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Observe National Audubon Day

By Staff | Apr 26, 2011

Today is National Audubon Day, a day set aside to honor one of America’s fathers of conservation, John James Audubon.

Audubon, who saw some of American’s most expansive industrial growth, living from 1785-1851, was in a unique position to see the steady and inevitable western expansion to the Mississippi River beyond. Perhaps because he envisioned the day when some of America’s most beautiful species of birds would no longer exist, Audubon produced what are still today acknowledged as America’s most beautiful portraits of the birds of North America.

As America’s foremost ornithological illustrator, Audubon studied drawing in Paris under the French painter Jacques Louis David. Audubon struggled for many years to make a living from his art, shuttling back and forth between Europe and the United States and supplementing his income by giving drawing lessons, turning out portraits, playing the flute or violin at local dances and at one time even running a general store.

That all changed, though, in 1820 when he began a flatboat excursion down the Mississippi River to seek out new varieties of birds to paint. Eventually he had enough bird portraits to publish in book form. Birds of America, produced with the help of engraver Robert Havell, Jr., contains 435 hand-colored plates and was published in “elephant folio” format to accommodate the life-sized portrayals of birds on which Audubon insisted.

After his death in 1851, Audubon’s wife Lucy returned to teaching to support herself. One of her students, George Bird Grinnell, became the editor of Forest and Stream magazine and in 1886 organized the Audubon Society for the study and protection of birds. Today there are many branches of this organization, known as the National Audubon Society, and it remains dedicated to the conservation of wildlife and natural resources. Its members honor Audubon on his birthday, April 26. In some states, Audubon Day and Arbor Day are celebrated together by planting trees in bird sanctuaries.

And oh, if you want to buy a first edition of Birds of American, you still can – one source is selling it for $175,000.