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Monday, July 02, 2012

The Boy Who Drew Birds

The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon
by Jacqueline Davies
illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Ornithologist, naturalist, painter, John James Audubon (Jean-Jacques Audubon) is known and loved the world over for his meticulous study of American birds, documenting not just their features and habitat but their migration with his pioneering technique of bird-banding.

This picture book biography shares the story of his life when he was sent to America from his native France at age 18 to get out of conscription in Napoleonic wars. His father, a wealthy enough man, set up a wonderful house in the woods, Mill Grove, with house-keeper to take care of it, to give John James a chance to follow his passion: birds.

It was true that John James could hunt, skate, and ride better than most boys. True also that he could dance the minuet and gavotte as if he had been born a king. He could fiddle, he could flirt, he could fence. But what he liked to do best, from sunup to sundown, was watch birds.

Mrs. Thomas, the housekeeper, found John James' attraction to birds rather odd: Birds! Always birds! From the moment he woke up in the morning to the moment he closed his eyes at night, he thought only of birds. It was strange for a boy his age.

Out of curiosity about where birds go in winter, and which birds stay and brave it locally, John James conducted his own study.

Are these the same pewees who built the nest here last year? Where did they spend winter? Will they return next spring?

One of the facts from the book that fascinated the 7 year old is that Audubon patiently and over time won the confidence of a family of Eastern Phoebe birds enough to be near them and even tie a silver thread (loosely, of course) to the leg of a baby to see if he can identify it when it comes back; for even if nobody at that time were sure that birds came back to the same nesting grounds, John James had a pretty good inkling that they did.

And he was right!

Imagine his joy when he spotted the silver thread on one of the birds building a nest in the same area the following year! John James Audubon is thus credited with the first known bird-ringing or bird-banding in the continent.

Rather than artists' depictions, Audubon set out to draw detailed pictures of the birds he observed. Life-size paintings of birds hunting, preening, flying, fighting were not common then, so his remarkable paintings appealed to both the scientist and the layperson.


A fact that fascinated the 7-yo and the 4-yo is that after drawing detailed and numerous pictures each year, Audubon tore up and burned the year's worth of pictures to start fresh again the next year. Later in his life, he did lose many more of his drawings to rats and other factors, but what survived of his works is still treasured today via his Birds of America book.

[image source: goodreads.com]


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