Archive for the ‘Audubon’ Category

“The Indigo Bird arrives in the Southern States from the direction of Mexico, along with its relative the Painted Finch, and is caught in trap-cages, but with more difficulty than the latter bird.  It spreads far and wide over the United States, extending from the borders of our Atlantic shores to those of our great lakes.  It is not a forest bird, but prefers the skirts of the woods, the little detached thickets in and along the fields, the meadows, the gardens, and orchards, and is frequently seen hopping along, or perched on a fence, from which is does not disdain to send forth its pretty little song . . .

I have represented an adult female, two young males of the first and second year, in autumn, and a male in the full beauty of its plumage.  They are placed on a plant usually called the Wild Sarsparilla.”

–J. J. Audubon, Ornithological Biography, I (1831), 377-379 [excerpted].

“Kind reader, you now see before you my greatest favourite of the feathered tribes of our woods.  To it I owe much.  How often has it revived my drooping spirits, when I have listened to its wild notes in the forest, after passing a restless night in my slender shed, so feebly secured against the violence of the storm, as to shew me the futility of my best efforts to rekindle my little fire, whose uncertain and vacillating light had gradually died away under the destructive weight of the dense torrents of rain that seemed to involve the heavens and the earth in one mass of fearful murkiness, save when the red streaks of the flashing thunderbolt burst on the dazzled eye, and, glancing along the huge trunk of the stateliest and noblest tree in my immediate neighbourhood, were instantly followed by an uproar of crackling, crashing, and deafening sounds, rolling their volumes in tumultuous eddies far and near, as if to silence the very breathings of the unformed thought!”

–J. J. Audubon, Ornithological Biography, I (1831), 372 [excerpted].

“They always feed on the wing.  In calm and warm weather, they soar to an immense height, pursuing the large insects called Musquito Hawks, and performing the most singular evolutions that can be conceived, using their tail with an elegance of motion peculiar to themselves.  Their principal food, however, is large grasshoppers, grass-caterpillars, small snakes, lizards, and frogs.  They sweep close over the fields, sometimes seeming to alight for a moment to secure a snake, and holding it fast by the neck, carry it off, and devour it in the air.  When searching for grasshoppers and caterpillars, it is not difficult to approach them under cover of a fence or tree.  When one is then killed and falls to the ground, the whole flock comes over the dead bird, as if intent upon carrying it off.  An excellent opportunity is thus afforded of shooting as many as may be wanted, and I have killed several of these Hawks in this manner, firing as fast as I could load my gun.”

–J. J. Audubon, Ornithological Biography, I (1831), 369 [excerpted].

“Every species of bird is possessed of a certain, not always definable, cast of countenance, peculiar to itself.  Although it undergoes changes necessary for marking the passions of the individual, its joy, its anger, its terror or despondency, still it remains the same specific look.  Hawks are perhaps more characteristically marked in this manner than birds of any other genus, being by nature intended for deeds of daring enterprise, and requiring a greater perfection of sight to enable them to distinguish their prey at great distances.  To most persons the family-look of particular species does not appear so striking as to the student of nature, who examines her productions in the haunts which she has allotted to them.  He perceives at a glance the differences of species, and when he has once bent his attention to an object, can distinguish it at distances which to the ordinary observer present merely a moving object, whether beast or bird.  When years of constant observation have elapsed, it becomes a pleasure to him to establish the differences that he has found to exist among the various species of a tribe, and to display to others whose opportunities have been more limited the fruits of his research.”

–J. J. Audubon, Ornithological Biography, I (1831), 364 [excerpted].


Amazing Audubon Exhibition at NYHS

   Posted by: rring

I was thrilled to be invited by the Alumni Office to speak about the Watkinson’s collections related to natural history at an alumni event in New York.  The New York Historical Society has mounted the first of three exhibitions of Audubon’s original paintings, most of which were used as the basis for producing the 435 aquatint engravings for his famous Birds of America (completed in 1838).

Over 40 alumni of Trinity College came out last week on a crisp evening to take a tour of the four large galleries which hold over 160 pieces of art, manuscript letters, and various small artifacts which comprise “Part I” of the exhibition.  You can hear the recent NPR story on Audubon, which mentions the exhibition.

Also joining us was professor Tom Wickman, who has structured a history course around our Enders ornithology collection.  We are team-teaching this course in the library, and were delighted that one of our students (and her parents) also made it to the event.

The Society’s docents did an excellent job taking our two groups through the exhibition, explaining in broad strokes the very interesting life that Audubon led, which culminated in the production of his famous (and famously big) book.  After the tour, I spoke about our amazing copy of the Birds of America, the plates of which were selected and hand-colored by the engraver himself (Robert Havell, Jr.), and passed from his hands in 1878 to a book firm and then to a Trinity alum, Dr. Gurdon Russell (class of 1834).  Dr. Russel owned the set for over 20 years before giving it to Trinity College in 1900, where it has been kept safe and made available to students ans scholars for over a century.

I concluded my remarks by emphasizing the use to which we put these collections throughout the school year, through presentations, events, and initiatives like our unique Creative Fellowship Program.  We all had a great time, and I hope the alums will remember to visit the Watkinson when their classes return to campus for a visit to see the Audubon, which is on permanent display.

“I obtained the bird represented in this plate opposite Cincinnati, in the State of Kentucky, in the year 1820, whilst in the company of Mr. ROBERT BEST, then Curator of the Western Museum. It was on the ground, amongst tall grass, and exhibited the usual habits of its tribe. Perceiving it to be different from any which I had seen, I immediately shot it, and the same day made an accurate drawing of it.

In naming it after the Rev. Professor HENSLOW of Cambridge, a gentleman so well known to the scientific world, my object has been to manifest my gratitude for the many kind attentions which he has shewn towards me. Its history and habits are unknown.  In appearance it differs so little from the Buntings, that, for the present, I shall refer to that genus.”

–J. J. Audubon, Ornithological Biography, I (1831), 358 [excerpted].

“This species does not breed in the United States, or if it does, must spend the summer in some of the most remote north-western districts, so that I have not been able to discover its principal abode. It merely passes through the better known portions of the Union, where it remains for a very short time. There is something so very uncommon in its appearance in different States, that I cannot refrain from briefly mentioning it. It is sometimes found in Pennsylvania, or the State of New York, as well as in New Jersey, as early as the beginning of April, but is only seen there for a few days. I have shot some individuals at such times, when I observed them employed in searching for insects and larvae along the fences bordering our fields. At other times I have shot them late in June, in the State of Louisiana, when the cotton-plant was covered with blossoms, amongst which they were busily searching for food. The Bay-breasted Warbler, however, has so far eluded my inquiries, that I am unable to give any further account of its habits.”

–J. J. Audubon, Ornithological Biography, I (1831), 358 [excerpted].

“In the spring of 1815, I for the first time saw a few individuals of this species at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio, a hundred and twenty miles below the Falls of that river. It was an excessively cold morning, and nearly all were killed by the severity of the weather. I drew up a description at the time, naming the species Hirundo republicans, the Republican Swallow, in allusion to the mode in which the individuals belonging to it associate, for the purpose of forming their nests and rearing their young. Unfortunately, through the carelessness of my assistant, the specimens were lost, and I despaired for years of meeting with others.

In the year 1819, my hopes were revived by Mr. ROBERT BEST, curator of the Western Museum at Cincinnati, who informed me that a strange species of bird had made its appearance in the neighbourhood, building nests in clusters, affixed to the walls. In consequence of this information, I immediately crossed the Ohio to Newport, in Kentucky, where he had seen many nests the preceding season; and no sooner were we landed than the chirruping of my long-lost little strangers saluted my ear. Numbers of them were busily engaged in repairing the damage done to their nests by the storms of the preceding winter.

Major OLDHAM of the United States Army, then commandant of the garrison, politely offered us the means of examining the settlement of these birds, attached to the walls of the building under his charge. He informed us, that, in 1815, he first saw a few of them working against the wall of the house, immediately under the eaves and cornice; that their work was carried on rapidly and peaceably, and that as soon as the young were able to travel, they all departed. Since that period, they had returned every spring, and then amounted to several hundreds. They usually appeared about the 10th of April, and immediately began their work, which was at that moment, it being then the 20th of that month, going on in a regular manner, against the walls of the arsenal. They had about fifty nests quite finished, and others in progress.”

–J. J. Audubon, Ornithological Biography, I (1831), 353 [excerpted].

“If the name of Starling has been given to this well-known species, with the view of assimilating it to the European bird of that name, it can only have been on account of the numbers of individuals that associate together, for in every other respect it is as distinct from the true Starlings as a Common Crow. But without speaking particularly of generic or specific affinities, I shall here content myself with giving you, kind reader, an account of the habits of this bird.

The Marsh Blackbird is so well known as being a bird of the most nefarious propensities, that in the United States one can hardly mention its name, without hearing such an account of its pilferings as might induce the young student of nature to conceive that it had been created for the purpose of annoying the farmer. That it destroys an astonishing quantity of corn, rice, and other kinds of grain, cannot be denied; but that before it commences its ravages, it has proved highly serviceable to the crops, is equally certain.

As soon as spring makes its appearance, almost all the Redwings leave the Southern States, in small detached and straggling flocks, the males leading the way in full song, as if to invite the females to follow. Prodigious numbers make their appearance in the Eastern Districts, as winter recedes, and are often seen while piles of drifted snow still remain along the roads, under shelter of the fences. They frequently alight on trees of moderate size, spread their tail, swell out their plumage, and utter their clear and not unmusical notes, particularly in the early morning, before their departure from the neighbourhood of the places in which they have roosted; for their migrations, you must know, are performed entirely during the day.

Their food at this season is almost exclusively composed of grubs, worms, caterpillars, and different sorts of coleopterous insects, which they procure by searching with great industry, in the meadows, the orchards, or the newly ploughed fields, walking with a graceful step, but much quicker than either of their relatives, the Purple Grakle or the Boat-tail of the Southern States. The millions of insects which the Redwings destroy at this early season, are, in my opinion, a full equivalent for the corn which they eat at another period; and for this reason, the farmers do not molest them in spring, when they resort to the fields in immense numbers. They then follow the ploughman, in company with the Crow Blackbird, and as if aware of the benefit which they are conferring, do not seem to regard him with apprehension.”

–J. J. Audubon, Ornithological Biography, I (1831), 348-349 [excerpted].

“I have always imagined, that in the plumage of the beautiful Ivory-billed Woodpecker, there is something very closely allied to the style of colouring of the great VANDYKE. The broad extent of its dark glossy body and tail, the large and well-defined white markings of its wings, neck, and bill, relieved by the rich carmine of the pendent crest of the male, and the brilliant yellow of its eye, have never failed to remind me of some of the boldest and noblest productions of that inimitable artist’s pencil. So strongly indeed have these thoughts become ingrafted in my mind, as I gradually obtained a more intimate acquaintance with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, that whenever I have observed one of these birds flying from one tree to another, I have mentally exclaimed, “There goes a Vandyke!” This notion may seem strange, perhaps ludicrous, to you, good reader, but I relate it as a fact, and whether or not it may be found in accordance with your own ideas, after you have inspected the plate in which is represented this splendid species of the Woodpecker tribe, is perhaps of little consequence.

… I wish, kind reader, it were in my power to present to your mind’s eye the favourite resort of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Would that I could describe the extent of those deep morasses, overshadowed by millions of gigantic dark cypresses, spreading their sturdy moss-covered branches, as if to admonish intruding man to pause and reflect on the many difficulties which he must encounter, should he persist in venturing farther into their almost inaccessible recesses, extending for miles before him, where he should be interrupted by huge projecting branches, here and there the mossy trunk of a fallen and decaying tree, and thousands of creeping and twining plants of numberless species! Would that I could represent to you the dangerous nature of the ground, its oozing, spongy, and miry disposition, although covered with a beautiful but treacherous carpeting, composed of the richest mosses, flags, and water-lilies, no sooner receiving the pressure of the foot than it yields and endangers the very life of the adventurer, whilst here and there, as he approaches an opening, that proves merely a lake of black muddy water, his ear is assailed by the dismal croaking of innumerable frogs, the hissing of serpents, or the bellowing of alligators! Would that I could give you an idea of the sultry pestiferous atmosphere that nearly suffocates the intruder during the meridian heat of our dog days, in those gloomy and horrible swamps! But the attempt to picture these scenes would be vain. Nothing short of ocular demonstration can impress any adequate idea of them.

…The Ivory-bill is never seen attacking the corn, or the fruit of the orchards, although it is sometimes observed working upon and chipping off the bark from the belted trees of the newly-cleared plantations. It seldom comes near the ground, but prefers at all times the tops of the tallest trees. Should it, however, discover the half-standing broken shaft of a large dead and rotten tree, it attacks it in such a manner as nearly to demolish it in the course of a few days. I have seen the remains of some of these ancient monarchs of our forests so excavated, and that so singularly, that the tottering fragments of the trunk appeared to be merely supported by the great pile of chips by which its base was surrounded. The strength of this Woodpecker is such, that I have seen it detach pieces of bark seven or eight inches in length at a single blow of its powerful bill, and by beginning at the top branch of a dead tree, tear off the bark, to an extent of twenty or thirty feet, in the course of a few hours, leaping downwards with its body in an upward position, tossing its head to the right and left, or leaning it against the bark to ascertain the precise spot where the grubs were concealed, and immediately after renewing its blows with fresh vigour, all the while sounding its loud notes, as if highly delighted.”

–J. J. Audubon, Ornithological Biography, I (1831), 341-343 [excerpted].