By early January 1821, John James Audubon and his young assistant Joseph Robert Mason are close to reaching the dirtiest place in the United States. To get there gives Audubon his first opportunity to observe Louisiana’s birdlife. The immense variety of birds and their vast numbers fail to deter Audubon from his grand idea of drawing every bird in America.

Confounded by Chickadees

Plate 353 in the double elephant folio of John James Audubon's Birds of America.

Among the first that Audubon fells and draws is a bird that he believes is a Black-cap Titmouse (#3 & #4 of Plate 353 in the double elephant folio of Birds of America). If so, the finding would broaden dramatically the bird’s range. Alexander Wilson, Thomas Nuttall, and William Swainson noted the bird in the central and northeastern states. John Richardson describes in Fauna Borealis-Americana that the Black-cap Titmouse is the most common bird in Canada and sees “a small family inhabiting almost every thicket.”

Audubon discovers that the Black-cap Titmouse is not as widespread as he thought when he reaches Eastport, Maine, in May of 1833. Audubon is presented a specimen of a Black-cap Titmouse that is noticeably larger than the one he collected in Louisiana. Otherwise, the birds could not be more identical.

John James Audubon's drawing of a Carolina Chickadee in Birds of America.

Audubon gathers more specimens and information about the bird and comes to the conclusion that the bird he found in Louisiana is indeed different from the Black-cap Titmouse. For Birds of America, Audubon renames the bird he believed was a Black-cap Titmouse a Carolina titmouse. The Black-cap Titmouse and the Carolina titmouse are now known respectively as the Black-capped chickadee and the Carolina chickadee.

When the Black-capped chickadee and Carolina chickadee are breeding in the same areas, such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Audubon declares, “it is difficult to say which of them is the most numerous, they being so like each other that one is apt to confound them.” The chickadees though being quite clear on the matter separate after breeding with the Carolina moving to the south and the Black-capped to the north. Between the two they cover practically all of North America.

Plate 353 of the Double Elephant Folio

A close relative of the Carolina chickadee and the Black-capped chickadee is the Chestnut-backed Titmouse (#1 & #2 of Plate 353 in the double elephant folio of Birds of America). Thomas Nuttall and John Kirk Townsend are the first to document the bird while exploring the Columbia River in 1834. For the double elephant folio of Birds of America, Audubon places the Black-capped Chickadee and the Chestnut-backed Titmouse together in Mason’s drawing of a Willow oak.

Also in the Willow oak in Plate 353 (#5 and #6) of the double elephant folio is a Bushtit. This is another bird that Nuttall and Townsend are the first to document. All of the birds in Plate 353 have ranges that overlap, but not where there are Willow oaks. Willow oaks grow in the southeastern United States. The more likely occupant of a Willow oak is the Carolina chickadee. But instead of a Willow oak, Audubon places the Carolina chickadee among the limbs, leaves, and flowers of a Supplejack vine.

The “curious mansion” in the Willow oak is a Bushtit’s nest. Nuttall writes that the Bushtit favors small trees and bushes on which to hang its nest that looks like a worn-out wool sock. The nest in the drawing is one Nuttall collects, saves, and successfully transports all the way from the Columbia River via California and around South America and finally to Philadelphia to place it in the hands of John James Audubon. While Audubon sometimes creates convoluted relationships in his drawings, like Plate 353 of the double elephant folio of Birds of America, these drawings nonetheless capture the energy and stunning array of America’s birds and plants.

Docking in New Orleans

On January 7, 1821, Nicholas Berthoud and his traveling companions, John James Audubon and Joseph Robert Mason, reach New Orleans. The many varied cultures that mix together in the town include French, Creole French (people born in America whose parents are French), and Creoles of color (people with parents having European and African ancestry). Many too are refugees from Saint-Domingue. French parents and an early childhood in Saint-Domingue prepare Audubon well for such an epic melting pot. For most, it is “A more incessant, loud, rapid, and various gabble of tongues… than was ever heard at Babel.”

Other faces of color are those of the slaves. Once the Constitution of the United States was passed in 1789, the next best chance for abolishing slavery happened after the United States purchased from France the Louisiana territory in 1803. President Thomas Jefferson though buckled under the pressure of a booming economy being powered by cotton and hoped the free blacks in New Orleans would decide to “neglect themselves.” Jefferson’s inaction leaves the plantation owners free to invoke the Code Noir and enslave the black people. By the time Berthoud, Audubon, and Mason arrive on the scene, slaves are being traded in the largest numbers of any city in America.

The Dirtiest Place

Near the market for slaves is the Halle des Boucheries (“Meat Market”). And around the slave market and the Halle des Boucheries is a mass of other merchants and traders interspersed with miscreants. It is across the river from this frenzy of buying and selling that Berthoud, Audubon, and Mason are able to secure their boat. Audubon’s first visit to the Halle des Boucheries and surrounding markets shocks him into writing that it is “the Dirtiest place in all the Cities of the United States.”

The Price Buntings Pay

John James Audubon's drawing of a Painted Bunting in Birds of America.

Nothing is spared from having a price placed on its head, not even Painted and Indigo buntings. Their size, color, chirps, and songs make them popular for extra entertainment in homes. The birds also find themselves in cages by being their own worst enemies, especially the Painted bunting. The process begins by shooting a male in its full, almost rainbow plumage. The bird is then killed and stuffed “in a defensive attitude.”

Next, the stuffed bird gets placed on a platform and made to appear that it is eating and protecting plant seeds. Above the bird is a cage that is triggered to drop down on the platform. The bird and trap-cage are then set out in an orange grove or field.

The staged Painted bunting quickly draws the attention of other birds. None more so than a male Painted bunting which “perceives it, and dives towards the stuffed bird, with all the anger which its little breast can contain. It alights on the edge of the trap for a moment, and throwing its body against the stuffed bird, brings down the trap, and is made prisoner. In this manner, thousands of these birds are caught every spring. So pertinacious are they in their attacks, that even when the trap has closed upon them, they continue pecking at the feathers of the supposed rival. The approach of man seems to allay its anger in a moment. The live bird is removed to the lower apartment of the cage, and is thereby made to assist in decoying others.” Today, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects the best it can Painted Buntings from becoming an already dead foe or living the rest of their lives in cages.