The Ghost Birds of Audubon’s Birds of America

April 26th is Audubon Day, commemorating the birthdate of pioneering naturalist and artist John James Audubon (26 April 1785 – 27 January 1851).

Audubon is best known for producing The Birds of America, a groundbreaking work that would become a model for modern natural history art and wildlife illustration. Audubon’s masterpiece was celebrated for its vivid illustrations depicting birds engaged in dynamic movement in natural environments — a marked departure from the prevailing trend of recording lifeless specimens in their stiff taxidermy poses. (Truth be told, Audubon’s birds were dead specimens too – his innovation was to use a system of wires to pose them based on observations of living birds in the wild.) Published over a period of twelve years between 1827-1838, the complete collection encompassed 435 full-color plates depicting 489 native North American species – all of which he insisted on rendering life-size on the largest size paper then available, the “double elephant folio” (which led to some creatively contorted poses for the larger birds like flamingos and cranes). Originally sold via subscription, it is thought no more than 200 complete sets were printed, of which only 120 survive today; and of these, only 13 are in private hands, which sell for millions of dollars on the rare occasions they are put up for auction.

Included in The Birds of America collection are illustrations of five birds that would soon after become extinct, along with three others that are now also feared extinct. Please take some time to appreciate these poignant images which serve as valuable visual records of both the natural history and beauty of these lost birds.  

Plate 26: Carolina Parrot, 1827 (Carolina Parakeet, Conuropsis carolinensis)

Status: Extinct. Once the northernmost ranging parrot – and the only one native to the eastern United States – Audubon warned of their rapidly declining numbers during the first quarter of the nineteenth century and described witnessing large numbers being killed by landowners angered by their raiding of fruit and seed crops. As the retaliatory killings continued and their old-growth wetland forest and swamp habitats continued to disappear, these once common birds were driven to extinction. The last known individual, a male named Incas, died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo on 21 February 1918; the species was officially declared extinct in 1939, although unconfirmed wild sightings persisted into the 1940s.

This is perhaps one of Audubon’s finest illustrations, capturing the boisterous beauty of these colorful and highly social birds as they feast on cocklebur seeds. There is even a juvenile in the mix, its head still green.

For more about this and Audubon’s other Carolina Parakeet illustrations, and what is currently known about the species’ extinction timeline, check out this previous post.

Plate 62: Passenger Pigeon, 1829 (Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius)

Status: Extinct. Once the most abundant bird in North America, its population numbered in the billions; Audubon reported having witnessed huge migrating flocks darkening the skies for three days straight in 1813. However, in one of the most shocking cases of anthropogenic extinction on record, billions went to none in only a century, victims of relentless hunting and habitat loss. The last known individual, a female named Martha, died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo on 1 September 1914 – in the same cage that the last Carolina Parakeet would pass away in just four years later. Her preserved body can now be seen at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Audubon’s illustration records the dimorphism of the male (bottom) and female’s (top) plumage, along with their courtship ritual. However, as modern scientists have pointed out, in real life, they likely would have been side to side, with the male being the one doing the feeding.

Plate 66: Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1829 (Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis)

Status: Critically Endangered (and possibly extinct). The status of North America’s largest woodpecker species has been passionately debated for decades. Although Audubon observed the species “confines its rambles to a comparatively very small portion of the [Southeastern] United States” (a subspecies also existed in Cuba), he also reported it relatively common within that range. However, its numbers are known to have declined steeply later in the nineteenth century due to a combination of hunting and logging, and it was most certainly on the brink of extinction by the early twentieth century. The last officially recognized sighting of the Southeastern U.S. subspecies was in Louisiana in 1944, with the Cuban subspecies last recorded in 1987. However, reports of the species’ continued existence never ceased, with many still holding out hope that the bird still survives in a few remote areas. The latest proposed evidence of survival (complete with grainy and hotly contested photographs) was published just last year and can be read here. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been trying to declare the species extinct since 2021, but “recognizing substantial disagreement among experts regarding the status of the species,” has twice delayed publishing a final decision to allow additional public comment and any new credible evidence of species survival to be submitted.

Audubon’s illustration of a male and two females perched in a tree highlights the male’s distinguishing red patch on its crest and shows how they would strip bark to search for beetle larvae. It should also be noted here that while the actual bird illustrations were Audubon’s own work, some of the other fauna, flora, and landscape backgrounds were added by his assistants Maria Martin Bachman, Joseph Mason, and George Lehman, and his two sons, Victor Gifford Audubon and John Woodhouse Audubon; the beetle in this illustration may well have been the work of Maria, who is known to have worked on insect details for Audubon’s plates. (She also painted flora, including for the plate below.)

Plate: 185: Bachman’s Warbler, 1834 (Bachman’s Warbler, Vermivora bachmanii)

Status: Critically Endangered, Possibly Extinct. This migratory warbler has a historic breeding range in the Southeastern and Midwestern United States while overwintering in Cuba. Having only first been recorded in 1832 (see below), it remained elusive until the 1880s, when it became more frequently observed, possibly temporarily benefitting from selective logging practices. However, once the trend shifted into clear-cutting, their numbers quickly declined, with sightings scarce by the 1930s. The last specimens were collected in the early 1940s, with only sporadic sightings reported since; the last accepted report was from Louisiana in 1988, and in 2021 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed declaring it extinct alongside the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (although here too, no final decision has been published).

This is one of two birds Audubon named after his friend and colleague John Bachman (the other was Plate 165, Bachman’s Finch), whom he credits for having first recorded the bird in 1832 and supplying Audubon with the study skins for the male (top) and female (below). Audubon also actually credited Maria Martin Bachman’s work on this plate (much of her other work remained uncredited), writing that the Franklinia foliage was “originally drawn by my friend’s Sister, Miss MARTIN.” (Maria was at the time John’s sister-in-law, but would later become his second wife after her sister’s death.)

Plate 186: Pinnated Grous, 1834 (Heath Hen, Tympanuchus cupido cupido)

Status: Extinct Subspecies. The Heath Hen was a subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) native to the Eastern United States. Audubon wrote of the decline of these eastern populations, who were heavily hunted as game birds. By 1870 they had become extirpated from the mainland, with just a single population remaining on the island of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. Although subsequently declared a reserve, the belated conservation efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful – by 1928 there was only one individual left, a male named Booming Ben, who was last seen alive on March 11, 1932.

Audubon’s illustration, although serving as the entry for the entire species, is recognizable as a depiction of the Heath Hen subspecies thanks to the faithful rendering of its distinctive plumage pattern. The action in Audubon’s image is described in the accompanying text, which reported how rival males would sometimes attack an already mating pair.

Plate 208: Esquimaux Curlew, 1834 (Eskimo Curlew, Numenius borealis)

Status: Critically Endangered, Possibly Extinct. These once abundant shorebirds had an impressive long-distance migration, traveling annually from their wintering grounds in the Pampas of Argentina to their breeding grounds in the tundra of Alaska and and western Canada. Suffering heavy population losses in the latter half of the nineteenth century, with as many as two million birds a year killed prior to the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the additional pressures of habitat and food supply loss likely doomed the birds to extinction. The last confirmed specimen was shot in Barbados in 1963, with the last credible sightings dating to 1987. Still, conservationists hold out hope that some survivors may one day be rediscovered.

The unusual position of the bottom bird in Audubon’s illustration is a depiction of a behavior he described witnessing, wherein birds being pursued would squat flat on the ground until the humans came within a short distance, at which point one would signal with a whistle and the entire flock would fly off.

Plate 332: Pied Duck, 1836 (Labrador Duck, Camptorhynchus labradorius)

Status: Extinct. This sea duck, endemic to a narrow strip of the American North Atlantic coast, was already uncommon when European settlers first arrived. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, its numbers had plummeted to unsustainable levels, likely due to a combination of hunting and ecosystem loss. The last reported sighting of this species was in 1878 in Elmira, New York.

Audubon posed his specimens in such a way as to highlight the highly dimorphic plumage patterns of the female (left) and male (right). While implied to represent a mated pair, little was actually known about their breeding biology, with Audubon himself having never even seen a nest or eggs (although he reported that his son had once found empty nests supposedly belonging to this species).

Plate 341: Great Auk, 1836 (Great Auk, Pinguinus impennis)

Status: Extinct. Audubon reported this large, flightless bird of the North Atlantic was already rare in his time, its numbers having been decimated by hunting and collecting. The last known pair were killed just eight years later, on 3 June 1844, by specimen collectors – who also smashed the egg they had been incubating. One additional sighting of a single bird reported in 1852 is generally accepted as the last time the species was ever seen alive.

Through this image, we see not only that the male and female were nearly identical in appearance, but also how they moved both on water and on land, as well as the rocky island landscape they required for breeding. Like each of the previous illustrations, Audubon demonstrates how he was able to communicate multiple points of natural history data within a single dynamic and visually appealing image – a seamless integration of art and science which would become The Birds of America’s lasting legacy.

All plate images courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Montgomery County Audubon Collection, and Zebra Publishing. The entire digitized collection is available for viewing and downloading here.

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