John James Audubon describes and writes about many different places he visits and where he finds birds. The locations that he critisizes the most severely are New Madrid, Missouri, the market area of New Orleans, Louisiana, Natchez, Mississippi, and St. Augustine, Florida. Audubon calls St. Augustine the “the poorest hole in the Creation.” The mess that humans make keeps nature very busy. In the fall of 1831, Audubon notes various birds working through the squalid conditions of St. Augustine.
Near the town’s wharf, Audubon notes “a great number” of Black vultures devouring a dead shark. Other towns rely on Black vultures to perform similar duties, such as Charleston, South Carolina. “Hundreds of them usually found, at all hours of the day, about the slaughterhouses… They follow the carts loaded with offal or dead animals to the places in the suburbs where these are deposited.” As of 1826, the bird was so important to keeping Charleston’s streets clear of such matter that city officials in Charleston had in place a fine of $5 for shooting a Black vulture.
Among the Black vultures at the ghastly scene in St. Augustine is a bird that Audubon does not recognize. Audubon pursues the bird and takes two shots at the bird that miss. He is able to locate the bird the following day and gets close enough to take one shot at the bird that also misses. The next day Audubon learns that the bird is still in the area. This time Audubon implores his traveling companion, Henry Ward, to go in pursuit of the bird. The bird that Ward hunts down and brings back to Audubon is the one that appears in the double elephant folio (Plate #161) of Birds of America as the Brazilian Caracara eagle.
Neither Audubon nor anyone else was aware that the Brazilian Caracara eagle occurred in North America. Audubon’s finding was so unique that the bird’s name was re-named Audubon’s caracara. The names for both birds have since been changed. The Brazilian Caracara eagle and Audubon’s caracara are now known as the Southern caracara (Caracara plancus) and the Crested caracara (Caracara cheriway), respectively.
Other than the Crested caracara and the Black vulture, filth and waste suits a bird no better than the Great Black-backed gull. Audubon notices “several pairs” during his stay in St. Augustine. On this occasion, they are merely harassing Brown pelicans to determine whether they might disgorge any food that their bills or stomachs might contain. In most other instances of observing the Great Black-backed gull, Audubon notes, “the powers of his stomach, and ere long the half-putrid food which, vulture-like, he has devoured, is digested.”
According to Cornell’s e-Bird system, Black vultures still frequent the county (St. Johns) where St. Augustine is located. And at least 40 Great Black-backed gulls have been reported in the county of St. Johns. The odd Crested caracara also still shows up in Florida. That Audubon documented a similar number of these birds when he visited St. Augustine 190 years ago indicates that the birds are still a vital part of St. Augustine’s clean-up crew.