During his lifetime John James Audubon was awarded many honors, including election to England’s prestigious Royal Society, the highest scientific honor of his era. He and Benjamin Franklin (1705–1790) were the only American members until after the Civil War. Audubon is considered America’s first great watercolorist, and his ability to bring together science and art equally during the age of romanticism reveals the range of his genius. It has only been in the last one hundred years, however, that his name has become solidly linked with efforts to preserve America’s wildlife and wilderness areas.
In November of 1829 Audubon wrote: “When I see that . . . the vast herds of elks, deer and buffaloes which once pastured on these hills and in these valleys have ceased to exist; when I reflect that all this grand portion of our Union, instead of being in a state of nature, is now more or less covered with villages, farms, and towns . . .; that the woods are fast disappearing under the axe by day, and the fires by night . . . when I remember that these extraordinary changes have all taken place in the short period of twenty years, I pause, wonder, and although I know all to be fact, can scarcely believe in its reality.” Today, three species that Audubon depicted are extinct (Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, and Great Auk), another two most certainly so (Eskimo Curlew and Bachman’s Warbler), and a sixth more than likely extinct (Ivory-billed Woodpecker). Many others are endangered, threatened, or on the decline. As everyone knows, birds are the canaries in the coal mine for planet Earth.
In 1841, aware of these cataclysmic changes, Audubon approached Daniel Webster (1782–1852), Secretary of State, to “establish a Natural History Institution to advance our knowledge of natural science with me at the head of it.” Today, Audubon’s awareness of ecological issues and his appreciation of the natural environment find expression in the organization named after him, the National Audubon Society or “Audubon,” which was incorporated in 1905.
After the publication of The Birds of America, JJA and Lucy lived at Minnie’s Land―their estate on the Hudson River between West 155th and 158th streets. They continued showing his spectacular avian watercolors—the touchstone of their life together and the legacy of their family—to frequent visitors. They are buried together in nearby Trinity Cemetery. The biography of the “American woodsman,” the self-made man who became first a celebrity and then a legend in his own time, is a paradigmatic American success story. Audubon’s passion for birds that engendered The Birds of America has ensured his immortality, and his poetic avian illustrations continue to delight millions of people and sing about the natural beauties of the early American landscape.