add them to the last volume of the cheaper royal octavo version of Birds of America. The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, his last work, completed by his sons and co-writer John Bachman, was published in 1845-46. By 1848, the once indefatigable Audubon was dwindling: his vision had dimmed and he was sinking into senility.

“Alas, my poor friend Audubon, the outlines of his countenance and his general robust form are there, but his mind is all a ruin,” wrote the Reverend John Bachman (the now extinct warbler was named after him). John James LaForest Audubon, born the bastard “Jean Rabin” on Saint Domingue (Haiti), died in 1851 at the age of 65.

I will be giving a short talk about the Audubon legacy at the annual Audubon Birthday Party hosted by the Riverside Oval Association on Saturday, April 29. Festivities start at 3pm at the oval at the western end of 156th St in Washington Heights. There will be cake and what one presumes will be a rousing version of Happy Birthday in the Grinnell Building community room after the outdoor activities. (Yes, that Grinnell!)

The location is just north of Trinity Church’s uptown cemetery, where JJA is buried. (A mausoleum there with the not particularly common name WILLS on it has always intrigued me.) Minniesland, the Audubon home, was knocked down in the early 1930s, long since out of the family. Audubon Terrace continues to carry on the local name. (The Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated, is no longer called that.)

The neighborhood is also the location of the Audubon Mural Project.

*He wasn’t happy if he didn’t take a hundred birds a day. The old boy worried about the decline of the bison and the passenger pigeon, and saw in England the the industrial revolution destroying the land. On the other wing, he seems to have eaten a hell of a lot of the things he shot, commenting on their taste as part of his ornithological writings. 

Painted Bunting

In honor of Prospect Park’s 150th year, I’m reposting some of my old posts about things seen and experienced in the park in the last seven years.

Backyard and Beyond

Passerina cirisA rare, resplendent adult male Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) has been in Prospect Park for two weeks now, attracting an enormous amount of media attention and hordes of viewers. Passerina cirisNote this big seed-cracking bunting bill. The bird has stuck to the area around and atop the new ice-skating complex, which has a green roof. The native plants there seem to be instrumental in providing him food. This mild weather, too, has made it feel like home. The attention paid to the bird means a feral cat in the area was even removed.Passerina cirisIt turns out there are two distinct populations of Passerina ciris, one found in the coastal southeast and the other in the south-central U.S. (I’ve seen them before, in Texas.) Perhaps this specimen is from the southeast (?). Word is that these populations will probably be split into two species soon by the taxonomic high…

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A pellet of pieces of shell and pebbles. Found on a pier on the Piankatank, along with some other samples that had been smushed and otherwise dissembled. Diameter of a quarter and quite round. Who do you suppose chucked it up? Grebes, Kingfishers, Loons, Osprey out there: but they’re all fish-eaters.



Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus): in case you were wondering what the double-crests are. Breeding plumage.As fine an example as any of how optical enhancement can reveal the astonishing beauty of birds. Those eyes!

For anyone sliding into complacency, a perusal of Trump’s latest incoherence transcript will do the trick.


Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus).GHO are said to have the greatest diversity of prey of any raptor, diurnal or nocturnal. Mammals, mostly, but also birds, including other raptors. They will also eat insects, reptiles, fish, and carrion.
And you know these Muppets are ravenous. By the way, is that down on their eyelids? Meanwhile, in a rather less traditional nest location. There were actually two owlets here, but the older had jumped the pediment some time last week. We didn’t see it on its ledge on this viewing, but I’ve since been informed that it’s ok. In fact, it had fledged and was hanging out in a nearby tree. Well, nearby if you can fly. Rodent tooth, ejecta of an owl.

Earth Day

About today’s March for Science.

And the NYC component.

Naturalist Notes

Viola canadensis, a native violet.It was cool, so this Robin (Turdus migratorius) was hunkered down on those blue blue eggs.A Red Velvet Mite of the family Trombidiidae. Predators of the leaf-litter zone, as large as a blood-gorged tick and, being mite-y, rather looking like one.So many vocal White-Throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) in the Ramble!And a recent sunset.


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