Audubon Tells Which Birds Are the Best to Eat

John James Audubon's drawing of the Lapland longspur

In Birds of America, John James Audubon tells which birds are the best to eat. On February 15, 1819, Audubon sees the Lapland longspur gathering near Henderson, Kentucky, in “immense flocks scattered over the open grounds on the elevated grassy banks of the Ohio.” Audubon and many others grab their shotguns and head for the site. Audubon brings down “more than sixty in a few minutes. All the youths of the village [Henderson] turned out on this occasion, and a relative of mine [probably brother-in-law Thomas Bakewell], in the course of the next day, killed about six hundred. Although in rather poor condition, we found them excellent eating.”

Some forms of food that is possibly inconceivable today is not a second thought for Audubon, his fellow frontier settlers, and Indigenous people. It is the unusual bird that Audubon does not taste and provide a flavor profile in Birds of America. Some he notes as delectable, like the Lapland longspur. The birds that taste good include the Swamp sparrow, Mallard, and Sora. The Purple gallinule and American coot can be eaten, but one better be famished. Audubon considers birds like the Raven, Canvasback, and Red-headed woodpecker as unfit for consumption. And before it became extinct, at least one bird was potentially lethal. The Carolina parakeet devoured cockleburs which contain the toxin glucoside.

The Prowess of the Sharp-shinned Hawk

  Sharp-shinned hawk

In other excursions around Henderson in the spring of 1819, Audubon discovers “in a hole of the well-known ‘Rock-in-Cave’ [present day Cave-in-Rock] on the Ohio river” a nest formed out of grasses holding together a collection of sticks. In the nest are four eggs. Audubon takes the life of the parent when it returns to the nest and uses it as a model for his drawing (#2) of the Sharp-shinned hawk for Birds of America. Whenever Audubon sees the bird, it reminds him of “the miniature of the Goshawk.”

In places Audubon notes the Sharp-shinned hawk as abundant, such as Texas and along the shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. During migration, the bird can gather in the thousands. But it is the aerial feats that impress Audubon the most. “Many have been the times, reader, when watching this vigilant, active, and industrious bird, I have seen it plunge headlong among briary patches of one of our old fields, in defiance of all thorny obstacles, and, passing through, emerge on the other side, bearing off with exultation in its sharp claws a Sparrow or Finch, which it had surprised when at rest.” No nation or corporation has yet to develop a fighter plane or flying machine that can come close to matching the speed, agility, and prowess of the Sharp-shinned hawk.

Audubon Goes to Jail

The more Audubon delights in Kentucky and the American frontier, the more his finances deteriorate. This is compounded by the recent death of his father in Nantes, France. Jean Audubon’s estate is too meagre for his son to receive any inheritance. Then debt on the building of a mill in Henderson becomes too great which forces John James Audubon to cease its construction. Finally, Audubon must declare bankruptcy.

Audubon’s brother-in-law, Nicholas Berthoud, is living upstream in Shippingport near Louisville. He agrees to buy Audubon’s interest in the mill, Audubon’s house, and all of the house’s furnishings. Audubon also disperses his Canada geese, prairie chickens, and livestock. Audubon’s only remaining possessions are his gun, his dog Juno, and his portfolio of bird drawings.

Carrying his light load, Audubon leaves for Louisville to serve time in jail. Audubon’s wife and children move to Shippingport to stay with the Berthoud family until Audubon sorts out how he is going to house and support his family. After serving his sentence, Audubon rents a small apartment in Louisville. It is in these forlorn conditions that Audubon resorts for the first time to pricing and selling his drawings.

Creditors in Louisville generate too many ill feelings towards Audubon which prompts him to seek work elsewhere. Audubon moves further upstream and is hired by Dr. Daniel Drake to be the taxidermist for Cincinnati’s Western Museum. Serving as the museum’s curator is Robert Best. The employment enables Audubon to pay for a boarding house so that he and his wife Lucy and their children can be together again.

Audubon Documents the Henslow’s Sparrow

Henslow's sparrow

In the spring of 1820, Best and Audubon are hunting and exploring the Kentucky side of the Ohio River near Cincinnati. Audubon detects a sparrow-like bird moving in tall grass and close to the ground. He fells the bird. After examining and researching the bird, Audubon and Best conclude that Audubon has found a new species. Audubon draws the bird for Birds of America and names it the Henslow’s bunting in honor of John Stevens Henslow. The bird is now a sparrow but still named after a professor of botany at the University of Cambridge: “a gentleman so well known to the scientific world, my object has been to manifest my gratitude for the many kind attentions which he has shewn towards me.”

Audubon continues to have opportunities to see and study the Henslow’s sparrow, especially in Florida’s pine barrens where it appears in “great numbers.” Up until then, Audubon figures that the bird had been either overlooked or confused with the Yellow-winged bunting, now commonly known as the Grasshopper sparrow. The great numbers of Henslow’s sparrows in Florida are now down to 12. According to Cornell’s e-Bird system, Gallus Quigley found them on March 10, 2007, at the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve.

Joseph Robert Mason

Later in the spring of 1820, Audubon is dismissed from the Western Museum due to the museum’s lack of funds. Audubon again resorts to his drawing for income by offering art lessons. Among his students is a 12-year-old boy named Joseph Robert Mason. When flowers and plants become the subject, the boy surprises Audubon by drawing them better than his teacher. When Audubon begins combining his birds with Mason’s flowers and plants, Audubon’s fate to publish natural history’s most famous book is sealed.

The Range of the Swallow-tailed Kite

Swallow-tailed kite

While visiting Louisville in the summer, Audubon is able to watch a pair of Swallow-tailed kites rear their four young near the Falls of the Ohio. When Audubon later travels to areas further to the south, the bird becomes more numerous. Audubon calls the bird “extremely common” while exploring the lands claimed by the Attacapas and the Oppellousas. The United States took over these lands through the Texas Annexation of 1845. This region is now most of southeast Louisiana. During the Swallow-tailed kite’s spring migration in this area and through Mississippi, Audubon is able to spot “upwards of a hundred in the space of an hour, passing over me in a direct easterly course.”

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s e-Bird system does not have a recording of a Swallow-tailed kite in the county (Jefferson) in which Louisville is located. No more than two have been seen at one time in all of Kentucky. And between Louisiana and Mississippi, the largest number on e-Bird of the Swallow-tailed kite are the 31 that Jennifer Coulson counted the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge on March 13, 2019.

The Losses of the Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed grouse

Returning to Cincinnati in the fall of 1820, Audubon pities the Ruffed grouse and its determination to cross the Ohio River. “The Grouse approach the banks of the [Kentucky side of the] Ohio in parties of eight or ten, now and then of twelve or fifteen, and, on arriving there, linger in the woods close by for a week or a fortnight, as if fearful of encountering the danger to be incurred in crossing the stream.” Yet, they keep taking their chances. And yet when they decide to alight, the hunters are ever ready to fire. Some are kept for personal consumption but most are sold in great numbers “in the Cincinnati market for so small a sum as 12 1/2 cents each.” Those that survive the fuselage in the fall and the cold winter months fly back across the river in the spring. The males go first. They go alone. “The females follow in small parties of three or four.”

The parties of Ruffed grouse have almost disappeared from Kentucky. The highest count on Cornell’s e-Bird system for the bird in the state is 10. Charles Thompson saw them on June 1, 1980, in Boyd County.

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