Posts Tagged 'birds'

Audubon II

There is darn little art without political economy. Welcome back to another way of looking at John James Audubon.

In his book, Audubon’s Elephant, detailing the difficulties of getting the double elephant edition of Birds of America published in Britain, Duff Hart-Davis says Audubon’s portfolio weighed a hundred pounds. Hart-Davis doesn’t inform us that when Audubon referred to “servants” in the 1810s, what he meant were slaves. Richard Rhodes in his biography John James Audubon: The Making of an American gives more details. In the slave state of Kentucky, the Audubons bought and sold nine humans between 1813-1819, investing at least $10,500. Previously, Audubon’s father Jean had worked many slaves on Saint Domingue before the Haitian revolution; that’s what allowed him to invest in the Pennsylvania farm property (which included a lead mine) that JJA was supposed to manage when he came to America at the age of 18 in 1803. (His father also wanted him out of the way of Napoleon’s recruiters.)

After the Panic of 1819, which financially crushed the Audubons and just about everyone else in the West (then the Ohio and Mississippi valleys), the family sold off the last of their slaves to pay their debts. Two, who had paddled Audubon down the Mississippi, were sold in New Orleans, the deepest of the Deep South, where the plantation economy was notorious for its brutality.

Wiped out and demoralized by the Panic, the nation’s first economic nose-dive (sparked by the bill coming due for the Louisiana Purchase), Audubon decided to turn to art rather than commerce. (But of course art was commerce, as it has always been in some form or another, as he knew or learned the hard way.)

The national image of slavery remains one of large plantations, all that Gone With the Wind garbage. Whitney’s cotton gin (1793) had radically transformed the cotton industry; production doubled each decade after 1800. The plantation economy, rather than the domestic labor economy, began to overwhelmingly dominate the slave market. That market was constricted because the importation of slaves had been outlawed in 1808, although an illegal trade continued. It was the internal trade in humans that boomed, seeing a large population transfer from the Upper to the Deep South. In the decade before the Civil War, Kentucky was one of the biggest exporters of slaves to the plantations.

Slavery touched everything.  It was near universal at the birth of America, accepting those who could not afford a human (and, initially, those few who opposed to it on principle). Middle class folk, like the Audubons before the bust, had a middle class life because of slaves. While Audubon was away in Scotland and England producing and selling Birds of America, his wife Lucy Bakewell Audubon was teaching the daughters of slaveholders in Louisiana.  The Rathbone family, who welcomed Audubon to Liverpool so generously when others shied away from the long-haired frontiersman, had made their fortune in the cotton trade, although by then they were abolitionists.

In the Audubons’ time in Henderson, Kentucky, a quarter of the state’s population was enslaved. The western frontier was made by slaves just as much as the South was. So, of course, was Brooklyn: almost a third of Kings Co.’s population was enslaved at the time of the Constitution; although full emancipation came in 1827, some slaves were illegally kept until the early 1840s in out of the way corners of the county.

It’s marching season. Tomorrow is the People’s Climate March in DC and elsewhere.

Turning Tern

Do you have as much difficulty with terns as I do?This is a Forster’s (Sterna forsteri) in (mostly) non-breeding plumage. A good field mark is that dark mask and pale nape. Also most helpful: not moving for a good long view.

The Anatomy of Liberal Melancholy is food for thought, as is this appreciation of Benjamin Barber, a great cosmopolitan.

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. 


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 disassembled. 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.

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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