John James Audubon had an unusual combination of skills: he was a renowned naturalist, but he was also a painter. This put him in an excellent position to create biological illustrations, which he did for much of his life.
Audobon developed an interest in birds, which grew steadily over the years. He became proficient in gathering specimens, taxidermy, and drawing them. Slowly but surely, he developed a large collection and set out an ambitious goal: to document all of America’s bird species in a single book.
This was to become Birds of America — a book that to this day, is considered among the best ornithological works ever. The book was an instant success.
Not only did Audobon take his readers on a dazzling visual tour of the birds, skillfully alternating between emphasizing the scientific and the aesthetic aspects of the birds, but he even documented 45 new species of birds.
It took massive efforts. For 14 years, Audobon worked on the book, at times struggling to gather sufficient support for his work.
The cost of printing the entire work was a whopping $115,640 (over $2,000,000 today). In addition to advance purchases, Audobon had to sell oil painting commissions and animals skins, which he himself hunted and sold. But it was worth it.
The book came out in 1827 and was an instant hit. Audobon was lauded for the way he captured the birds’ fragility and grace, as well as his encyclopedic approach. A full 8-volume, double-elephant folio version was purchased by the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1839 for the amazing sum of $970 — the equivalent to $80,000 in 2018.
A contemporary French critic wrote, “A magic power transported us into the forests which for so many years this man of genius has trod. Learned and ignorant alike were astonished at the spectacle … It is a real and palpable vision of the New World.”
Today, the book is quite possibly the most expensive one in existence. There are an estimated 120 surviving copies, and they sell for mind-blowing prices. In March 2000, Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar purchased a copy of The Birds of America at a Christie’s auction for $8.8 million — a record for any book. On 6 December 2010, a complete copy of the first edition was sold in London at Sotheby’s for £7,321,250 (approximately $11.5 million).
In December 2010, The Economist magazine wrote that, adjusted for inflation, five of the ten highest prices ever paid for printed books were paid for copies of The Birds of America. But you don’t have to pay huge sums of money for the illustrations: you can now get them for free.
The National Audubon Society has recently made Birds of America available to the public in a downloadable digital library. You just need to sign up for their newsletter and you can access it. You can choose to make a one-time or regular donation, but you can also subscribe to the newsletter for free.
You get access to free high-resolution downloads of all 435 plates as well as mp3s of each specimen’s call and original vintage commentary. You can explore Audubon’s Birds of America by chronological or alphabetical order, or by state, and download them all for free here.
You also get more recent information regarding bird conservation efforts. In US, as in many parts of the world, birds are struggling due to habitat loss, pollution, and climate heating. The Audobon Society is one of the organizations involved in addressing these issues and helping conserve iconic bird species. If those issues speak to you, please check out the Recovering American Wildlife Act that the society is supporting.
“America’s wildlife is in crisis—and today, more than one-third of North American bird species are under threat. We need strong action to empower solutions to protect habitat, and that’s exactly what the “Recovering America’s Wildlife Act” was designed to do,” the society writes.
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