Friday, July 5, 2024
By Nina Bozak, curator of rare books

“The State of Louisiana has always been my favourite portion of the Union,” wrote French American naturalist John James Audubon, “although Kentucky and some other States have divided my affections.” Audubon’s time as a resident of Louisiana was relatively brief, but it saw a critical progress in his landmark research on the nation’s birds.

Audubon (1785–1851) became interested in ornithology and drawing while living in France as a child and continued to study both after he moved to the US in 1803. After unsuccessful stints as a merchant in New York and Kentucky and then as a taxidermist for a museum in Ohio, he decided to travel the southeastern United States to draw and study birds. He and his wife, Lucy Blackwell Audubon, came to New Orleans in 1820, and the following year Lucretia Pirrie of Oakley Plantation (in present-day West Feliciana Parish) hired him to teach their daughter Liza how to draw. Because the work was part-time, Audubon was at liberty to explore the countryside and study its birds. Though Audubon was employed by the Pirries for only four months, he and his wife kept Louisiana as their base for almost two years as Audubon explored the area’s abundant wildlife.

Yellow-crowned night heron

Yellow-crowned heron, from The Birds of America (HNOC, acquisition made possible by the Laussat Society, 2016.0305.1)

Every year, thousands of migratory shorebirds travel the 18,000-mile circuit between their wintering grounds in South America and their breeding grounds in northern Canada. Louisiana’s coast is a rest area where they find the food they need to make the long journey, and some bird species breed or winter here. Our temperate estuaries also provide year-round homes to dozens of species of waterfowl, such as brown pelicans, the official state bird.

Brown pelican

Brown pelican (HNOC, acquisition made possible by the Laussat Society, 2016.0305.1)

Louisiana’s coast supports a complex, interdependent food chain on which many species rely, but it is under threat today from human activities and climate change. Environmental impacts of industry and agriculture—along with land loss due to coastal erosion, subsidence, and increasingly violent storms—reduce the available habitat and disrupt the natural cycles that evolved over time. Thus, while coastal Louisiana’s wetlands are among the most valuable in North America, they’re also among the most fragile.

In HNOC’s new permanent exhibition A Vanishing Bounty, visitors will learn about this distinctive, imperiled ecosystem and the lasting influence of the environment on Louisiana culture. Wall text, objects, and interactive features explore different aspects of this region—from the geography of the changing wetlands to the wildlife and birds that populate the coast.

Lesser marsh wren

Marsh wren (HNOC, acquisition made possible by the Laussat Society, 2016.0305.1)

Many of these varied species are illustrated and described in Audubon’s Birds of America, which is featured in the exhibition. Of the 435 images in the first edition of The Birds of America, at least 167 of them were begun while the author was living in Louisiana.

Audubon’s unique technique set his work apart from previous ornithological images: after procuring his specimens, he wired them into lifelike poses that demonstrated the birds living in their natural habitats, whether hunting, building nests, or chattering with other birds. Audubon’s exacting attention to detail combined with the broad scope of his project has made The Birds of America one of the most important works of natural history ever created.

The Birds of America double-elephant folio, so called because of its enormous size, is a pinnacle of book history. For the first edition, 435 engraved copper plates were created in London and Edinburgh, then printed and hand colored. The plates were released in a run of approximately 200 copies for subscribers, who purchased five plates at a time over the 10-year publication period. Upon completion of the project, subscribers were responsible for having the plates bound into a book. There are 134 known intact copies of the first edition remaining today.

Blue Crane

Blue crane (HNOC, acquisition made possible by the Laussat Society, 2016.0305.1)

The Historic New Orleans Collection acquired a copy of the second edition of The Birds of America double-elephant folio in 2016. Known as the Bien edition, it was spearheaded by Audubon’s son John Woodhouse Audubon. Its plates were printed from 1858 to 1860, well after the elder Audubon’s death, in 1851. John Woodhouse hired New York lithographer Julius Bien to create the plates. Bien transferred the images from the original copper plates to lithography stones, using the latest technology of chromolithography, which was more efficient and less expensive than using copper plates. Many of the images were not exact copies, as some of the backgrounds were changed to better suit the lithographic process. Bien made it through only 150 of Audubon’s original birds—producing 100 lithographs of each—before production was halted due to the Civil War. Fewer than 50 copies of the Bien edition remain today.

Audubon’s artwork in The Birds of America has inspired conversationists for generations, resulting in the formation of organizations dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats. Founded in 1905, the National Audubon Society is one of the oldest bird conservation organizations and has garnered almost 500 local chapters over the years. Some of these chapters, in recent years, have changed their names in order to distance themselves from Audubon’s politics—an anti-abolitionist, he criticized Great Britain when it passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1834—and history as an enslaver. Though the organizational names may have changed, the groups’ dedication to conservation remains as strong as ever.

The Audubon folio is a keystone of A Vanishing Bounty, offering visitors a glimpse into a critical part of the region’s vibrant, diverse, and threatened ecosystem.

Reddish egret (HNOC, acquisition made possible by the Laussat Society, 2016.0305.1)

About the Historic New Orleans Collection 

Founded in 1966, the Historic New Orleans Collection is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to the stewardship of the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Follow HNOC on Facebook and Instagram.