If Lucy Bakewell marries John James Audubon, it will be for his love, not money. Audubon’s art skills are improving and his knowledge of birds is growing. Meanwhile, he is receiving minimal support from his family, and Audubon is generating no income from the family farm that is called Mill Grove. Furthermore, Audubon’s partner François DaCosta, tenant farmer William Thomas, and Audubon begin to dispute the claims on the mine that is located on Mill Grove.
Audubon decides to return to France to secure better terms of ownership for the farm and the mine. On March 12, 1805, Audubon boards the Hope in New York City. In the dock areas, Audubon notices “schooners loaded in bulk with [Passenger] Pigeons caught up the Hudson river, coming in to the wharf at New York, when the birds sold for a cent a piece.” There is no bird that better represents the decimation of wildlife that Audubon documents over the course of the rest of his life than the Passenger pigeon. It takes Anglo-American settlers only about 100 more years to shoot the Passenger pigeon completely out of the skies and into a few remaining stuffed specimens, one of which is perching on a shelf in the Audubon Museum in Henderson, Kentucky.
Audubon Returns to France
The Hope crosses the Atlantic in 19 days. Soon after John James’s return to his home in Nantes, his father Jean Audubon establishes an art business under the management of John James and Dr. Charles-Marie-Dessalines d’Orbigny. The business shields John James from being recruited into the French army. More importantly, it gives John James the opportunity to spend time with and learn from Jean Audubon’s friend d’Orbigny. Jean Audubon and d’Orbigny both served in the French navy and lived not far from one another in Couëron for many years.
John James Audubon later notes the doctor, “was a good fisherman, a good hunter, and fond of all objects in nature. Together we searched the woods, the fields and the banks of the Loire, procuring every bird we could, and I made drawings of every one of them—very bad, to be sure, but still they were of assistance to me.” D’Orbigny is a father of a three-year-old son named Alcide Charles Victor Marie Dessalines d’Orbigny. He becomes one of France’s most renowned naturalists. Among his teachers are geologist Pierre Louis Antoine Cordier and Georges Cuvier.
Like Cuvier, d’Orbigny rejects in his studies and writings all notions of the theory of evolution, even after regular correspondence with the theory’s main promulgator, Charles Darwin. If comments and discussion about the theory of evolution are completely lacking in John James Audubon’s writings, then the responsibility must lie with his relationship with Dr. d’Orbigny and the influence of the works and findings of George Cuvier and Alcide d’Orbigny.
Back to America
On April 12, 1806, John James Audubon boards the Polly at St. Nazaire to return to Mill Grove. Accompanying him is Ferdinand Rozier who is now a part-owner in Mill Grove after Jean Audubon sells to his father, Claude, an interest in the farm. Confrontations with English privateers and inclement weather create a voyage across the Atlantic that takes more than two months to complete. Not long after their return to Mill Grove, John James Audubon and Rozier decide to sell parts of their interest in the farm to DaCosta. With their stake dwindling in the farm, Audubon and Rozier are compelled to look for other income opportunities. Audubon moves to New York City to be a clerk for Lucy Bakewell’s uncle, Benjamin Bakewell. Rozier moves to Philadelphia to develop a trade business with Jean Audubon.
Even though New York City’s population is only about 75,000, John James Audubon tolerates the commotion and close confinement for not quite a year and then begins writing Rozier about the potential of traveling into America’s western frontier and developing a trade business on the Ohio River at Louisville, Kentucky. Benjamin Bakewell approves of Audubon’s ambition and lends to Audubon and Rozier money for the enterprise. Audubon and Rozier also take out a mortgage against their remaining interest in Mill Grove.
Entering the Western Frontier
Audubon and Rozier depart from New York City on August 1 with their belongings and $3,600 worth of stock for trade. The roads in some portions of the Allegheny Mountains are so rutted and eroded that Audubon and Rozier walk instead of riding in the coach. The land portion of the trip ends at Pittsburgh. Audubon and Rozier transfer their cargo to a flatboat and begin floating down the Ohio River. It requires weeks of being completely exposed to the elements, sleeping on bare pine boards, frequent plunges into the river to push the flatboat free from sandbars, and contending with a derelict Captain Harris before Audubon and Rozier disembark at Louisville.
By late September, Audubon and Rozier are living and in business in Louisville. Among the first people that Audubon meets is Major William Croghan. The major served under George Washington and others in the Revolutionary War. It was Washington who promoted Croghan to a major after they along with the rest of Washington’s command crossed the Delaware River in 1775 and managed to survive the tortuous winter conditions at Valley Forge.
The close proximity of Mill Grove to Valley Forge is one angle Audubon uses for his introduction to Major Croghan. Another is that in 1781, Croghan was among the American soldiers who witnessed General Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown while John James Audubon’s father was playing his part with the French fleet keeping the British out of the Chesapeake Bay.
After the American Revolutionary War, Croghan trained to be a surveyor and was named along with George Rogers Clark to be the principal surveyors for the Virginia State Line, within which at the time was Louisville. Croghan moved to Louisville in 1784 to carry out his work of measuring, mapping, and recording land deeds. In lieu of pay, Croghan received tracts of land. By the time Audubon arrives in Louisville, these tracts accumulated into a vast area around Louisville.
Counting Chimney Swifts
When Croghan learns of Audubon’s interest in birds, Croghan asks Audubon about his familiarity with the Chimney swift and its habits. In all likelihood up to this point, Audubon’s encounters with the bird are mostly seeing it perform its impressive flight maneuvers above the chimneys of New York City and Philadelphia and other towns during the spring and summer. For a different perspective, Croghan suggests to Audubon that he visit one of their roosts in a sycamore tree not far from Louisville near a town called Jeffersonville.
The tree barely holds a leaf and stands only 60 feet to 70 feet high. The base though is a fortress. Its diameter of seven to eight feet indicates the tree is hundreds of years old. About 40 feet up from the base, where the diameter of the tree narrows down to about five feet, there is a hollow stump left from a large broken branch. The opening that is left is about two feet wide.
As the day grows shorter, the more swifts Audubon hears their chittering sounds and observes flying above the sycamore. At sunset, the swifts begin diving into the hollow stump three and four at a time “like bees hurrying into their hive.” Audubon leans his head against the tree and listens to the “roaring noise made within by the birds as they settled and arranged themselves, until it was quite dark.” Audubon does “not pretend to count them, for the number was too great, and the birds rushed to the entrance so thick as to baffle the attempt.”
Audubon returns to the site early the next morning. He leans his head against the tree. Everything is perfectly still. Audubon continues pressing his head against the tree waiting for some hint of the birds still occupying the tree. Then whatever it is that Chimney swifts use for an alarm clock, it goes off. Audubon jumps back from the tree thinking it is “giving way, and coming down upon me.” Audubon looks above and sees not the tree falling but swifts “pouring out in a black continued stream.”
Audubon steps back up to the tree and presses his ear against the trunk and listens for a half-hour to what sounds like “a large wheel revolving under a powerful stream” as the birds proceed out of the tree. Once vacated, Audubon cannot resist the attempt to inspect the interior of the tree. He climbs up the tree to the stump where the hole is and peers in only to discover utter darkness. Audubon climbs back down, cuts a stem of cane that would normally serve for something like a fishing pole, climbs back up to the hole in the trunk, pokes the cane into the hole, and detects nothing but the woody surface of a hardy, old sycamore tree.
Audubon’s next idea is to locate a woodcutter in Jeffersonville. Audubon leads the woodcutter to the tree and pays him to cut a hole in the base of the tree. The opening reveals the bottom of the tree is filled with an odious mixture of matted, moldy excrement, feathers, quills, and bits of insects. Not to be denied, Audubon digs his way up six feet through the massive deposit of ordure until he emerges through the top. He then scrambles back out and replaces the wood cutting in hopes that the birds do not suspect an intrusion.
Audubon returns several days later when it is well into the evening. He gently opens the hole in the tree, scales up the chute, gradually increases the light from his lantern, and sees “the Swallows clinging side by side, covering the whole surface of the excavation. In no instance did I see one above another.” Given the dimensions of the tree less the depth of the decaying matter at the base Audubon estimates the tree is the roosting place for as many as 9,000 birds.
There is no comparable tree standing near Jeffersonville today. Although, there are other trees in the area and thousands more chimneys. Yet, a fraction of the number of Chimney swifts now appear around Jeffersonville. The town is located in Indiana’s Clark County. According to Cornell’s e-Bird system, the highest count of Chimney swifts in Clark County is 200. Ed Peter saw the birds at the Falls of the Ohio State Park on September 21, 2012.
Ospreys Nesting Along the Ohio
War hero and land surveyor George Rogers Clark also assists Audubon with his desire to find and study birds. He tells Audubon that a pair of Ospreys is raising its young at his farm next to Clarksville. These Ospreys are among numerous others that Audubon sees around the Falls of the Ohio, but within a few years Audubon remarks that the growing human population along the Falls is driving off the birds.
As much impact as the human population has had on Ospreys, it pales in comparison to what is in the water. Rather than a “most beautiful” river, the Ohio River is now where tens of millions of pounds of toxins are dumped annually. Among them was dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). The chemical is now banned in the United States. It was discovered that the application of DDT was causing many adverse health effects. Birdlife was getting especially hard hit. Birds like the Osprey were eating fish and other aquatic life carrying high levels of DDT. As DDT became more concentrated in the birds’ systems, the more the bird’s eggs were cracking before chicks were ready to hatch. A number of species of birds flirted with extinction due to DDT. The Ospreys are raising young again, but far from the Falls of the Ohio and its tainted waters.
The End of the Greater Prairie-Chicken in Kentucky
The loss of Ospreys around Jeffersonville and the Falls of the Ohio also occurs with the Pinnated Grouse, now known as the Greater prairie-chicken. “When I first removed to Kentucky, the Pinnated Grouse were so abundant, that they were held in no higher estimation as food than the most common flesh, and no ‘hunter of Kentucky’ deigned to shoot them.” Popular for eating are the young Greater prairie-chickens, not the adults. Adults though consume too many of the farmers’ berries and fruits. By 1831, Audubon reports, “The Grouse have abandoned the State of Kentucky, and removed (like the Indians) every season farther to the westward, to escape from the murderous white man.”
Not that Audubon steps from or tries to stop the onslaught of guns and ammunition that Anglo-Americans are unleashing on America. But it is through Birds of America that Audubon begins to construct at least a conscious for a nation hellbent on industry, consumption, and environmental destruction.
To see all of Audubon’s birds, locations, and habitats, please go to AskAudubon.net.