JOHN JAMES AUDUBON (1785-1851) knew more about the birds of this country than any man had ever known before. He was born in the State of Louisiana. (Rita Bay note: Louisiana didn’t become a state until 1812.) His father took him to France when he was a boy. He went to school in France.
Little John James was fond of studying about wild animals. But most of all he wished to know about birds. Seeing that the boy liked such things, his father took pains to get birds and flowers for him. While he was yet a boy at school, he began to gather birds and other animals for himself. He learned to skin and stuff them. But his stuffed birds did not please him. Their feathers did not look bright, like those of live birds. He wanted living birds to study.
His father told him that he could not keep so many birds alive. To please the boy he got him a book with pictures in it. Looking at these pictures made John James wish to draw. He thought that he could make pictures that would look like the live birds. But when he tried to paint a picture of a bird, it looked worse than his stuffed birds. The birds he drew were not much like real birds. He called them a “family of cripples.” As often as his birthday came round, he made a bon-fire of his bad pictures. Then he would begin over again.
All this time he was learning to draw birds. But he was not willing to make pictures that were not just like the real birds. So when he grew to be a man he went to a great French painter whose name was David. David taught him to draw and paint things as they are. Then he came back to this country, and lived awhile in Pennsylvania. Here his chief study was the wild creatures of the woods. He gathered many eggs of birds. He made pictures of these eggs. He did not take birds’ eggs to break up the nests. He was not cruel. He took only what he needed to study.
He would make two little holes in each egg. Then he would shake the egg, or stir it up with a little stick or straw, or a long pin. This would break up the inside of the egg. Then he would blow into one of the holes. That would blow the inside of the egg out through the other hole. These egg shells he strung together by running strings through the holes. He hung these strings of egg shells all over the walls of his room. On the mantelpiece he put the stuffed skins of squirrels, raccoons, opossums, and other small animals. On the shelves his friends could see frogs, snakes, and other animals.
He married a young lady, and brought her to live in this museum with his dead snakes, frogs, and strings of birds’ eggs. She liked what he did, and was sure that he would come to be a great man.
He made up his mind to write a great book about American birds. He meant to tell all about the birds in one book. Then in another book he would print pictures of the birds, just as large as the birds themselves. He meant to have them look just like the birds. To do this he must travel many thousands of miles. He must live for years almost all of the time in the woods. He would have to find and shoot the birds, in order to make pictures of them. And he must see how the birds lived, and how they built their nests, so that he could tell all about them. It would take a great deal of work and trouble. But he was not afraid of trouble.
That was many years ago. Much of our country was then covered with great trees. Audubon sometimes went in a boat down a lonesome river. Sometimes he rode on horseback. Often he had to travel on foot through woods where there were no roads. Many a time he had to sleep out of doors. He lost his money and became poor. Sometimes he had to paint portraits to get money to live on. Once he turned dancing master for a while. But he did not give up his great idea. He still studied birds, and worked to make his books about American birds. His wife went to teaching to help make a living.
After years of hard work, he made paintings of nearly a thousand birds. That was almost enough for his books. But, while he was traveling, two large rats got into the box in which he kept his pictures. They cut up all his paintings with their teeth, and made a nest of the pieces. This almost broke his heart for a while. For many nights he could not sleep, because he had lost all his work.
But he did not give up. After some days he took his gun, and went into the woods. He said to himself, ” I will begin over again. I can make better paintings than those that the rats spoiled.” But it took him four long years and a half to find the birds, and make the pictures again. He was so careful to have his drawings just like the birds, that he would measure them in every way. Thus he made his pictures just the size of the birds themselves.
At last the great books were printed. In this country, in France, and in England, people praised the wonderful books. They knew that Audubon was indeed a great man.
SOURCE: Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans By Samuel Eggleston American Book Co 1893 Digitized by Google Available for free download from Google Books
Tomorrow, Audubon in the Woods Rita Bay