Today, four species that Audubon depicted are extinct (Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, Labrador Duck, and Great Auk), while another two are most certainly so (Eskimo Curlew and Bachman’s Warbler), and a seventh most likely (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, and they have much to teach humans. In November of 1829 Audubon presciently wrote: “When I see that . . . the vast herds of elks, deer and buffaloes which once pastured . . . 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 fire 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 its reality.”
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 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 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, as well as in many regional Audubon societies and other conservation-minded groups.