On Aug. 13, 1821, John James Audubon is mingling with alligators and snakes in swamp areas looking for birds about five miles outside of St. Francisville, Louisiana. He is at a spot he calls the Cypress Swamp when he sees “a great number of small birds of different species, and as I looked at them I observed two engaged in a fight or quarrel.” Audubon takes aim at the birds and downs one of them. He tracks down the bird and discovers that it is still living.

Audubon carries the bird back to Oakley, the plantation house where he and his assistant Joseph Robert Mason are staying. Audubon draws the bird “while alive and full of spirit. It often made off from my hand, by starting suddenly, and then would hop round the room as quickly as a Carolina Wren, uttering its tweet, tweet, tweet all the while, and snapping its bill every time I took it up. I put it into a cage for a few minutes, but it obstinately thrust its head through the lower parts of the wires. I relieved it from this sort of confinement, and allowed it to go about the room. Next day it was very weak and ruffled up, so I killed it and put it in spirits. To this account I have only to add, that I have not seen another individual since.” Audubon names the bird Bonaparte’s flycatcher after Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew Charles Lucien Jules Laurents Bonaparte.

John James Audubon's drawing of Bonaparte's flycatcher for his Birds of America.

Charles Bonaparte

Charles Bonaparte shied away from his family’s ambition to build an empire for France to focus on nature. He was born the son of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s youngest brother, Lucien, on May 24, 1803, in Paris, France. Lucien took his wife and children to Italy the following year to help expand the Emperor’s influence and power. In 1815, Napoleon stepped down from his position as Emperor of the French after his army’s loss at Waterloo. Napoleon was then sent to prison on the island of Saint Helena where he died six years later.

In 1823, young Charles Bonaparte left Italy and traveled to Philadelphia. He lived in the city for three years. Coming across a copy of Wilson’s American Ornithology and meeting Audubon inspired him to learn more about America’s birds. When Bonaparte returned to Italy, Bonaparte and Audubon maintained frequent correspondence about birds and bird identification.

Bonaparte became familiar enough with America’s birds to attempt a revision of Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology. Bonaparte re-classified Wilson birds according to a wider range of the birds’ traits and gave more weight to geography and habitat. He also added almost 100 birds to the book, including two new species: the Cooper’s hawk and Say’s phoebe.

In 1833, Bonaparte published the revised edition of Wilson’s American Ornithology in four volumes. Five years later, Bonaparte published A Geographical and Comparative List of the Birds of Europe and North America. In 1848, his family’s ties to rulers and governments pulled him into the political arena. Bonaparte became active in the creation of the Roman Republic, the failure of which forced him to seek exile.

Bonaparte was allowed to re-enter France and lived the last seven years of his life in Paris. He devoted most of his time to classifying all of the birds in the world. Bonaparte was able to publish the first volume of the book before his death. He titled the book Conspectus generum avium. Hermann Schlegel edited and published the second volume. The book lists approximately 5,000 species of birds. Some 5,000 more have since been documented and classified.

The Southern Magnolia

Audubon attempts to show and describe how the Bonaparte’s flycatcher is distinct from what is currently the Canada warbler. The subtle differences are in such areas as the length of the bristles and some of the coloring in the feathers of the bird’s body and wings. The significant differences are the overall form of the birds, markings on their heads, and the shapes of their bills. Since Audubon’s Bonaparte’s flycatcher remains the only one ever found, the bird is not classified other than in Birds of America.

Audubon places Bonaparte’s flycatcher in Mason’s drawing of a Southern magnolia showing the fruit of the tree. The flower that produces the fruit is just as impressive. When the flowers are in full bloom, they are the size of cereal bowls. The pure white petals surround a cluster of tiny yellow towers (the stamens). The nectar and pollen of the flower attract a legion of insects upon which birds devour. Like the Black-billed cuckoos competing for a large fly in Birds of America.

John James Audubon's drawing of the Black-billed cuckoo for his Birds of America.

The plant is the same for Bonaparte’s flycatcher and the Black-billed cuckoo, but the artists are different. Maria Martin draws the later for Audubon after the two meet in Charleston, South Carolina, and become close friends. She rivals, if not surpasses, Joseph Robert Mason’s talent and skill, and almost as her signature, she adds a fly, moth, or some other insect to her drawings for Birds of America.

The Farmer vs. The Red-tailed Hawk

Audubon writes about other birds that are attracted to the stately Southern magnolia. Hawks, like the Red-tailed hawk and the Mississippi kite, use the tree for building their nests. The Red-tailed hawk will use the tree also as a vantage point for locating prey. Squirrels and rabbits are the Red-tailed hawk’s main fare but “will even condescend to pounce on wood-rats and meadow-mice.” But woe to the hawk a farmer witnesses striking at his poultry.

John James Audubon's drawing of a Red-Tailed Hawk for his Birds of America.

The farmer will stalk to no end a thieving Red-tailed hawk to determine its nesting site. Once found, the farmer then waits until the female lays her eggs. After the chicks hatch, the farmer marches to the tree with his gun and an ax. The farmer then frightens the female from the nest and shoots her while she is flying above her nest screaming and fretting over her young. As soon as the mother is dead, the farmer lays down his gun and picks up his ax. The farmer whacks down the tree with the nest and checks the nest to dispatch any eyas that survives the crash to the ground.

The Many Uses of Spanish Moss

It is mainly in the southeast that the Mississippi kite and Red-tailed hawk overlap. Red-tailed hawks may roam large distances or even migrate, but most choose a territory to defend. Whereas the Mississippi kite heads south through Texas and Central America to winter in South America. Audubon counts the bird “congregating to the number of twenty or more” when hunting for dragonflies and other insects flying high in the air and during migration. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a recording in Texas on July 28, 2015, of 65 Mississippi kites. The Mississippi kite might be an exception to the steep decline in bird populations.

John James Audubon's drawing of the Mississippi Kite for his Birds of America.

Audubon’s drawing of the Mississippi kite shows the birds perching on a branch that appears to have just enough life in it to support a tuft of Spanish moss. The epiphytic plant appears again on the branch on which a Red-shouldered hawk is perching and in many more of Audubon’s drawings. It is the odd Live oak or Bald cypress in the southeastern United States that does not have Spanish moss draped over its branches like wiry, green-grey afghan scarves. The Red-shouldered hawk uses the plant as material to build its nest, as do many other birds. Spanish moss also houses many different kinds of insects which draws in chickadees, titmice, and the like looking for food.

The Rattlesnake in the Tree

On Aug. 25, 1821, John James Audubon completes the drawing for Birds of America that is the equivalent of a tabloid scandal for naturalists. Audubon encounters a rattlesnake that is “five feet and seven inches, weighed six and a quarter pounds, and had ten rattles.” Audubon is “anxious to give it a position most interesting to a naturalist, I put it in that which the reptile commonly takes when on the point of striking madly with its fangs.”

John James Audubon's drawing of the Northern Mockingbird for his Birds of America.

Audubon gives the snake a position in an orange tree wrapped around a Northern mockingbird’s egg-filled nest. It is a gorgeous and energetic drawing except rattlesnakes are known to neither climb trees nor eat bird’s eggs. Other snakes, like the Eastern racer, are known to slither up trees and rob nests of eggs. Audubon states that different species of snakes look for nests in trees “and generally suck the eggs or swallow the young; but on all such occasions, not only the pair to which the nest belongs, but many other Mocking-birds from the vicinity, fly to the spot, attack the reptiles, and, in some cases, are so fortunate as either to force them to retreat, or deprive them of life.” Audubon wants his drawings to reflect the drama of nature as much as he wants them to be “true to nature.” For some though, like George Ord and other scientists, the drawing strengthens their case that Audubon is a fraud.

Birds and Their Enemies

Today birds like Northern mockingbirds face a far greater threat from domestic and feral cats than snakes. These cats kill an estimated 2.8 billion birds a year. Audubon notes the trouble that is in store for birds. “Cats that have abandoned the houses to prowl about the fields, in a half wild state, are also dangerous enemies, as they frequently approach the nest unnoticed, and at a pounce secure the mother, or at least destroy the eggs or young, and overturn the nest.”

The more Audubon learns about birds and admires them, the more his concerns grow about European settlers in America and the havoc they are creating for birds and other wildlife. Audubon hunting and shooting birds in droves, a few for consumption, but mostly for his work of drawing and documenting them, represents as well as anyone humankind’s dilemma of living and surviving on a planet without destroying it.