Tag Archives: ornithology

John James Audubon, Painter of American Birds

The spring shower ended soon after we arrived at our hotel in West Texas, so we went out for a walk. Hundreds of small birds fluttering at the edges of muddy puddles drew our attention. At first we thought they were bathing, but when we looked at the hotel, we saw mud nests in various stages of construction honeycombing its walls. Nests the birds were building one mud pellet at a time.

This first encounter with cliff swallows began my fascination with them. John J. Audubon’s first encounter with cliff swallows also fascinated him. Here are a couple excerpts from his account of it in The Birds of America:

“In the spring of 1815, I for the first time saw a few individuals of this species at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio . . . . forming their nests and rearing their young. Unfortunately . . . the specimens were lost, and I despaired for years of meeting with others.”

“In the year 1819, my hopes were revived by Mr. ROBERT BEST, curator of the Western Museum at Cincinnati, who informed me that a strange species of bird had made its appearance in the neighbourhood, building nests in clusters, affixed to the walls. . . . I immediately crossed the Ohio to Newport, in Kentucky, where he had seen many nests the preceding season; and no sooner were we landed than the chirruping of my long-lost little strangers saluted my ear. Numbers of them were busily engaged in repairing the damage done to their nests by the storms of the preceding winter. ”

Audubon goes on to describe their building activities:

“About day-break they flew down to the shore of the river, one hundred yards distant, for the muddy sand, of which the nests were constructed, and worked with great assiduity until near the middle of the day, as if aware that the heat of the sun was necessary to dry and harden their moist tenements.”

You can find a fuller account of his experiences studying cliff swallows and other birds on the Audubon website,https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/republican-or-cliff-swallow#

Audubon gave as much attention to every bird he studied. It became his life’s work to find, paint, and describe the habits of as many American birds as he could.

Read on to:

  • Find helpful vocabulary
  • Learn more about John James Audubon and his life work
  • See activities to help you and your children explore and enjoy Audubon’s paintings
  • A cute photo of Molly, the Artsy Corgi


These words, which will be in bold green the first time they come up, will help you and your children talk more easily about different parts of a painting.

  • Ornithology (adj. ornithological), the scientific study of birds
  • Engraving (v. engraved), a print made from a metal plate in which the lines of the image have been cut

The Artist

John J. Audubon was a naturalist and artist who came from France in 1803 at the age of 18 to farm in the United States. He neglected the farming to explore the countryside and study and sketch animals, especially birds. He spent hours observing their habits. One night he even squeezed inside a huge hollow tree so he could observe and count the thousands of swifts that roosted inside it.

Before modern-day banding was thought of, Audubon tied threads around bird’s legs and discovered that many birds came back to the same nesting spots each year. Audubon gave up farming and moved to Kentucky to open a store on the frontier. For a while his business was successful, but it failed in 1819, and after that he began taking long treks through the forests to study, sketch, and gather specimens.

European ornithological books didn’t contain many American bird species, so Audubon decided to publish his paintings and descriptions. No one in this country was willing to publish such an expensive work (Audubon wanted his birds to be as close to life-size as possible, and each of his watercolor paintings had to be engraved for printing and then hand-painted).

In 1826 Audubon sailed to England. He hired a printer and financed the project by selling subscriptions to the book, which came out 5 prints at a time. Wealthy patrons, including the queen of England and the king of France, bought subscriptions. At that time, the whole book of 435 engravings cost about $1,000. In 2000, with only about 100 of the original 176 complete books left, mostly in museums or libraries, one sold at auction for $8.8 million.

The Paintings

Birds in most paintings before Audubon’s time were drawn from stuffed specimens, and they looked it. Audubon’s early drawings looked similar, but as he studied the birds and practiced drawing and painting, he began to paint birds in much more natural poses. He also added plants from the bird’s habitat, and accurate portrayals of their nests as with the cliff swallows.

Cliff Swallows by Julius Bien after John J. Audubon, Smithsonian American Art Museum, public domain

Though Audubon’s paintings were also well-designed artistically, he never lost sight of the purpose of showing the birds accurately. Take these barn swallows. As required for a field guide, we can see their beaks, their feet, and their markings from every angle, but the dramatic design of the raised wing gives movement to the painting. And the two strongly forked tails mirror each other and contrast with the background.

Barn Swallows by Julius Bien after John J. Audubon, Smithsonian American Art Museum, public domain

Many of Audubon’s paintings have lots of drama. In this painting of Virginia partridges, a red-tailed hawk attacks the nesting birds. The partridges scatter in every direction, while the hawk’s wings form a dramatic pattern against the sky.

Virginian Partridge, plate 76 by John J. Audubon, public domain

Audubon wanted even the largest birds to be shown almost life-size, and fitting them on a page often produced some very modern-looking graphic designs. Look at the flamingo with its long neck echoing the bends of its legs to reach down to the water. It’s a design that catches our attention!

American Flamingo by John J. Audubon, Brooklyn Museum, public domain

Activities to Help You and Your Children further Explore these Beautiful Paintings

  • Before doing any other activities, ask children to tell what’s going on in the paintings. Some birds are nesting, others are feeding or fleeing. Enhance their observational and verbal skills by rephrasing words and adding new vocabulary.
  • These paintings by Audubon provide many opportunities to compare and contrast bird nests, beaks, feet and legs, and color combinations and patterns, and see how God fit each bird exactly right for its environment so it could find food, have materials for nesting and avoid predators. For example, the explosion of partridges from the nest could confuse the hawk, allowing many to get away.
  • Ask them which painting is their favorite and why.
  • Talk with them about the amount time Audubon must have taken to observe and create these accurate and colorful paintings. Do they think they’d have the patience for that kind of work?

Before You Go

If you’d like more activity ideas for art, history, and nature, curriculum connections, and links to more resources, be sure to sign up for my newsletter above and receive a free guide to 5 Ways Art Benefits Children’s Cognitive, Physical, Spiritual, and Social Development, with a Few Fun and Easy Activities for each Benefit

Visit my website where you’ll find free downloadable puzzles, how-to-draw pages and coloring pages for kids and an updated list of my hands-on workshops, chapels, and presentations for all ages.

Molly and I hope you enjoyed John James Audubon’s paintings. We hope you’ll come back for a devotion based on these next week! To be sure not to miss a post you can sign up for my blog above.

On the lookout for birds near the marsh last summer.