Of all the birds that John James Audubon draws for Birds of America, none come close to matching the behavior of a nesting Broad-winged hawk. Audubon’s goal is to draw the Broad-winged hawk and all the other birds that are found in America. Audubon is unique among other bird artists because he scales the birds to their actual size. Publishers have printed few books with paper larger than the double elephant folio of Birds of America (approximately 38 x 26 inches). Audubon also wants the birds in their natural surroundings. As outlandish as the idea is, Audubon almost pulls it off. Birds of America lifts Audubon into the rarified air as the bird artist against whom all others are compared.
The Quality of Birds of America vs. the Quantity of Birds of America
When and where Audubon is familiar with a bird and its habitat, such as finding a Broad-winged hawk at its nest, this inspires Audubon’s best drawings. And when Birds of America is finished and copies are broken up and re-sold, these drawings are invariably the most valuable. In some cases though Audubon is lured into quantity over quality. The quality of the drawings drops off either when Audubon does not observe the bird in the wild and bases his drawing purely on someone else’s specimen; or when Audubon fails to match properly the bird with its habitat or plants that are typical of the bird’s habitat; or both. Audubon is particularly guilty of both with many of the later plates in the double elephant folio of Birds of America.
Audubon cannot resist adding birds to keep up with scientists’ ingrained desire to find and identify new species. These birds are mainly those that Thomas Nuttall and John Kirk Townsend collect during an expedition through the midwestern United States and the Columbia River in 1834 and 1835. Most of the specimens show up in what looks more like collages of birds and sticks. While Nuttall’s and Townsend’s birds enhance the scope of Birds of America, they lessen the book’s value. There are two exceptions. Plate 362 of the double elephant folio shows a group of corvids common to the western United States along with a California sycamore (Platanus racemosa). And the Band-tailed pigeon is perching in a tree that Nuttall first documents, the Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii).
Even though John James Audubon in the end falls well short of his lofty goal, this is more than offset by his many breathtaking images of a landscape and way of life that has been forever lost.
The Audubon Family Travels to Fatland Ford
Drawings of birds and writing field notes continue to distract Audubon from the reality of supporting his family. Audubon’s good friend, Adam Rankin, backs Audubon on another venture in operating a trade store in Henderson, Kentucky. Audubon develops enough business to pay clerks to run the store so that he can spend more time in the field hunting and studying bird life. In November of 1811, Lucy’s brother, Thomas Bakewell, pays the Audubon family a visit. During the visit, Bakewell invites John James Audubon to be his partner in a trade store that he wants to open in New Orleans. Lucy views the offer as a departure from the dangers of frontier life and the chance to improve hers and her husband’s opportunities to earn income.
Thomas Bakewell continues south. Audubon lacks sufficient funds to invest in the business and must return to Pennsylvania with the hopes of securing a loan from Thomas’s and Lucy’s father. Audubon fabricates a kind of child’s seat and straps it onto the back of his horse “Barro.” Audubon and Lucy then situate Victor and a few other belongings aboard Barro and start making their way to Lucy’s father’s farm called Fatland Ford. They stop in Pittsburgh where Audubon settles his debt to Lucy’s uncle, Benjamin Bakewell. At Fatland Ford, William Bakewell agrees to make a loan to Audubon, but it is not without hesitation because of Audubon’s unconventional work ethic and the losses he has incurred on similar investments.
Audubon Returns to Henderson
On January 23, 1812, Audubon leaves his wife and son at Fatland Ford and heads back to Henderson. As Audubon is riding through the barrens of Kentucky, the third of a series of four earthquakes strikes the region. Audubon hears the loud rumbling and mistakes it for thunder. He spurs Barro to find cover, but the horse senses the ground moving and refuses. Then Barro begins groaning. Just when Audubon worries Barro has suddenly become ill, “all the shrubs and trees began to move from their very roots, the ground rose and fell in successive furrows, like the ruffled waters of a lake.” There are many aftershocks. They occur “almost every day or night for several weeks.” Among the most violent happens on February 7 which levels New Madrid (population of about 1,000) in the Louisiana Territory.
As if earthquakes are not creating enough hardship in Henderson, embargo acts and war with England are causing too few goods for trade to come down the Ohio River. Instead of continuing to New Orleans to join Thomas Bakewell, Audubon returns to Fatland Ford to be with Lucy and their son. Still straining financially, Audubon begins efforts to collect money from François Dacosta. Audubon contends Dacosta still owes him for buying an interest in Audubon’s nearby farm called Mill Grove.
A Broad-winged Hawk Sits Quietly in Her Nest
Even with money tight and tense relations with Lucy’s father, Audubon stays constant with his hunting and drawing. During an outing with his brother-in-law, William, they cross “a narrow skirt of wood.” William then spots a bird in a nest atop a tree (the Pignut hickory?). William agrees to climb the tree to collect the eggs for Audubon.
When William reaches the nest, the bird stays quiet and still. Audubon instructs William to place the bird in a handkerchief and bring the bird down from the nest. “All this was accomplished without the least difficulty. I looked at it with indescribable pleasure, as I saw it was new to me, and then felt vexed that it was not of a more spirited nature, as it had neither defended its eggs nor itself. It lay quietly in the handkerchief, and I carried it home to my father-in-law’s, shewed [sic] it to the family, and went to my room, where I instantly began drawing it.”
Audubon finishes the drawing of what turns out to be a female Broad-winged hawk. He then removes the hawk from its perch, takes the bird to a window in his room, raises the window, and releases the bird. The hawk flies off not uttering a sound. Audubon is able later to find a male to complete his drawing of the Broad-winged hawk for Birds of America.