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John James Audubon

Dear Bird Folks,

Is John James Audubon the same guy who the Audubon Society is named after? The reason I ask is because I recently saw a portrait of John James Audubon and he had a rifle across his lap. Would they really name a pro-bird organization after some guy who looked liked he would rather shoot birds than watch them?

-Roger, Cleveland, OH


Yeah Roger,

That’s exactly what they did. They named a society, that has long been recognized for saving birds, after a man who probably shot more birds in one week than most rednecks shoot in a lifetime. Why would they do that? It’s a good question. I think they originally wanted to name the organization after someone who was a little more bird friendly, like Saint Francis of Assisi, but they couldn’t work out a naming rights deal with the Vatican. Even back then it was about the money.

John James Audubon was one interesting character. If he were alive today I’m sure he would have his own show on cable. He was a business person, a writer, a prisoner, an explorer, a naturalist, and yes a hunter. He never really met his mother, was raised by his father’s wife (that will give you something to think about), is one of America’s most well known artists and he isn’t even from this country. I can’t believe Hollywood hasn’t made a movie about this guy. I guess they are too busy remaking movies about drunk little league coaches and super big monkeys. Good old Hollywood.

Audubon was born in 1785 in the country we now call Haiti. His father was a married French sea captain, who, while away from home, hooked up with a Haitian hottie. The hottie was Audubon’s real mom, who passed away shortly after John was born. So dad packed him up and brought him back to France as a present for his wife. Evidently, Mrs. Audubon didn’t ask a lot of questions and happily raised little JJ as her own child. She nurtured his interests in nature, arts and music. Things were going swell until Audubon turned 18. That’s when he became available for the French draft. Not being in the mood to help Napoleon invade the country du jour, Audubon left France and escaped danger by moving to a place that was even more frightful, Philadelphia.

John James spent the next few years helping to run his father’s plantation just outside Philly. Well, he was supposed to help out, but most of the time he just studied nature and shot stuff. Eventually Audubon got married, started his own business, which went bankrupt, so they put him in jail. That’s when he decided it was time to get serious. After he got out of jail, Audubon packed his paints and gun, left the wife behind, and went off to become famous. Over the next several years he wandered through the backwoods of this country painting, shooting and studying birds. When he finished enough paintings to make a book, he went back to Philadelphia to find a publisher. Too bad nobody was interested. In 1826 people were eating wild birds for lunch. Nobody wanted to look at them in a book too. Plus the boys at the Academy of Natural Sciences weren’t interested in this grubby artist from the backwoods. Disgusted, John James stormed off to England where, much to his surprise, they actually liked his stuff. Audubon’s work was far more interesting than the silly sailboats and the pasty white women in fluffy dresses that the English artists were painting at the time. In their eyes, he was a wild American outdoorsman who could paint pretty good too. The Brits loved him, and for his part, Audubon kept quiet about being French.

Now that Audubon was accepted in Britain, the Americans changed their tune, his work was printed, sold well and he became famous. End of story. Sure, Audubon shot many birds, too many. Sometimes he shot them for study but often for mounting to be used as models for his art. So boo to him for that. But he also kept meticulous notes about what he found and made detailed observations during his years of nature study. Much of what he saw and wrote about is still being used as a foundation for what we know today. In addition, his dramatic illustrations, considered scary to some but masterpieces by most, motivated and influenced naturalists for generations.

Was Audubon the best choice of names to used for a bird protection organization? I would have to say yes. Because when you think about it, the name Audubon Society does have a nice ring to it. Plus, who else was there back then? Sure they could have gone with the Saint Francis theme, but belonging to the “Assisi Society,” sounds way too girlie, even for bird watchers.