John James Audubon (1785–1851)
Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), Study for Havell pl. 120, ca. 1825
Watercolor, graphite, pastel, black ink, and gouache with touches of glazing on paper, laid on card, 18 7/8 x 11 1/2 in. (47.9 x 29.2 cm)

Many people drawn to birds develop a fondness for certain species because they associate happy occasions with them. This is also true of JJA and the Eastern Phoebe, which he called the “Pewee Flycatcher.” It was with the Eastern Phoebe in 1803 that Audubon carried out the first bird-banding experiment in America, attaching silver thread to the legs of young phoebes at his Mill Grove, Pennsylvania, property. The next spring he caught two that still had the thread on their legs. Professional and amateur ornithologists still use bird banding to ensure accurate counts of migrations and populations.

During their courtship, Audubon and his neighbor and future wife, Lucy Bakewell, watched these tame birds build a nest in a cave at Mill Grove. In this location, which he considered his early study and place of retreat, while they were engaged daily with observing this riveting species, Audubon first declared his love for his wife-to-be. “Connected with the biography of this bird are so many incidents relative to my own, that could I with propriety deviate from my proposed method, the present volume would contain less of the habits of birds than of those of the youthful days of an American woodsman.”

MillGroveFarm_ThomasBirchAudubon philosophized extensively about the Eastern Phoebe and even about their transparent, freshly laid eggs: “I believe, reader, that eggs soon loose this peculiar transparency after being laid―that to me the sight was more pleasant than if I had met with a diamond of the same size. The knowledge that in an enclosure so frail, life already existed, and that ere many weeks would elapse, a weak, delicate, and helpless creature, but perfect in all its parts, would burst the shell, and immediately call for the most tender care and attention of its anxious parents, filled my mind with as much wonder as when, looking toward the heavens, I searched, alas! in vain, for the true import of all that I saw.”

JJA painted his striking watercolor later in Louisiana. In it he represented both birds with their crests raised in mating excitement, perching on the Sea Island cotton plant. True to nature, the male sings a courting song as he arrives at the breeding ground above the potential mate he is wooing. In answer, Audubon has depicted the female raising her wings, as she does just before mating, her posture, and even her whiskers, delicately drawn in black ink, indicating acceptance. Such is Audubon’s achievement in this controlled, nearly monochromatic work.

Excerpted from Roberta J.M. Olson, Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for “The Birds of America”

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