John James Audubon, born on today's date in 1785, was the foremost wildlife illustrator in the United States for half a century, mainly focusing on ornithological paintings. He was born in Saint Domingue, a French colony that is now Haiti. His parents were a French naval officer and his mistress. His mother died shortly after he was born, and he was raised in France by his father and stepmother. In 1803, he came to America and lived at the family estate in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, where he studied, drew birds, and met his wife, Lucy. He experimented with bird banding, being the first person known to have done so in North America. He and Lucy moved to Kentucky and started a family. He continued to draw birds as a hobby and owned a store until going bankrupt in 1819.
He wanted to try something new, so the following year he floated down the Mississippi River on a flatboat, with the intention of finding new birds to paint. He was successful and brought his work to England in 1826, where it was well received. He found a printer, and The Birds of America was published as a series between 1827 and 1838. It included 435 watercolor plates and was printed in a very large book format called "elephant folio." This was done so that the paintings would be life-size representations of the birds. The book set the template for other wildlife illustrations, and more recent bird artists are often measured against it. Audubon wasn't the first to paint and describe America's birds, though. That distinction goes to Alexander Wilson.
After achieving success, John and Lucy relocated to New York City. Audubon made a trip back West in 1843 to gather info for his final work on mammals, Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. During that last few years of his life, he began to lose his mental faculties, and he died in 1851.
After his death, his wife Lucy continued to work as a teacher. One student of hers was George Bird Grinnell, who went on to become editor of Forest and Stream magazine and then founded the first Audubon Society, with the goal of protecting birds and their habitats. Today there are many branches of the National Audubon Society, meaning Audubon's name is forever connected to bird conservation.
How to Observe Audubon Day
Some groups hold various events such as talks, parties, and bird watching hikes that could be attended. You could go into nature on your own to enjoy and try to identify birds. You could even use The Birds of America to help you, along with a good pair of binoculars. The New York Public Library has digitized some of Audubon's work, including The Birds of America, which can be browsed. The National Audubon Society also has digitized the book, and made the prints downloadable. The day could be spent reading a biography of Audubon, or exploring more of his work such as Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Books of artists he influenced or about birds in general could also be picked up.
It's a good day to become a member of the National Audubon Society, or to give the gift of membership to someone else. If you feel very deeply about John Audubon or the work being done at the National Audubon Society, you could become a member of the Great Egret Society, or donate to the society. You could also join the National Audubon Society's mailing list, read articles from Audubon magazine, or find an Audubon Chapter near you.
If you are up for a trip, visit the James Audubon Center at Mill Grove in Audubon, Pennsylvania. This is located at Audubon's first American home. You could also visit Audubon's grave in Trinity Cemetery in New York City.