Birdwatchers often refer to little brown birds that elude identification as little brown jobs (LBJ’s). Little brown birds are sometimes as hard to identify in John James Audubon’s Birds of America as they are in the field. Some of the more difficult ones appear in Plate 400 of the double elephant folio. John James Audubon almost sorts out correctly the Buff-breasted finch (#5) that he first sees in December of 1820. Experts later classify the Buff-breasted finch as the male Smith’s longspur. The female Smith’s longspur does not appear in Audubon’s double elephant folio, but she does surface in Plate 487 of the octavo edition.
No one but Audubon has seen #4 in Plate 400 of the double elephant folio. Audubon names the bird Townsend’s finch. Other than considerable anatomical detail, Audubon says that bird looks “like the common Sparrow of Europe, or the Black-throated Bunting [Dickcissel] of our country.” For many birdwatchers finding and identifying uncommon or rare birds can be easier than naming and counting LBJ’s. Little brown finches, sparrows, and buntings treat Audubon no differently.
Other Little Birds in the Double Elephant Folio’s Plate 400
Not brown but still small and peculiar is the Lesser Goldfinch (#1) in Plate 400 of the double elephant folio. The bird is common in the southwestern United States. The bird’s range seems to have once been wider, if for no other reason than its original common name is the “Arkansaw siskin.” When Thomas Say first documented the bird, Arkansaw was a territory that is present-day Arkansas and much of Oklahoma. And at least a few also reached Louisiana. Audubon’s drawing of the bird is based on one that he finds at Bayou Sara. According to Cornell’s e-Bird system, the most that have appeared in Oklahoma is 15, and no more than one has been counted in either Arkansas or Louisiana.
Only a few more Mealy Red-polls (#2 in Plate 400 of the double elephant folio) have been seen than Audubon’s one record of the Townsend’s finch. It is not until Audubon travels to Upper Canada in the summer of 1833 that he has the chance to see and draw the Mealy Red-poll. He compares the bird to the Common Redpoll but notes a distinct difference in the songs between the two birds. The bird’s current common name is a Hoary redpoll. The bird is as tough as a YETI thermos. It thrives in the wind and cold of the Arctic tundra. It is the rare Hoary redpoll that ventures further south than Canada. Although Audubon notes the bird as “Accidental in New Jersey and New York. More common from Maine northward.” According to Cornell’s e-Bird system, one was last seen in New Jersey in 2013; one in New York in 2019; and the most that have been seen in Maine is 11.
Almost as Fast as a Speeding Bullet
While traveling on the Mississippi River towards New Orleans, Audubon fells a Peregrine falcon just north of Natchez, Mississippi, on Dec. 26, 1820. He uses the specimen for his drawing in Birds of America. That there are different species of falcons meant little if anything to most settlers in the southern United States. The birds were all termed with equal disdain “Mangeurs de Poulets” (Devourers of Chickens). The drawing of the Peregrine falcon is one of Audubon’s more graphic. This later draws in gawkers at exhibitions of his artwork in England but somewhat lessens its value among those wishing for a gentler image hanging on their wall.
As Audubon’s drawing reveals, the Peregrine falcon is also partial to ducks. The bird pursues them “with a rapidity scarcely to be conceived.” So plentiful are the ducks along the Mississippi River that by the time Audubon and his assistant Joseph Robert Mason reach Natchez they have seen as many as 50 of the world’s fastest animal performing their aerial assaults. The Peregrine falcon has since been clocked at 217 miles per hour in its freefall for prey.
Bedraggled New Madrid in the Missouri Territory is a temple of gold compared to Natchez, Mississippi. John James Audubon and his assistant Joseph Robert Mason arrive in Natchez as the year 1820 nears its end. Much of the settlement is a “rascally and nondescript population” dwelling in flatboats tied to the bank of the Mississippi River. Vultures almost outnumber the 3,000 living in the town. The birds are pecking through piles of offal or soaring overhead waiting for a spot at a mass gravesite for slaves. Amidst the ghastly conditions and “to his utmost surprise” is Audubon’s good friend from Kentucky, Nicholas Berthoud. He is only passing through and on his way to New Orleans. Audubon and Mason accept Berthoud’s offer to continue floating down the Mississippi on Berthoud’s keelboat loaded with goods for trade.
Before making their departure, Audubon notes seeing several Northern shrikes near Natchez. Audubon also notes seeing the bird in Kentucky and in other areas that today have few if any records. Indeed, Cornell’s e-Bird system has no record of a Northern Shrike ever appearing in Mississippi. The Northern shrike favors grasslands and open areas with clumps of bushes and thickets. Too much of this kind of habitat in the locations where Audubon sees the bird has been lost to agriculture and development. Alexander Wilson, Thomas Nuttall, and Audubon referred to the bird as the Great American shrike. Its retreat to the north prompted the change in the bird’s common name.
While the Northern shrike is keeping more so to the north, its close relative, the Loggerhead shrike, is trying to hold out in the southern parts of North America. It is an unfortunate choice because, as Audubon notes, “It never comes near houses, although it frequents the fields around them.” The southern part of the United States from California’s Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida has experienced over the last 200 years one of the largest housing booms on the face of the planet. The Loggerhead shrike’s survival depends on whether it can adjust to living near houses and a plethora of other types of buildings and structures.
Moving down the Mississippi River, Audubon has the chance to go ashore just south of Natchez. He meets a hunter who presents to Audubon a dead hawk that Audubon cannot identify. Audubon investigates the bird further and determines that the bird is a new species and names it the Louisiana hawk for the double elephant folio of Birds of America. In the octavo edition of the book, Audubon calls the bird a Harris’s Buzzard. The name is in honor of his good friend Edward Harris of New Jersey. The specimen that is given to him is the only Harris’s Buzzard that Audubon ever sees. The common name for the bird is now Harris’s Hawk. Only a very slight few more have since been seen in the continental United States. If there was ever a bird that needed a name change it is one that was first documented postmortem, almost never flies north of Mexico, and is named for a person who never saw it.