By August of 1824, John James Audubon gave up his search in New York City for a printer and a publisher for his Birds of America. The route Audubon chooses for his trek back to Louisiana to re-join his family begins with hiking west through New York. It is a region “covered with heavy timber, principally evergreens, the pines, and the cucumber trees loaded with brilliant fruits, and the spruces throwing a shade over the land in good keeping for a mellow picture.” 

Audubon spends at least one night hiding from a “watch-dog” near the Mohawk River. He holds his hunting dog close to him and keeps stroking and patting the dog. If Audubon can keep his dog relaxed, the quieter it will likely stay and not respond to the watch-dog’s “barkings” and give away their location. Beyond the barkings is the “muttering sound” of the Cohoes Falls. The volume of water that the falls produce is second in New York only to the famous Niagara Falls.

Fatigue eventually drowns out the concerns of the watch-dog and the need to attain freshwater. Just before Audubon falls into a slumber, “there burst on my soul the serenade of the Rose-breasted bird [grosbeak], so rich, so mellow, so loud in the stillness of the night, that sleep fled from my eyelids.” With eyes wide open to spot the bird, it is likely Aububon takes the branch from which the bird was singing and uses it for his drawing of the Rose-breasted grosbeak in Birds of America. Low areas along such places as the Mohawk River are ideal conditions for the Canadian yew (Taxus canadensis).

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak as drawn by John James Audubon for his Birds of America.

As Audubon nears the Cohoes Falls, the murmur grows into a roar. Below the falls are Goosanders close to and swimming in water the color of green-blue tinted glass. The bird seeks deep clear lakes and rivers of the northern United States and Canada during the spring and summer for finding fish to eat and feed to its young. The bird is known today as the Common merganser.

The Common Merganser and the Cohoes Falls as drawn by John James Audubon for his Birds of America.

Today, tourists flock to Niagara Falls by the tens of millions. Practically none travel to view Cohoes Falls. At Niagara Falls, the water consistently drops from higher points. Cohoes Falls must also contend with a hydro-electric power plant lurking just downstream. During the dry season, the utility sometimes requires all of the water flowing in the Mohawk River to provide energy to its generators, turning Cohoes Falls into a massive, desolate moonscape.

Cohoes Falls in New York with no falls.