Flowering dogwoods blooming in Kentucky.
Flowering dogwoods blooming in Kentucky.

John James Audubon drew a number of birds for his book, Birds of America, while spending time in Louisiana in 1821. The plants and backgrounds for those drawings were mostly drawn by his assistant, Robert Mason. Audubon met Mason while living and working in Cincinnati. In addition to being a taxidermist for the Western Museum, Audubon gave art lessons. Among his students was Mason. At age 12, Mason exhibited an extraordinary talent for drawing plants and flowers. As Audubon incorporated more of Mason’s drawings of flowers and plants into his drawings of birds, the sooner Mason found himself not as a student but Audubon’s assistant.

The White-throated sparrow as drawn by John James Audubon and the Flowering dogwood as drawn by Robert Mason.
The White-throated sparrow as drawn by John James Audubon and the Flowering dogwood as drawn by Robert Mason.

The plant that Audubon used for his drawing of the White-throated sparrow is Mason’s Flowering dogwood. The tree’s flower is as well recognized in yards, parks, and gardens as sparrows are looked at as simply “little brown jobs (LBJ’s).” The White-throated sparrow is the LBJ that has one of the more distinct songs. “When kept in an aviary, this bird, in the latter part of spring or about May, sings at all hours of the night as joyously as when at liberty and breeding.” Some say the song is a clearly whistled “Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody.”

When Audubon and Mason were living and working in Louisiana, the White-throated sparrow was also a form of food. Indigenous people hunted the White-throated sparrow with “blow-guns.” Audubon describes the gun as being made out of “the straightest cane.” More cane and other types of wood are shaped into small arrows. A soft material such as squirrel hair is attached to the dull end to act as the tail of the arrow. The weapon is effective up to 30 yards out, thus enabling “large quantities” of the White-throated sparrow and several other species of birds and even squirrels to be killed.

Anglo-European settlement has left indigenous people on a very small fraction of the common land on which they used to live and hunt. Although White-throated sparrows must remain on full alert to other threats. “Their principal enemies in the day-time, are the little Sparrow Hawk [the American Kestrel], the Slate-coloured or Sharp-shinned Hawk, and above all, the Hen-harrier or Marsh Hawk [Northern harrier]. The latter passes over their little coteries with such light wings, and so unlooked for, that he seldom fails in securing one of them.”

The Northern harrier as drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America.
The Northern harrier as drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America.