Birds of America
April 26 is
John James Audubon (1785-1851) was America’s foremost ornithological illustrator. After studying drawing in Paris under the French painter Jacques Louis David, Audubon struggled for many years to make a living from his art, shuttling back and forth between Europe and the United States and supplementing his income by giving drawing lessons, turning out portraits, playing the flute or violin at local dances, and at one time running a general store.
In 1820 he began a flatboat excursion down the Mississippi River to seek out new varieties of birds to paint. Eventually he had enough bird portraits to publish in book form. Birds of America, produced with the help of engraver Robert Havell, Jr., contains 435 hand-colored plates and was published in “elephant folio” format to accommodate the life-sized portrayals of birds on which Audubon insisted.
After his death in 1851, Audubon’s wife Lucy returned to teaching to support herself. One of her students, George Bird Grinnell, became the editor of Forest and Stream magazine and in 1886 organized the Audubon Society for the study and protection of birds. Today there are many branches of this organization, known as the National Audubon Society, and it remains dedicated to the conservation of wildlife and natural resources. Its members honor Audubon on his birthday, April 26. In some states, Audubon Day and Arbor Day are celebrated together by planting trees in bird sanctuaries.