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Happy 235th Birthday, John James Audubon!

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

Written by Lexi Adams, LASM Curator

John Syme, Portrait of John James Audubon, 1826. Oil on canvas. Courtesy Wikimedia commons.

Did you know that artist, ornithologist, naturalist, and Louisiana-lover John James Audubon (1785 - 1851) discovered 25 new species of birds and was the first person to place tags on birds in order to track their movements? He was a true art and science expert - we hold 10 of his prints of birds and mammals in our permanent collection. To celebrate Audubon's 235th birthday, we want to enlighten you about his life and teach you how to draw a mockingbird inspired by his art!

Audubon, who was born in modern day Haiti and raised in France, immigrated to the US in 1803 to manage his father’s plantation in Pennsylvania. After losing his fortune in 1819, he searched for a new way forward in life. He developed the idea to create a complete illustrated text of all of the birds of North America, which would become the highly-regarded volume The Birds of America. Audubon left his family and home in Kentucky and traveled down the Mississippi River to New Orleans to begin this project. In the spring of 1821, he found part-time employment as a tutor at Oakley Plantation in St. Francisville. During his four month stay on the property, he spent much of his free time in the woods observing and painting native birds. 

John James Audubon, White-headed Eagle (Plate 31), London, 1828. Hand-colored engraving. Engraver: R. Havell & Son. Louisiana Art & Science Collection, 2002.012.001. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Haas.

Audubon traveled much of the US and parts of Canada to complete his projects, but the beautiful, nature-rich state of Louisiana was his favorite, which we can relate to! Here are some facts proving his fondness for Louisiana: 167 of his 435 species were created in the state, 32 in St. Francisville alone; he used to tell the white lie that he was born on a Plantation near Mandeville; and he once he explained, “The state of Louisiana has always been my favorite portion of the Union, although Kentucky and some other states have divided my affections.” 

Book cover of the original Birds of America, featuring a Louisiana blue heron, published between 1827 and 1838. Courtesy Wikimedia commons.

For five years, Audubon created images for his publication. He sailed to London in 1826 in search of an engraver willing to undertake the monumental printing of his masterpiece. He decided with the engraver that the prints should be released as a series, with five plates included in each set of prints and several sets released each year. In 1838, ten years after printing began and nearly twenty years after the idea was first conceived, The Birds of America was complete - whose original cover appropriately features a Louisiana blue heron. The Birds of America is still considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed.

John James Audubon, Black Vulture or Carrion Crow (Plate 106), London, 1831-1834. Hand-colored engraving. Engraver: Robert Havell Jr. Louisiana Art & Science Museum Collection, 1966.009.002.

Audubon painted this Carrion Crow, a hand-colored engraving which is held in LASM's collection, while studying the species in Charleston, South Carolina. Also called the Black Vulture, he observed the birds throughout the southern US and as far north as Maryland. Audubon is credited with disproving the myth that vultures hunt using scent; he performed experiments with the birds by hiding rotten game and displaying fresh prey in open areas. He discovered that the hidden meat, which would have lured the birds due to its pungent smell, did not attract the birds, while fresh game laid in view of the scavengers was readily consumed.

Ready for another fun fact about vultures? The town of Carencro, Louisiana was named after the Carrion Crow. Did you think there could possibly be two fun facts about vultures? Look closely while driving around our state and you will likely see the Carrion Crow on the side of the road, enjoying a sampling of roadside cuisine. 

Learn to draw inspired by John James Audubon:

Interested in learning how to work from nature like John James Audubon? Check out the video below to draw a mockingbird along with LASM Exhibitions Coordinator Beth Welch!

Materials needed:

  • Pencils

  • Paper

  • Charcoal pencils

  • Erasers

  • Burnisher or Q-Tip

  • Sand paper

  • Horse hair brush or regular brush

Final drawing:

Drawing by Beth Welch, LASM Exhibitions Coordinator

Coloring sheets:

Would you rather color birds than draw your own? Use these Audubon-inspired coloring sheets to inspire your creativity! CLICK HERE to download more LASM coloring sheets.

Learn more:

Find out even more about Audubon and how to observe and help protect the birds in your neighborhood today!

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