John James Audubon

The Creole Birdman

Growing up in the southeastern tip of the Acadiana triangle, the cultural gravity of New Orleans exerted a great attraction on my mind. A visit to the Audubon Zoo was an unparalleled adventure for children. We jostled to reach the highest point of the city, at least so we believed, Monkey Hill; we marveled at seeing the elephants spit water out of their long trunks; we had our pictures taken, looking delighted, on the back of a stuffed bear. Before all these wonders, there was hardly any thought for the gentleman who transformed our way of seeing nature and especially birds. It was only years later that the name John James Audubon, pronounced in such a way that its French origins were hidden, began to have meaning for me and even longer before I understood that in fact his name was Jean-Jacques.

Born in 1785 at the Cayes in Saint-Domingue, today in Haiti, the Creole Jean-Jacques Audubon was the illegitimate son of a Frenchwoman, Jeanne Rabine, and a Breton captain, Jean. His father brought him back to Nantes, France, where he was raised by his step-mother, Anne Audubon. Very young, he showed a keen interest in natural history, a passion he could pursue in the countryside around Brittany. In 1803, his father obtained for him a fake passport so that he could go abroad, thus escaping the Napoleonic draft. Having contracted yellow fever during the trip, he was brought back to health by Quakers in Pennsylvania. It is on a farm near Philadelphia that he makes his first observations on the life of the birds. By tying a thread to the foot of a flycatcher, considered to be the first banding operation of birds in North America, he notices that it returns to the same place every year. It is there that he makes his first birds drawings, too.

Despite being a successful businessman, he nevertheless went bankrupt one day. He decided to pursue his passion for nature and painting and in 1810, he descended the Mississippi. His technique for capturing images on canvas gives a new meaning to the term still life. Using small pellets, he shot the birds so as not to damage them completely. He then placed metal wires to keep them in positions imitating their way of living in a natural environment. His method produced spectacular paintings, but it urged his critics to decry his pursuit of rare species that could push them towards extinction. Having no other source of revenue, he continued to live from order to order, finding no publisher in America who wanted to print his works. In 1826, he arrived in England where he found buyers willing to pay a high price for his beautiful exotic images of a wild America.

The following year, Birds of America appeared in London and Edinburgh and it was an immediate success. Over eleven years, a series of birds was released, half a dozen of which have now disappeared, assuring the reputation of Audubon. He traveled around Britain in search of subscriptions, giving demonstrations on his way of exposing birds. At one of these meetings, a certain Charles Darwin was in the audience, encouraging his career in natural history. LSU in Baton Rouge has a copy of the four volumes which it displays on Audubon Day from time to time, much like a holy relic.

His fortune was such that one day he was able to procure a property in New York state on the Hudson, now called Audubon Park. He is buried on the island of Manhattan, far from New Orleans, far from the Caribbean, far from Britain and far from London. His birds have been around the world. Having fled the wars of the French Empire, Jean-Jacques, who became John James, made a name for himself in the English-speaking world that he would certainly never have had in France, even if he had survived the war. Étienne de Boré still would probably have donated his property that became a park and a zoo, but I am sure that I would not have had the same pleasure in observing the birds under the oaks of De Boré Park.