Living down by the river in early January of 1821 on a flatboat that is barely floating is the price John James Audubon is willing to pay for watching, hunting, and drawing the birds in the area of New Orleans and southern Louisiana. While the lifestyle might suit Audubon, he has a wife, a child, and his assistant Joseph Robert Mason who he must support. Instead of birds, Audubon reasons to start drawing portraits to earn income. Audubon’s art skills quickly earn customers in the bustling market areas around the Halles des Boucheries.
The most lucrative commission comes from a lady who requests Audubon to draw a “Likeness” of her in the nude. In lieu of money, the woman who remains anonymous purchases for Audubon a gun of his choice. On the gun is also a plaque that reads, “Ne refuse pas ce don d’une amie que qui t’est reconnaissante, puisse qu’il t’égaler en bonté.” Of all Audubon’s drawings and paintings, none could approach the thousands, possibly millions, of dollars the value of his picture of the nude woman who wishes Audubon’s new gun equals in richness the gift Audubon has given her. If only anyone knew where the painting hangs.
Starting with New Orleans and for most of the rest of his life, Audubon puts great distances between himself and his wife Lucy. And without Lucy close by, Audubon’s charisma and breathtaking handsomeness expose him to countless temptations. Yet the record still shows that Audubon gives Lucy nothing less than his total devotion throughout the 43 years of their marriage.
Audubon earns additional income by giving drawing lessons. The most enthusiastic student is an Italian painter who Audubon meets at the Théâtre d’Orléans on Jan. 12. After Audubon shows the Italian his drawing of the Bald eagle, “he was much pleased, took me to his painting appartement [sic] at the Theatre, then to the Directors who very roughly offered me 100$ per Month to paint with Mons. L’Italian.” The Bald Eagle’s status as the national emblem and the dramatic effect of the bird clutching a plump, long-whiskered catfish in its talons have made copies of this drawing for Birds of America routinely among the most valuable.
Yet another method for Audubon to earn money is by selling live birds to European collectors and scientists. Some birds though end up more dead than alive in the process. For the first few days of being placed in a large cage with other birds, the Common grackles live in harmony. The grackles suddenly have a change of heart. They start attacking and killing their cage mates.
Audubon immediately separates the grackles into their own cage. “Even this did not prevent further breach of the peace, for the strong attacked and killed the weak of their own race, so that only a few remained in the end. The Grakles [sic] thus mangled, killed and partially devoured several Cardinal Grosbeaks, Doves, Pigeons, and Blue Jays. I look upon this remarkable instance of ferocity in the Grakle with the more amazement, as I never observed it killing any bird when in a state of freedom.”
Few birds in a state of freedom form flocks as massive as the Common grackle. And few birds fancy corn as much as the Common grackle, such as those Audubon draws ripping through ears of corn in Birds of America. “See how torn the husk is from the ear, and how nearly devoured the grains of corn already are!”
Audubon witnesses farmers bringing down Common grackles by the droves with their guns. Other methods of defense have since been developed. There are bright-colored balloons on which there is printed enormous eyes that look like they never sleep; ribbons that flap, glitter, and sparkle; gas-pressured cannons that produce sonic blasts; firecrackers that can be shot out of 12-guage shotguns; and there are recordings of the bird’s distress call that are available to frighten the birds from the fields. Unlike most birds, the Common grackle has been able to withstand humankind’s machinations to control nature and still comes together in huge numbers. Drew Weber estimated on Cornell’s e-Bird system that four million common grackles were together near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on Christmas Day in 2018.
The Rusty Blackbird’s Plight
The Common grackle’s close relative, the Rusty blackbird, is not having the same success. This might be due to the bird’s preference for insects rather than the ears of corn. Audubon reports the Rusty blackbird gathers in “astonishing numbers,” especially in the fall when the Common grackle and Rusty blackbird feed on seeds that are left behind from harvests.
Prior to fall harvests, the Rusty blackbird seeks insects and snails. These types of creatures are far fewer due to the creation of pesticides and insecticides. The most Rusty blackbirds that have been counted on Cornell’s e-Bird system is 50,000, a far cry from the count of four million Common grackles. It was long ago on March 20, 1934, that the 50,000 Rusty blackbirds appeared in a roost in DeSoto County, Mississippi.
On February 4, Audubon sights Purple martins in a loose flock. They are “gambolling through the air” just outside of New Orleans. He notices, “My Fahrenheit’s thermometer stood at 68 degrees, the weather being calm and drizzly. This flock extended about a mile and a half in length, by a quarter of a mile in breadth.”
When Audubon draws the Purple martin for Birds of America, he sets the birds on and around a hollowed-out gourd. Purple martins gravitate to such structures for nesting, and since Purple martins consume insects and patrol tirelessly against hawks, cats, and other threats to their nests, gourds are often placed close to farmhouses.
As far as Audubon is concerned, gourds or bird boxes for Purple martins are also forms of advertisement. “Almost every country tavern has a Martin box on the upper part of its sign-board; and I have observed that the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be.” The Purple martin has become so dependent on gourds and birdhouses that its numbers fairly correlate to the number of birdhouses that are provided, that they find, and are willing to make their home.
Beware the Grimalkin
Coming close to the Purple martin in combating enemies is the Eastern kingbird. “Few Hawks will venture to approach the farm-yard while the King-bird is near. Even the cat in a great measure remains at home; and, should she appear, the little warrior, fearless as the boldest Eagle, plunges towards her, with such rapid and violent motions, and so perplexes her with attempts to peck on all sides, that grimalkin, ashamed of herself, returns discomfited to the house.” By late summer, after the Eastern kingbird’s chicks are fully-fledged, the kingbirds grow silent and direct their energy towards migration. This places the job back on the farmer and his family to protect their poultry in the farm-yard.
When the lions sleep with the lambs, maybe the cats will cuddle with the birds. Until then, the bird named after the cat, albeit due to the bird’s call which sounds like a cat, even torments the grimalkin. “The sight of a dog seldom irritates it, while a single glance at the wily cat excites the most painful paroxysms of alarm.” Hearing the Gray catbird’s raucous songs and catcall is much easier than seeing it. The bird stays concealed in low, dense foliage, like Mason’s drawing of a Blackberry bush that Audubon uses for his drawing of the Gray catbird in Birds of America.
Audubon considers the Great Crested flycatcher just as bellicose as the Eastern kingbird. Although instead of hawks, owls, and cats, the Great Crested flycatcher seems to direct its ire more so at smaller birds. Or at one another. “Among themselves these birds have frequent encounters, on which occasions they shew [sic] an unrelenting fierceness almost amounting to barbarity. The plucking of a conquered rival is sometimes witnessed.” Without Audubon’s detailed notes about the Birds of America, it would be anyone’s guess to explain the fascinating action that Audubon portrays in his drawing of the Great Crested flycatcher.
“Almost as pugnacious as the [Eastern] King-bird” is the Small Green Crested flycatcher. Alexander Wilson was the first to document the Small Green Crested flycatcher. He must have also been impressed with the bird’s level of fight and determination by giving the bird the binomial of Muscicapa querula. For Birds of America, Audubon changes the binomial to Muscicapa acadia in reference to seeing the bird as far north as Nova Scotia. This range is much farther north than it is today, which brought about another name change for the bird. The current binomial is Empidonax virescens in reference to the olive-green color of the bird’s crest and back. Wilson’s common name, also in reference to the olive-green color of the bird’s crest, has also been changed. In a list of backward common names, Empidonax virescens would rank very high as the Acadian flycatcher.
The Empidonax flycatchers are no doubt difficult to distinguish. One that Audubon is the first to document is Traill’s flycatcher. The name is in honor of Dr. Thomas Stewart Traill. Audubon and Traill become good friends during the time Audubon is in Edinburgh, Scotland, working on the first copies of the double elephant folio for Birds of America. The Traill’s flycatcher is no longer named after Audubon’s friend. It is now known as the Willow flycatcher. According to Audubon, the Willow flycatcher, the Acadian flycatcher, and the Eastern wood-pewee look almost alike, but their songs are “perfectly different.” There are currently thirteen species of Empidonax flycatchers in North America. Bird guides and bird experts consistently stress to bird watchers to listen for a member of the Empidonax family to call or sing before being certain of the bird’s identification.
In addition to the Acadian and Willow flycatchers, Audubon documents three more birds that are currently in the Empidonax family: the Alder, Least, and Yellow-bellied. All of them are within a family Audubon names Muscicapa. Audubon names another 16 birds in the Muscicapa family. There are no additional records of two of them: Bonaparte’s flycatcher and the Small-headed fly-catcher. All of the rest of the birds in the Muscicapa family have been re-classified into either eight new families of tyrant flycatchers or a form of warbler. Two of the warblers are the Canada and Wilson’s, and the other is the American Redstart.
The American Redstart
The re-classification the Muscicapa family now makes the American Redstart the warbler that is possibly the most skilled at flying after flies and other flying insects. To flush them the bird dashes about in bushes and trees moving its tail like a blinking flashlight while its bill is “constantly open, snapping as if it procured several of them on the same excursion.” In Birds of America, Audubon and Mason show that the American Redstart thinks twice about a wasp.
Litte Yellow Jobs
A flycatcher that Audubon himself turns into a warbler is the Selby’s (Plate 9 in the double elephant folio of Birds of America). John Kirk Townsend collects specimens of what Audubon believes are Mourning warblers along the Columbia River in the summer of 1834. Audubon uses these birds for Plate 399 (#4 & #5) of the double elephant folio Birds of America. When Audubon has the chance to compare Townsend’s birds to other specimens of a Mourning warbler, he notes a difference in Townsend’s specimens through the “white eyelids, the dark spots from the base of the bill to the eyes, and also dark on the front at the root of the upper mandible.”
Audubon decides Townsend’s bird is a new species and titles it in the octavo edition (Plate 100) of Birds of America as the MacGillivray ground-warbler. The current common name for the bird is MacGillivray’s warbler. The bird that becomes the Mourning warbler in the octavo edition (Plate 101) is the double elephant folio’s Selby’s fly-catcher. The bird also happens to show up as a Hooded warblers in Plate 110 (not numbered) of the double elephant folio. For some birds, identifying them is harder than drawing them.