John James Audubon draws the Bank Swallow for his Birds of America.

Just outside of New Orleans on February 19, 1821, John James Audubon observes “Three Immense flocks of Bank Swallows” flying towards the northeast “with the Rapidity of a Storm.” Audubon wonders about where they are migrating from: “how far More south Must I go Next January & February to see these Millions of Swallows Spending their Winter as Thousands of Warblers, fly Catchers, Thrushes and Myriads of Ducks, Geese, Snipes &c Do here?”

Along the Schuylkill River in the spring of 1824, Audubon takes the lives of the Bank swallows that he uses for his drawing in Birds of America. When Audubon sees Bank swallows in the fall of 1831 near St. Augustine, Florida, he notes the birds “gaily skimming over the waters, and along the shores of the rivers and inlets. So numerous indeed were they that I felt inclined to think that the greater part of those which are in summer dispersed over the United States, and the regions still farther north, must have congregated to form those vast swarms.”

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s highest number of Bank swallows in the county (St. Johns) where St. Augustine is located is 50. For the state of Florida the highest count is 615. Swarms of Bank swallows are gone from Florida and many other places. The birds build their nests as a colony in steep, sandy banks along rivers and streams. They are the kinds of places that were much easier to find before the onslaught of dams, reservoirs, roads, and urban sprawl.

The United States Expands Its Borders

On February 21, dams, reservoirs, roads, and urban sprawl in Florida become even more inevitable when Spain relinquishes to the United States its claim on the state according to the Adams-Onís Treaty. The treaty also establishes in the Oregon Country a new borderline between Spain and the United States along the 42nd parallel. This is now the southern borders of the states of Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming.

Although Oregon Country comes with Great Britain also laying claim to the land, not to mention the claims of Indigenous people. Regardless, as the United States fights and negotiates to expand its borders, documenting and drawing all of the country’s birds in their natural habitat becomes that much more of a task. Yet, it remains one Audubon is willing to undertake.

Moving From Down by the River

John James Audubon draws the American golden-plover for his Birds of America.

On February 22, 1821, Nicholas Berthoud returns to Shippingport. Audubon and Mason continue to use Berthoud’s deteriorating keelboat as their accommodations until Audubon finally earns enough money for housing “in Barracks Street near the Corner of that & Royal Street.” Then Audubon’s finances face another setback when his father-in-law, William Bakewell, dies on March 6. Audubon’s wife, Lucy, is left out of the estate due to debt that Audubon fails to repay Bakewell.

On March 16, John James Audubon joins other hunters on an outing to Louisiana’s Lake St. John. The American Golden-plover is there, but not for long. “A man near the place where I was seated had killed sixty-three dozens. I calculated the number in the field at two hundred, and supposing each to have shot twenty dozen, forty-eight thousand Golden Plovers would have fallen that day.”

John James Audubon’s fame as an artist is second only to his infamy for gunning down birds. When Audubon first arrived in America in 1803, there were few inhibitions about, let alone restrictions against, killing wildlife. Birds appeared in the air almost like the water that fills lakes and rivers. This all changes right before Audubon’s eyes. Audubon sees and documents within his lifetime the numbers turn into trickles, thus the eventual association of his name with the importance of protecting birds and conservation.

A Creeper or A Warbler?

John James Audubon's drawing of a Black-and-White warbler for his Birds of America.

Audubon continues to eke out a living in New Orleans and even send money to his wife and pay for his assistant, Joseph Robert Mason. As for the birds, harder to see and bring down than the Golden Plovers are Black-and-white creepers. Audubon watches the Black-and-white creeper as “It climbs and creeps along the trunks, the branches, and even the twigs of the trees, without intermission, and so seldom perches, that I do not remember ever having seen it in such a position.”

Alexander Wilson and Audubon call the Black-and-white creeper a creeper even though, as Audubon observes, the Black-and-white creeper does not use its tail like a creeper, such as the Brown creeper. The Black-and-white creeper keeps its tail lifted as it scoots through leaves and along limbs. The Brown creeper lies its tail against the trunks and limbs of trees and uses it to help it hop up the tree. Therefore, in the octavo edition of Birds of America, Audubon renames the Black-and-white creeper a Black-and-white creeping-warbler. The bird’s current common name is the Black-and-White warbler.

Audubon describes in the spring and summer the Brown creeper is “over the whole country” with the exception of Florida and from Newfoundland north. This Audubon suspects this is due to the fewer large trees that the bird likes to race up looking for insects, for instance “in the Carolinas on pines, in Maine on maples, in Kentucky on hickories, oaks, or ash-trees.”

From the River to the Bayou

Lucy Pirrie learns about the talented John James Audubon. In exchange for drawing and dance lessons for Lucy’s daughter, Eliza, Lucy Pirrie is willing to pay Audubon $60 a month and provide room and board for him and Audubon’s assistant, Joseph Robert Mason. Audubon accepts the offer.

In the punishing heat of June, Audubon and Mason pack up and work their way to the plantation that Lucy Pirrie owns named Oakley. The plantation sits by Bayou Sara near St. Francisville. Audubon and Mason travel by boat to the mouth of the bayou and then by foot to reach Oakley. “The aspect of the country was entirely new to me … and surrounded once more by numberless warblers and thrushes, I enjoyed the scene. The five miles we walked appeared short, and we arrived and met Mr. [James] Pirrie at his house.”

Lucy Pirrie gained ownership of the plantation through Lucy’s first marriage to Ruffin Gray. In 1796, Gray acquired the property through a land grant from the Spanish government. The Grays began building a 17-room plantation house but could not complete it before the passing of Ruffin Gray. Lucy finished the construction of the house and continued operating the plantation.

After Lucy married James Pirrie, Lucy gave birth to Eliza on October 21, 1805. Audubon teaches the best he can the headstrong teenager dance and art for the next four months. When not with Eliza, Audubon is with Mason either hunting for birds or producing drawings, many of which become the most admired and precious prints in Audubon’s Birds of America.

The Best of the Birds of America

John James Audubon draws the Tennessee warbler for his Birds of America.John James Audubon draws the Nashville warbler for his Birds of America.

Among them are the Tennessee and Nashville warblers. Their names represent only the fact that Alexander Wilson first sees them and documents them in these locales. The names come nowhere close to representing the enormous distances these birds cover to complete their migrations.

Indeed, the Tennessee and Nashville warblers spend barely any time in Tennessee or Nashville or just about anywhere else in the United States. The Tennessee warbler winters in the tropics and nests in Canada’s spruce forests. The Nashville warbler winters mainly in Mexico and nests primarily in Canada’s cedar and spruce bogs. As quickly as these birds bolt through the United States, Audubon is fortunate to see the very few that he does and is able to draw for Birds of America.

John James Audubon draws the Kentucky warbler for his Birds of America.

The Kentucky warbler is another misnomer. It breeds in Kentucky. It also breeds in many other southeastern states and then vanishes south. Audubon notes that the Kentucky warbler “abounds” in Louisiana. If this means 75 birds, then the Kentucky warbler still abounds in Louisiana. The number is the most that anyone has submitted on Cornell’s e-Bird system. Jim Holmes and his father submitted the count after traipsing around Cameron Parish on April 26, 1997, for 13 hours.

Audubon never sees the Kentucky warbler “fly farther than a few yards at a time.” These short flights are normally low to the ground where Audubon notes there is tall grass, thickets, and bushes. Yet for his drawing in Birds of America, Audubon cannot resist placing the Kentucky warbler looking for its next meal dangling from Mason’s magnificent drawing of a wilting flower of a Cucumber-tree.

The Louisiana Flag

John James Audubon draws the Northern parula for his Birds of America.

Normally the Northern parula is high up in trees and way above tall grass, thickets, and bushes. And even farther from Louisiana flags growing in the ground. The Louisiana flag that Mason draws appears in Birds of America in two different colors. In the double elephant folio, the Northern parula is perching on a Louisiana flag with a reddish-copper color. The iris that is native to Louisiana with a reddish-copper color is called the Copper iris.

The flower that resembles a true Louisiana flag is the one on which the Northern parula is perching in the octavo edition of Birds of America. The switching of the colors of plants indicates that drawing birds exactly as they appear in nature is like painting all of the shades of the sea. The more Audubon recognizes the magnitude of what he envisions for Birds of America, the more he must recruit many others, like his family, Mason, scientists, friends, artists, colorists, and printers, to assist him, and at times correct him, in his endeavor.

John James Audubon draws the Yellow-throated warbler for his Birds of America.

Appearing in the fairly close company of the Northern parula is the Yellow-throated warbler. Audubon notes the bird is present throughout the year except for December and January. “When they return in the beginning of February, they throw themselves by thousands into all the cypress woods and cane-breaks, where they are heard singing from the first of March until late in autumn, sometimes in November.” Like the Black-and-white warbler, the Yellow-throated warbler searches for food on the branches and in the leaves of trees rather than looking for flying insects. “I never saw any of them pursue insects on wing.” For Birds of America, Audubon’s Yellow-throated warbler chooses to glean insects from Mason’s Chinquapin oak.

Cane Vine

John James Audubon draws the Prothonotary warbler for his Birds of America.

Prothonotary warblers keep lower in the forest trees than the Yellow-throated warbler and Northern parula and closer to freshwater. Prothonotary warblers have a fondness for snails. Because Louisiana has so much of this type of habitat to offer, Audubon estimates the state suits the bird the best.

Audubon also describes finding the nests of the Prothonotary warbler attached to twigs hanging over freshwater. Normally the nests are found in holes in trees. Whichever the spot, it is Audubon’s opinion that to search for the Prothonotary warbler anywhere away from freshwater surrounded by a dense growth of deciduous trees “would prove quite useless.” Just as challenging would be to find the “Cane Vine” in which Audubon places the Prothonotary warbler.

According to Audubon, Cane Vine grows in swamp conditions and is extremely rare. He also describes the plant’s berries as “bitter and nauseous.” Audubon prepares, tastes, and describes the flavor of almost every bird in Birds of America. There is every reason to believe that he is just as bold sampling the fruits, berries, and leaves that he comes across in his ramblings and explorations.

The Muscadine Grape

John James Audubon's drawing of a Summer Tanager for his Birds of America.

At least one more berry that Audubon dares to try is the Muscadine grape. “You may see vines of this species fifteen inches in diameter near the roots, either entwined round the trunk of a large tree, and by this means reaching the top branches and extending over them and those of another tree, or, as if by magic, swing in the air, from roots attached at once to some of the uppermost branches.” Audubon is warned that the fruit causes bilious fever if consumed. The temptation is too great. Audubon discovers liking the taste and that the grapes make him feel better, apparently like the ones Mason draws for the Summer tanager to eat in Birds of America.

Other Kinds of Sweet Fruit

Also common and a plant that bears a fruit with a sweet taste is the Honey locust. Although the Honey locust is much more protective of its fruit. The tree’s branches possess thorns that can be the size of sewing needles. And they are so sharp that Audubon says tobacconists use them to secure their rolls of tobacco.

The fruit or legume of the Honey locust is in the shape of a pod that is about four inches long. The pods surround their seeds with a pulpy tissue. This tissue tastes much like honey and allows Audubon to watch children risk nasty pricks while trying to pick the pods. Mason draws the leaves, pods, and thorns of the Honey locust among which Audubon places the Orchard oriole for Birds of America.

Among the branches of Mason’s Honey locust is also a nest. Orchard orioles build their nest chiefly out of long blades of grass which they weave together into a small basket. “The filaments are twisted, passed over and under, and interwoven in such a manner as almost to defy the eye of man to follow their wanderings.” Such a description makes it a wonder Mason is as close as he is to depicting such a structure.