On March 19, 1810, Alexander Wilson meets John James Audubon at his trade store in Louisville, Kentucky. After Wilson introduces himself, he presents to Audubon samples from his collection of drawings of birds. Audubon is told that the drawings are going to be published in a book that Wilson has titled American Ornithology. Wilson’s plan is to print the book in sections and deliver the sections to those who subscribe to the book.
Just when Audubon is about to add his name to Wilson’s list of subscribers, Ferdinand Rozier, his partner in the trade store, pulls Audubon aside. Rozier speaks to Audubon in French reminding him of their dire finances. Furthermore, Rozier questions Audubon about buying a book with drawings of subjects that he draws far better himself. Audubon reconsiders and proceeds to inform Wilson that he must decline his offer. Audubon then reveals to Wilson that he has a portfolio of drawings of birds of his own. Wilson peruses Audubon’s portfolio and tells Audubon his drawings “in crayons” are “very good.” He asks Audubon about whether he is going to seek a publisher. If the thought had not yet crossed Audubon’s mind, it does then.
Wilson and Audubon in the Field
Wilson remains a guest at the Indian Queen in Louisville long enough for at least one field outing with Audubon and not avoid what all birders engage in at some point or another: debate about a bird’s identification. On March 21, near some ponds just outside of Louisville, Audubon and Wilson have the chance to observe cranes moving their heads underwater to pull up and eat the roots of water lilies. Audubon tells Wilson that the white birds are adult Whooping cranes and the grey ones the young. Wilson later writes in his diary that Audubon and he saw Sandhill cranes (See Francis Hobart Herrick. Audubon the Naturalist: A History of His Life and Time. Vol. 1 (of 2), pg. 580. Apple Books). Whereas in American Ornithology, Wilson writes that he saw Whooping cranes with Audubon. Wilson makes no mention of the Sandhill crane in American Ornithology. Although just prior to his death in 1813, Wilson does leave his friend and editor, George Ord, a list of birds that he wanted to be included in the book in order for it to be complete. Among those birds is the Canada crane which in all likelihood is the bird that is now known as the Sandhill crane. Maybe in doubt himself, Ord did not add the Canada crane to American Ornithology. Charles Lucien Bonaparte attempts to resolve the issue with a footnote in revised editions of American Ornithology by explaining the Whooping crane suffers from a “general confusion of names, so that it becomes somewhat difficult to determine with precision that which should by priority be allotted to it.”
Since Audubon believes the Whooping crane, Canada crane, and Sandhill crane are all the same bird, it is that much more difficult to determine which bird he is referring to during the fall migration when he counts Whooping cranes in flocks with as many as 100 birds. He also notes them as “abundant” in the winter in “Georgia and Florida, and from thence to Texas.” However many of these birds are white, i.e., the Whooping crane, the numbers must be much greater than what they are today. Whooping cranes are currently one of the most endangered bird species in North America.
The Ribeye of the Sky
Such is not the case with the Sandhill crane/Canada crane which Audubon identifies as an immature Whooping Crane. “The young are considerably more numerous than the old white birds; and this circumstance has probably led to the belief among naturalists that the former constitute a distinct species, to which the name of Canada Crane, Grus canadensis, has been given. This, however, I hope, I shall be able to clear up to your satisfaction.” Like his marksmanship, Audubon has the rare miss identifying birds. Birders today are satisfied that there is indeed a Grus canadensis. The current common name for the bird is the Sandhill crane. But it is no longer in the Grus family. The bird’s current binomial is Antigone canadensis. Today it is far more numerous than the Whooping crane. Some states even allow the bird to be hunted. Jonathan Gassett, the former director of Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, calls the Sandhill crane the “Ribeye in the Sky.”
The Move to Henderson, Kentucky
Ferdinand Rozier grows restless from the slow trade business in Louisville. His partner’s propensity to be away from the store and out in the field and exploring the Kentucky landscape also gives Rozier cause for concern. He proposes to Audubon that they establish a new site for their store further downriver. They decide on a location with a few log cabins huddled together called Red Banks. It has since sprawled into a town that is now called Henderson. The remote settlement improves little prospects for trade. Although Henderson does offer one outstanding opportunity for John James Audubon to differentiate himself later from competing scientists, artists, ornithologists, and naturalists: the title of an American frontiersman.
Among the 200 inhabitants of Henderson is Dr. Adam Rankin. Audubon and Rankin become fast friends, and it is not long before Rankin hires Lucy Audubon to teach his children music and reading. Rozier and John James Audubon open their trade store with no change in their commitment to its success: Rozier concentrates on finding and buying goods for business while Audubon roams the fields and woods. More would be available for trade if Audubon’s hunting was for the purpose of earning income. Instead, Audubon hunts only to provide food for his family and for the sake of gathering bird specimens for study and to use for drawings. Audubon is so conflicted about shooting birds that when and where he can he lays down his gun and goes after birds on foot in an attempt to capture them alive!
Chasing After a Clapper Rail
Such a chase occurs on May 29. Audubon sees a bird near a marsh area close to his cabin, goes in pursuit, and catches it! Initially, Audubon believes the bird is a Clapper rail. Upon further examination, the bird is larger and darker than a Clapper rail. And over time Audubon finds the bird not around saltmarshes but only in freshwater marsh areas, like the one near his cabin in Red Banks, and freshwater swamps. Places where alligators lurk, frogs croak, snakes slither, turtles bask on fallen logs and branches, the temperatures soar, and disease threatens. “There, during the sickly season, it remains secure from the search of man, and there, on some hillock or little island of the marsh, it builds its nest. In such places I have found so many as twenty pairs breeding with a space having a diameter of thirty yards.”
Audubon names the new species the Great Red-breasted rail. It is known today as a King rail. Such inhospitable places where the bird chooses to nest are ideal for wildlife but not economic development. Freshwater marshes and swamps have been drained, excavated, channeled, planted in crops, filled in, built on, and transformed into everything but proper habitat in which the King rail can nest. The county where Audubon first sees a King rail is now known as Henderson. The most King rails that have been reported on Cornell’s e-Bird in Henderson County is 12. It is also the most that have been seen in the entire state. David Chaffin spotted an adult and 11 juveniles at the Sloughs Wildlife Management Area on July 11, 1996.