BY DAYNA NORRIS
Fourth Grade Bird Club, officially the Junior Audubon Society,introduced me to the delightful world of birds and the name “Audubon.” TheAmericanized short “a” pronunciation, “a-da-ban,” issloppy enough, but the West Virginia twang version, “aa-daa-baan,” isworse. Thanks to Bird Club, however, my first Girl Scout badge, Birds, waseasy enough. Later, at college, I was thrilled to find that Duke owned oneof the four-volume, double-elephant folios (38" x 26") of Audubon’sThe Birds of America. Moreover, a page from each of the two volumes on displayin the rare book room was turned daily, so every bird had its day. When thosevolumes were finished, they were exchanged for the other two.
Naturally, a biography of Audubon would appeal, but two all the more: 1993’sAudubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness, by Shirley Streshinsky andnow, 2004’s John James Audubon: The Making of an American, by Pulitzer-prizewinner Richard Rhodes. My first delight was to learn, since Audubon was bornin 1785 in Saint Domingue (now Haiti), lived there 8 years, and 10 in Nantes,France, before coming to Philadelphia in 1803, he pronounced his French name “ow-duu-bon.” Imentally kept the French pronunciation as I read, confirming already the joyof reading, to go beyond the superficial and common information to the richnessand depth of details. Audubon invented his technique of impaling his specimenson wires on a board so he could pose them in “life-like attitudes.” Yes,pre-photography, he killed most of his avian subjects, but without his beautiful(my favorite) drawing of the stunning, now-extinct Carolina parakeet, wouldwe ever have known its glory? Even more amazing is that Audubon’s ideafor more natural drawings may have stemmed from his visit to Independence Hall!Previously the Pennsylvania State House, the hall’s top floors and towershoused the Pennsylvania Museum, an early natural history museum. One floorwas devoted to 700 bird specimens, arsenic-brushed skins over wood forms, inactive poses. Another mystery solved is the tidbit that bald eagle comes from “piebald,” meaningshining or white, not bald. All of this comes in Rhodes’ first 36 pages.I am not going to spoil the rest of the story, only to say Audubon eventuallyleft a wonderful legacy of the “finest work of colored engraving involvingaquatint ever produced,” but, like many other artists, not without struggles.He first tried to get some financial stability (general stores and steam millsin Kentucky), filled in with temp work (tutoring, drawing lessons, and portraiturein Louisiana), constantly refined his techniques (chalk, gouache, pencil, andwatercolor) in woods and swamps, and then left his family for long periodsto find patrons to fund his art.
The New-York Historical Society, which in 1863 bought Audubon’sown set of The Birds of America from his widow for $2,000, recently hada number of them in its second annual display, this year entitled “Audubon’sAviary.” Next to each print was a button to push to hear the bird’scall. The sounds echoing throughout the large room were just celestial.Six rotating Audubon prints are always on display. Worth visiting are historicalsites connected to Audubon, including Mill Grove in PA, Oakley Plantationin St. Francisville, LA, Audubon Center in Henderson, KY, and the househe inhabited in Key West, FL, while sketching his famous flamingo.
The happiest bird book ever is The Parrot Who Owns Me: The Story of aRelationship, by Joanna Burger, Distinguished Professor of Biology at Rutgers.Her charming story of “cross-species communication” with Tiko,her 30-year-old Red-lored Amazon Parrot, tells of allopreening (mutualpreening), molting, and diets of Cheerios, nuts, apples, lettuce, and M&Ms(just what I eat!). A couple of great words from the book: Parrots arezygodactyl, two toes point forward, two backward, and come from the Psittacidaeera, 40 million years ago. Burger also discusses the underworld of parrotsmuggling. Eighty percent of New World parrot trade comes to the U.S.,nearly 40 percent illegal, mostly parrots caught in the wild.
Another wonderful book by an ornithologist (and entomologist) is A Yearin the Maine Woods, by Bernd Heinrich, Professor of Zoology at the Universityof Vermont. His account of his study of ravens, especially one named Jack,is mesmerizing.
Welcome Spring! Welcome chirpers of happiness!