Monday, June 1, 2015

The Birds of John James Audubon

by Edward Hessler

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
John James Audubon
Audubon's Birds of America was printed between 1827 and 1838. Now, vibrant digital images (435) from the 1840 1st Octavo Edition can be seen on-line.

In addition to the images, the site includes Audubon's narratives about the birds, a list of birds he painted that are now extinct, anatomical illustrations, various categorizations of birds, a list of state birds etc.

Interestingly, Audubon's name is associated with but two birds, Audubon's Shearwater and Audubon's Oriole.  It is likely that he named a warbler after himself but today, given a better understanding of evolutionary relationships that bird is now known as the western yellow-rumped warbler. The conspicuous yellow-rump has given this early migrant the common name, Butter Butt.

Yellow-rumped warbler of Audubon
Clay Christensen, aka The Birdman of Lauderdale, writing in Saint Paul's Park Bugle, notes that when he sees "inchworm's hanging down from my neighbor's oak tree" he expects to hear the yellow-rumped warbler. But some springs are slow so then what happens? Do many of them starve? It turns out that they are able to feed on another food: tree bud scales.

Image from
This, an insectivore becoming a herbivore, is a remarkable adaptation. Mr. Christensen explains how this works. "The...digestive tract does a retrograde reflux that moves is food from the intestines back up into the gizzard for further process, and can do so several times if necessary. And there's a higher concentration of bile in the gallbladder and intestine and a slower gastrointestinal process that enables the bird to get nutrition out of the waxy lipids contained in such berries as those of the bayberry, juniper, poison ivy and wax myrtle."

The description of Audubon's paintings by the late Joseph Kastner is one I've liked from the time I first read his book. It was as if art was dictating to nature (not precise quote). This is not surprising since the period in which he painted was the Romantic Era of North American Natural History. And Audubon was very much a romantic.

Thank you John James Audubon and thank you National Audubon Society for making those images available to all of us.

h/t MN Bird

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