To birdwatch or not to birdwatch? This is the question John James Audubon must answer. There are no job opportunities in Cincinnati in the fall of 1820. Or, Audubon neglects to search for them with birds and his art increasingly commanding his full attention. And as birds live and move around, it is not long before they lure Audubon away from his family to points where he risks ever seeing his wife and children again.
For some time, Lucy has resigned herself to Audubon’s infatuation with birds and drawing them. “If I were jealous, I would have a bitter time of it, for every bird is my rival.” Although in light of Audubon’s birds combined with young Joseph Robert Mason’s plants and flowers, Lucy sees more potential value in Audubon’s drawings. When Audubon suggests to Lucy that he and Mason need to explore the more southern parts of the United States to find and draw birds, she agrees. Although Audubon must recognize that a long absence while leaving his wife almost penniless is also a path that could ruin his marriage.
The Missing Song Sparrow
Before Audubon decides to take flight from living in Kentucky and along the Ohio River, he notes not ever seeing the Song sparrow. Today, the Song Sparrow is as common in Kentucky in bushes, along fencerows, and in park areas as the horses and cattle standing in the fields. And it is not as if Audubon is unfamiliar with the bird. He knows it so well that he describes almost to the grass blade, as he does with most of the birds in Birds of America, how the nest is constructed. He also marvels at how the Song sparrow leaves its nest in immaculate condition. So orderly are the parents and young that it surprises Audubon the parents go to the trouble of building a new nest for a subsequent brood. But more vexing is a how a bird can be absent from Kentucky and turn into one of the state’s most conspicuous and common.
Floating Down the Belle Rivière
On October 12, Audubon and Mason board with their guns, paper, and chalks Jacob Aumack’s cargo keelboat bound for New Orleans. As primitive and grimy as it is on the boat, conditions only get filthier down river. On Nov. 21, they dock at New Madrid at the mouth of the Ohio River. Audubon describes the village as “one of the poorest that is seen on this River having a Name; the Country Back was represented to us as being good, but the Looks of the Inhabitants contradicted strongly their assertions – they are Clad in Bukskin [sic] pantaloons and a sort of Shirt of the same, this is seldom put aside unless so ragged or so Blooded & Greased, that it will become disagreeable even to the poor Wrecks that have it on – ”
Audubon and Mason tolerate the appalling accommodations and frightful appearance of the frontier people to carry on with their pursuit of birds. On October 14, Audubon fells a Bald eagle which he uses for one of his most popular drawings in Birds of America. As the national emblem for the United States, no bird in North America is probably more studied or better recognized. Before the advent of the steamboat, Audubon describes the Bald eagle as extremely abundant “particularly in the lower parts of the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the adjoining streams… Now, however, their number is considerably diminished, the game on which they were in the habit of feeding, having been forced to seek refuge from the persecution of man farther in the wilderness.”
At one point, finding prey was the least of the Bald eagle’s worries. The bird’s biggest threat came from the production of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). Paul Hermann Müller received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1948 for developing the chemical as an insecticide. Science ran amok when Rachel Carson wrote about the harmful effects of DDT in her book Silent Spring and how Bald eagles and other birds were digesting the chemical and causing the shells of their eggs to weaken and break before the chicks were ready to hatch. The Bald eagle came close to extinction before DDT was banned in 1972.
The Trumpeter Swan Calling
Rather than travel south on the Mississippi River, Audubon and Mason head north. Audubon is too low on money not to accept an offer to hunt with a party of fur traders. As they venture into Illinois and Missouri, winter strikes: “The great stream was itself so firmly frozen that we were daily in the habit of crossing it from shore to shore. No sooner did the gloom of night become discernible [sic] through the grey twilight, than the loud-sounding notes of hundreds of Trumpeters would burst on the ear; and as I gazed over the ice-bound river, flocks after flocks would be seen coming from afar and in various directions, and alighting about the middle of the stream opposite to our encampment.”
Due to global warming, crushed ice dumped from a cooler is about the most ice that can be seen today on this portion of the Mississippi. And the notes of motor engines rather than birdsongs are heard mostly in and along this portion and all other portions of the Mississippi River. Climate change, factory farming, development, and sprawl are dangerously close to eliminating the Trumpeter swan from the United States.
Audubon writes while enduring Arctic conditions on the mid-Mississippi that even more numerous than the Trumpeter swan is the Double-crested cormorant: “probably Millions of those Irish Geese or Cormorants, flying Southwest – they flew in Single Lines for several Hours extremely high -” Double-crested cormorants are still widespread and come together in very large formations, even into the thousands. At most the number is a fraction of the millions that Audubon counts.
Audubon Misses the Smith’s Longspur
When the ice breaks and Audubon and Mason are able to turn south and resume their goal of reaching New Orleans, a host of new birds begin to emerge. Audubon spots on the shore a small sparrow-like bird. The bird remains still for a minute or so “flat on the ground” and then takes flight. Audubon shoots and misses.
Seven years later, explorer John Richardson collects a specimen near Carlton House in Saskatchewan, Canada. When Audubon sees Richardson’s bird during a visit to London’s Zoological Society, he recognizes the bird as the one he shot at and missed along the Mississippi. Audubon uses Richardson’s specimen as a model for Plate 400 (#5) in the double elephant folio of Birds of America. He names the bird a Buff-breasted finch.
In the octavo edition of Birds of America, the Buff-breasted finch appears as the Painted Lark-Bunting (Plate 153). The bird undergoes another name change when Audubon credits Edward Harris and J.G. Bell for finding the Smith’s Lark-Bunting (Plate 487 of the octavo edition). Harris and Bell note finding the bird in the “prairies of Illinois, in the vicinity of Edwardsville.” Audubon names the bird in honor of his friend Gideon B. Smith of Baltimore. The Smith’s Lark-Bunting is now known as the Smith’s longspur. Audubon’s drawing is the female. The male has been identified as Audubon’s Painted Lark-Bunting. It takes the coincidence of Audubon exploring the mid-Mississippi River, Richardson the Arctic regions, and Harris the prairies of Illinois to expose the vagaries of the Smith’s longspur. The bird exists practically nowhere else.