Be the Artist: John James Audubon

toucan sam
Give some fictional birds a natural habitat, like sending Toucan Sam back to the rain forest, in this project celebrating the work of John James Audubon. Image: Lisa Kay Tate

The Artist: John James Audubon

John James Audubon was born in 1785 as Jean-Jacques Audubon on the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti). He modified his name to John James when he immigrated to the United States in 1803 at age 18.

John James Audubon’s images of animals are considered by many as accurate as any photograph. His publication Birds of America, contains more than 450 species. Images: Wikicommons. Book cover image: Welcome Rain Publishers.

Despite growing up in the aftermath of the French Revolution and attending military school, Audubon’s interests were always nature walks and nature watching. He would make drawings of birds, nests, and other images of the natural world he loved. His first American home was a farm called Mill Grove in Pennsylvania, where the John James Audubon Center is located today.

While in the United States, his interest in birds and wildlife grew and grew. He mastered ornithological (bird centered) art, and his paintings considered by many conservationists to be as accurate as any photographic depiction of birds in their natural setting. He was known to replicate birds’ features, color, and mannerisms better than any artist at the time. His works included watercolors, oils, and engravings.

His most famous collection, Birds of America, contains 453 life-size paintings of North American bird species. Some copies of the original printing of the book have sold for millions of dollars. He also released a volume on North American mammals, as well.

Today, Audubon is remembered as much for his conservation efforts as his art, and, according to the John James Audubon Center’s biography of the artist, he performed the first recorded experiment of bird banding in the United States. His observations on bird anatomy and behavior are still considered vital to those studying birds, and he discovered 25 new species and 12 subspecies during his travels. The National Audubon Society conservation organization was created in his honor in 1905, and several parks, sanctuaries, schools, and other public places bear his name.

He has been so identified with conservation, the quote A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children is often attributed to him, yet there is no official record of him actually saying this.

The Project: Fictional Birds of America (and Other Places)

bird project
Look at images of fictional birds and their real life counterparts, and make a fun ornithological mash-up. Image: Lisa Kay Tate

Audubon documented hundreds of species of birds, and discovered several new ones. He was very keen on making sure they were often depicted in their natural habitat, with as much accuracy as possible.

In pop culture today, there are birds everywhere–Angry Birds, Donald Duck, mocking jays, Toucan Sam–just as a start. What would these animals look like in their natural habitat? Do some research on where real life versions of these bird species, or similar-looking birds might live, and put them in that environment.

big bird
As far as we could guess, Big Bird may be just a really large canary. image: Lisa Kay Tate.

For example, Big Bird appears to be a great big domestic canary-type bird. Canaries are named for their native lands, Canary Islands! Find some images of the birds in that habitat, give Big Bird a more natural home, and blend the “real” and “fictional” aspects of him.

Don’t feel you have to be as accurate and refined an artist as Audubon. Even he started out with more crudely sketched drawings before he honed his drawing and painting skills. Use any medium you want, including some of Audubon’s favorites, like watercolors. If doing some plein air (outdoors) painting, colored pencils work well, too.

Make sure to document the common name and “scientific” genus and species of the bird. If there isn’t one, make one up. Warner Brothers had fun doing this with their road runner cartoons. Remember seeing those freeze frames that said “Road Runner (Accelerati incredibilius)”? The real genus and species for the Greater roadrunner, by the way, is Geococcyx californianus, and they are actually related to the cuckoo.

Of course, also try honoring Audubon’s legacy by documenting and illustrating the birds of your own city, neighborhood, and backyard. Audubon himself found trying to capture even one aspect of the natural world to be quite an undertaking. He expressed his desire to fill pages upon pages with his drawings in a journal entry found in the book Audubon and His Journals (1897), edited by his granddaughter, Maria R. Audubon:

“I cannot write at all, but if I could how could I make a little book, when I have seen enough to make a dozen large books,” he asked.

Lisa Kay Tate is a veteran feature writer with 20 years experience in newspaper, magazine and freelance writing. In addition to serving as Associate Editor for her local arts and entertainment guide, El Paso Scene, she has been a regular contributor to the site and maintains her own blogsite at She and her husband, writer/photographer Rick, live on the edge of "New Texico" where they keep busy raising their two geeklings and sharing space with their dog, Sirius Black, and cat, Loki.