Audubon rare books of immense value

Photos by Garry Brandenburg — Select images of local Iowa birds help to illustrate the variety of avian life one can watch during outdoor hikes or from the comfort of an indoor view of a backyard feeding station. Photos are different from painted artworks. Photos need the correct light and position of the bird to illustrate all of its plumage nuances. A painter has the ability to create a bird’s position and layout to emphasize all of the important diagnostic feather colors and patterns. John James Audubon, who lived from 1785 - 1851, was a painter/artist who was fascinated by natural history and birds. His painting skills eventually led to a collection of artwork assembled into a book titled “Birds of America.” A rare bound set of his works sold at auction in June 2018 for $9.65 million with all the proceeds from that sale dedicated to conservation projects on the ground in Georgia, Texas and Wyoming.

THE AUDUBON SOCIETY was established in 1905 primarily as an outlet and organization for the study of birds by advocates worldwide. But before the year 1905, in 1886, a bird preservation society was named after John James Audubon. That early organization may have been the first footsteps of appreciation of birds of all kinds and the role they play in ecosystem dynamics in habitats all around the globe.

Like minded people sought information about their interests. Audubon’s interest was birds, and all the other facets of many other types of wildlife and life zones for these animals. His ability to paint accurate representations of his subjects led to his fame, fortune and notoriety. But the road to get there was a long and torturous path.

John James Audubon was born Apr. 26, 1785 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now known as Haiti) as the illegitimate son of his father, a French naval officer, Jean Audubon, and his mother who was a French creole chambermaid named Jeanne Rabine. Audubon’s given name at birth was Jean Rabine.

His mother passed away when little Jean was only six months old. His father moved the family to France in 1781, where he was raised by his father’s new wife Anne Moynet Audubon. A legal adoption by the father and his new wife followed, and a new name was officially given to the young lad: Jean-Jacques Fougere Audubon.

As a young boy growing up in a well to do family, he studied music, dancing and learned to ride horses. And he especially had a knack and interest in nature, collecting all sorts of natural objects and drawing sketches of those findings. His tendency to want to learn about nature was set. However, as a young man growing up, he was now eligible for being conscripted into the French army of Napoleon, a fate his father did not want to happen. So young Audubon was moved again, with his family, via false passport documents, to Pennsylvania on a farm his father had purchased.

Audubon’s continued interest in nature was ingrained. However, businesses he was set up to run did not fare well. He ultimately went bankrupt several times and, for the non payment of money owed, spent time in jail. His wife Lucy was a teacher, and she held the family together.

When out of jail, Audubon traveled with his gun and paint box collecting specimens and carefully painting the birds to accurately depict the feathers of those animals. He tried to get his book of birds of America published in the USA. That did not go so well. So, he traveled to Great Britain, where he was received with great enthusiasm. His bird paintings were a big hit, and wealthy people purchased them in droves.

The money he earned allowed him to have his work “The Birds of America,” which contained a complete set of 435 hand-colored prints showing nearly 500 species, printed and published between 1827 and 1838. The publication of this book made him wealthy and prominent.

He traveled often between Europe and America. While on American travels, he is credited with the discovery of 25 new to science species and 12 new subspecies. His style of drawings and painting were unique, and now we know that his influence upon ornithology and natural history was a huge inspiration for early conservation efforts in North America.

On Jun. 14, 2018, at an auction in New York City, a complete set of rare and excellent quality works was up for sale. When the sale ended, the winning bid was $9.65 million. The purchaser was the Knobloch Family Foundation (KFF), a private, family run organization that focused on conservation projects in Georgia, Texas, and the Greater Yellowstone region of Wyoming.

John James Audubon had no idea this event in history could even remotely contribute as it did to make many other conservation programs possible. It all began with a passion to learn, a passion to sketch and draw natural moments, to paint those memories using exquisite detailed painting techniques, and to publish a set of books depicting Audubon’s works. His books turned out to help conservation more than he could ever envision.

WATERFOWL are adaptable. Except for a few species that are hardwired for long distance migrations, like the blue-winged teal, many ducks and geese may only go as far as is necessary to find food, open water and places to rest. The urge to move may not take effect until a long stretch of below freezing air temperatures and perhaps a combination with new snow covering food sources. Waterfowl will stay put until forced out.

However, if the weather stays mild and the snow cover light, hanging around may save them energy. Come next spring, those birds will already be closer to summer nesting habitats with less distance to travel to get there.

Habitat loss and changes to habitats influence ducks and geese. Agricultural crops of rice, corn, wheat, barley, peas and lentils have become exploited by waterfowl that learned these foods fit their menu quite well. Add in rainfall events that can vary widely from year to year along an entire flyway corridor, and the stage is set for ducks and geese to exploit local and regional conditions to whatever benefit it serves them.

Hunting pressure does not go unnoticed by waterfowl. A little seems to be okay, but heavy hunting activity will move birds out to find areas of less pressure if food and resting are their top need. Access by hunters is important, and some technologies now allow access to places the birds hang out that were in the past too far away, too inaccessible, or not deemed worthy of the effort.

Maybe it is good that hard to reach habitats offer a refuge from disturbances. A long view for waterfowlers is to know that a favorite hunting area should not be disturbed too often. Ducks simply do not tolerate intense disturbances. There are so many factors that influence ducks and geese to which humans have little if any control. The cat and mouse game played by waterfowl to stay out of harm’s way and by hunters who want to know where those big flocks of migrators are at now, will continue to be one of the mysteries of migration.

DEER NUMBERS taken by hunters the day before opening of gun season one until now have doubled. The number prior to Dec. 4 was about 29,000. Gun season number one has doubled the take to about 57,000. Forested habitats in northeast Iowa and along the forested regions of the entire Mississippi border show trend lines consistent with past years.

These areas have the most higher count deer harvests year after year. Allamakee and Clayton County each have reports of over 2,000 deer taken by hunters. At the low end of the spectrum, Calhoun, Grundy and Ida counties each show less than 100 deer kills. Second gun season starts this weekend, kicking off the big push toward 100,000 or more deer that hunters will remove from the statewide population.

SAFETY WHILE HUNTING remains a constant requirement. This past week, a number of incidents in Iowa brought this issue into focus again. One fatality in Marion County was noted by investigating authorities. There were other incidents of wounded hunters in Muscatine and Allamakee County. Property damage happened in Howard County.

And in Calhoun County, a pheasant hunter was on the receiving end of several shotgun pellets while pheasant hunting. The lesson is to have a hunt plan, and hunt the plan. Wear lots of blaze orange clothing. And as important as the target may seem to the hunt, what is behind the targeted animal is important also. Hunter responsibility is paramount and must be exercised at all times. Be safe.

CHRISTMAS TREE SALES AT THE IZAAK WALTON LEAGUE continue each weekend from now until Christmas. All trees regardless of size cost $50. Select any tree, cut it down as a family activity, and bring it home for all the decorations you want to install upon it. Since some of these Ikes trees are large, selection of the top portion of the tree to fit in your allotted space is to be reckoned with. The Izaak Walton League trees are located on their land located two miles south of Iowa Avenue on Smith Avenue. Tree selling times are 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. this weekend and next weekend. Last sale days are Dec. 18 and 19. Have a Merry Christmas.

Garry Brandenburg is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. He is a graduate of Iowa State University with a BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology.

Contact him at:

P.O. Box 96

Albion, IA 50005


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.38/week.

Subscribe Today