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On April 26th, Audubon's 229th birthday, we remember the making of The Birds of America and JJ's flowing golden locks of hair.

NEW! Subreddit:


Producer, Writer, Creator, Host:
Emily Graslie

Producer, Editor, Camera:
Tom McNamara

Theme music:
Michael Aranda

Created By:
Hank Green

Production Assistant:
Katie Kirby

Special thanks to Christine Giannoni, Head of Library Collections, for all of her outstanding help with this episode, and for leading the Turning of the Page every week. We appreciate it!

Filmed on Location and Supported by:
The Field Museum in Chicago, IL

Thanks to Evan Liao, Barbara Velázquez, Seth Bergenholtz, and Katerina Idrik for translating this episode!

Oh! Hello there. John James Audubon: arguably America's most famous naturalist. He was born in 1785, the illegitimate son of a naval officer in present-day Haiti. When he was 18 years old he moved to New York from France, where he had spent his childhood dreaming of American fame, fortune, and adventure. But Audubon spent the first 16 years living in America NOT as a famous naturalist painter, although he did always claim he had studied underneath the greatest French artists. He also claimed that he was the long lost Prince of France... Let's just say he was known for telling some tall tales.

Audubon came to a harsh awakening after bankruptcy and eventual imprisonment after years of failed business plans. He eventually got into his mind that he should instead set out to paint every last bird and beast in America. He aspired to become a great American artist, but it wasn't until he was nearly 35 before he undertook what he later referred to as this "Great Idea." 163 years after his death he is also heralded as a conservationist, although his techniques at the time are what we would, today, deem a little unconventional.

Audubon studied the natural world by taking it by dramatic force. It's popularly known that he shot every bird and animal required for his studies, which might seem like a counter intuitive approach to conservation, but his work actually resulted in a heightened awareness and appreciation by the public for their natural world. Even still, Audubon took no pleasure from exhausting the life of the animals that he documented. He wrote: "The moment a bird was dead, however beautiful it had been when in life, the pleasure arising from the possession of it became blunted."

He envisioned illustrating every known bird in the United States, replicating each species to scale. "The Birds of America," as it came to be known, was ultimately Audubon's biggest undertaking and his greatest success. He would illustrate the birds from their lifeless bodies after he strung them up on wires, a technique he pioneered in order to recreate the behaviors he had observed while studying them in life. He had to work on sheets of paper big enough to accommodate even the largest north American birds, like the golden eagle, whose out-stretched wingspan can reach up to 2.3 meters or 7 feet, 8 inches. That's a huge piece of paper. But some of the birds admittedly look a little weird. And that's because they didn't quite fit on the canvas, resulting in unrealistic poses. Take the flamingo for example, with its neck bent at a weird angle. The finished design was a result of actually laying the physical on the paper and manipulating it so the body would fit within the margins.

A project of this magnitude was going to require quite a bit of initial funding and unfortunately for J.J he was going to have to look for help from outside of the United States. Audubon had very few friends left in America after he thoroughly irritated the Academy of Natural Sciences when he openly criticized Alexander Wilson's revered field guide, "American Ornithology." They were about to duke it out. So, he hopped on a boat bound for Scotland and England, hoping that the Old World would appreciate his New World vigor and self-educated approach to understanding the natural sciences. He wrote in his journal from 1826 - now an artifact in The Field Museum's library archives - about his voyage to Europe: "I leave my beloved America, my wife, my children, my friends. The purpose of this voyage is to visit not only England, but the continent of Europe, with the intention of publishing my work on 'The Birds of America.' If not sadly disappointed, my return to these shores, these happy shores, will be the brightest day I have ever enjoyed." Other notable statements from Audubon in that journal include: "My locks blew freely from under my hat in the breeze, and nearly every lady I met looked at them with curiosity."

After securing a few charitable donors to help in the production of "The Birds of America," Audubon made his way back to the United States to begin the project. In order to make the series profitable, it was released to subscribers in unbound groups of prints. This allowed for interested individuals who might not be able to afford all of the 435 prints to buy just a few at a time. And, when I say prints, I'm talking about the lines of his renderings being etched onto plates, the backgrounds later meticulously painted in by hand from an assembly line of artists. It was a really labor and time intensive form of mass production. Ultimately, it was also up to the subscriber to bind the prints into books themselves, resulting in a wide variation of color and design. There are no two copies of sets of "The Birds of America" that look the same.

Today there are only 120 complete bound sets of "The Birds of America" in existence, and we have our own unique set here, right at The Field Museum on display in our library archives. Every Tuesday morning, a team of Field Museum librarians goes through the production of opening up the case and carefully turning a page. It will take more than eight years, revealing a new page every week, before an illustration has been repeated.

So thank you, John James Audubon, for ensuring that you'll be turning pages for years to come, both in history... and in our hearts.


It still has brains on it.