On April 5, 1824, John James Audubon arrives in Philadelphia to promote his drawings for Birds of America. Essential to Audubon’s success landing a publisher is recognition from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. The academy was founded in 1812 as the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. The Academy opened its first museum 1828. As its collection grew, the museum has had to re-locate three times. The museum currently looks out onto the Swann Memorial Fountain in downtown Philadelphia. Its collection contains approximately 18 million specimens, including those gathered during the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and its library holds any number of books, documents, drawings, and photographs.

The entrance to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in downtown Philadelphia.

Audubon’s lack of degrees in education is not as much an obstacle to a membership in the Academy as is the popularity of Alexander Wilson. In 1814, George Ord completed the publication of Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology. Wilson published the first seven volumes; Ord assisted Wilson with the eighth and published on his own the ninth after Wilson’s death in 1813. Ord included Wilson’s diary in the ninth volume. In 1815, Ord was accepted into the Academy of Natural Sciences and then became the Academy’s vice-president in 1816. John James Audubon and Birds of America were nothing but a monstrous threat to Ord’s status in the Academy and the success of American Ornithology. Ord’s smear campaign not only worsens Audubon’s chances of acceptance into the Academy, but also shuts all the doors of the town’s printers and engravers.

Even if printers and engravers in Philadelphia ignored Ord’s disparagement of Audubon and his drawings, few if any possessed the skill or the equipment to manage the scale of Audubon’s drawings. As Audubon’s chances for finding a publisher and printer diminish in Philadelphia, he maintains hope that at least enough members of the Academy of Natural Sciences will appreciate the achievement of his findings and drawings and name him a correspondent of the Academy.

Among Audubon’s supporters is Charles Lucien Jules Laurent Bonaparte. Charles Bonaparte directed his attention more to the natural world rather than politics and empire building than some of his other family members were known to tackle. Charles Bonaparte was born the son of Napoleon Bonaparte’s youngest brother, Lucien, on May 24, 1803, in Paris, France. Lucien opposed his brother’s ambition to be Emperor of the French and moved with his wife and children to Italy in 1804. By 1814, France fell back under the control of the royal Bourbon family, leaving Napoleon in exile at the island of Elba. Napoleon escaped one year later. With help from his brother Lucien, Napoleon was able to re-gain the title as the Emperor of the French.

Lucien returned to Italy after his brother’s second ascension to the French throne. On August 18, 1814, Pope Pius VII named Lucien Prince of Canino, Count of Apollino, and Lord of Nemori. On March 21, 1824, Pope Leo XII named Lucien the Prince of Musignano. Napoleon did not fare as well. He abdicated the French throne in 1815 after his army was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon then lived on the island of St. Helena in exile until his death in 1823.

Napoleon’s last year on St. Helena was the same year his nephew Charles Bonaparte left Italy with his cousin and wife, Zenaïda, to travel to Philadelphia. They lived on a family estate called Point Breeze just north of Philadelphia and on the other side of the Delaware River. The work that interested Bonaparte most while residing at Point Breeze was Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology. So much so that Bonaparte decided to revise the book. Bonaparte completed the revision in 1833. Five years later, Bonaparte published A Geographical and Comparative List of the Birds of Europe and North America. In 1840, Lucien Bonaparte died leaving his son Charles with his noble titles. Charles’s foray into royalty and politics led him into exile after he supported the Roman Republic that failed to form in 1848. 

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. It lists approximately 5,000 species of birds. Approximately another 5,000 have since been identified and documented.

Despite the support of such a prominent person as the eventual second Prince of Musignano, the Academy of Natural Sciences rejects Audubon’s nomination as a correspondent on July 27, 1824. The outcome adds Audubon to the pile of victims of twisted politics and self-interest: George Ord publishes Wilson’s American Ornithology and discredits John James Audubon and his work, yet it is Charles Bonaparte, the publisher of the revised edition of Wilson’s American Ornithology, who gives Audubon his key endorsement. 

Audubon decides to go to New York City with the anticipation of anywhere else would be better than how Ord and his band of biased naturalists treated him in Philadelphia. As it was on all other occasions without his wife Lucy at his side, it is the company of birds that lifts Audubon’s spirits and wherewithal. In a forest along the way to New York City, Audubon happens upon a young Eastern screech-owl. He approaches the bird and is able to catch it and place it in his pocket. “It will suffer a person to touch its feathers and caress it, without attempting to bite or strike with its talons.. It remained generally quiet, fed from the hand, and never attempted escape.” The little owl is the one that appears in the upper left of Audubon’s drawing of the Eastern screech-owl in Birds of America. Conceivably, it is also the bird that was the flicker that kept burning for Audubon to persevere drawing and writing about the Birds of America

The Eastern Screech-owl as drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America.