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Audubon's Birds of America: Legacy

Here you can find information about the Field Museum's copy of The Birds of America as well as selected resources on John James Audubon and his works.

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The Legacy of John James Audubon (1785-1851)

John James Audubon was born in Haiti in 1785 to French sea captain Jean Audubon and Jeanne Rabin, a chambermaid. Not long after he was born, his father moved the family back to France, where Audubon spent his childhood years studying geography, fencing, mathematics, and, of course, art. Nothing seemed to capture young Audubon's interest more than finding and drawing all types of birds as well as their eggs and nests. To prevent him from being conscripted into Napoleon's army, Audubon's father sent him to America at age eighteen to take charge of a farm he had purchased near Philadelphia. Audubon was able to sustain it for a few years, but ultimately his love for hunting and painting birds outweighed any of his other pursuits, and the farm failed. Audubon tried for success in several different business ventures but unfortunately none proved fruitful. After so many failed attempts to provide for his family, he decided to stay devoted to his passion as a way to earn a living and went on a series of voyages to discover more birds to immortalize in his paintings. 

In 1826 Audubon ventured to England to find someone willing to publish his work; there, he and his work were received with much praise and he was even hailed as a genius for what would become The Birds of America (1827-1838). The double elephant folio edition consists of 87 parts of 5 hand-colored copperplate engravings and is bound in 4 volumes. The Field Museum Library's copy is one of the only two copies extant (originally made for Audubon's close friends/family) that include 13 additional plates. 

Field Museum Resources & Publications



National Audubon Society renaming decision

In 2023 the National Audubon Society voted to retain its name, as further described in this news release. "His contributions to ornithology, art, and culture are enormous, but he was a complex and troubling character who did despicable things even by the standards of his day," from the society's main page about Audubon. The National Audubon Society faces a backlash for retaining the name, from board members quitting to chapters deciding to change their names and disassociate from the national society. Further resources to explore about this issue are below:

  1. Why the Audubon Name Must Go: It Will Save More Birds by Christian Cooper, Washington Post (April 2023).

  2. Listen to NPR’s Science Friday National Audubon Society Sticks With Its Name, Despite Namesake’s Racism with Stuart Wells, executive director of Portland Audubon and conservation scientist Corina Newsome (April 2023).

  3. Watch this video announcing the new organizational name for Birds Connect Seattle and featuring Dr. J. Drew Lanham discussing the importance of removing the Audubon name (March 2023).

  4. New York City Audubon announces that their board of directors voted to drop the Audubon name (March 2023).

  5. National Audubon announces the decision to keep the Audubon name (March 2023).

  6. DC Audubon Society publicly announces they will drop the Audubon name (March 2023).

  7. Portland Audubon commits to dropping “Audubon” from their name (February 2023).

  8. Chicago Audubon Society changes their name to the Chicago Bird Alliance and share the “Bird Alliance” name with Detroit, Badgerland (Madison area) and Golden Gate (San Francisco area) for now--and they hope many other former Audubon chapters will join in. (October 20, 2023).

  9. Watch a recording of Madison Audubon’s November 2022 speaker series featuring Brigitte Fielder, “I’ll Fly Away: Birds and the Enslaved in Flight in Audubon’s World.” Available on Facebook or YouTube.

  10. Audubon Naturalist Society Drops Controversial “Audubon” From Its Name: The DC-area nonprofit is among the first to drop the racist ornithologist from its name by Damare Baker, Washingtonian (October 2022).

  11. Audubon’s beautiful birds don’t erase his racist life, by the Seattle Times Editorial Board in support of the Seattle chapter’s decision (July 2022).

  12. Seattle Audubon became the first large chapter to signal its intention to change its name (July 2022). Learn more about their process.

  13. What’s In A Bird Name? by Ariana Remmel, Audubon Magazine (Summer 2021).

  14. A D.C. area environmental group is dropping the name of John Audubon, naturalist who was an enslaver and Indian grave robber by Darryl Fears, Washington Post (October 2021).

  15. River Center’s Expansion and Remodel call for changes — a new Mission, Name, and Logo. Dungeness River Nature Center blog post (September 2021).

  16. What’s in a Name? Plenty, if It Belongs to a Slaveholder or White Supremacist, by Glenn Nelson, South Seattle Emerald (August 2021).

  17. How Audubon societies are grappling with a racist past by Philip Marcelo, The Christian Science Monitor (July 2021).

  18. What Do We Do About John James Audubon? by J. Drew Lanham, Audubon Magazine (Spring 2021).

  19. John James Audubon Was Never Good by Ryan F. Mandelbaum, Gizmodo, (September 2020).

  20. The Myth of John James Audubon by Gregory Nobles, Audubon Magazine (July 2020).

John James Audubon

John James Audubon Bust, gift of Chauncey and Marion Deering McCormick Foundation. Located in the Marie Louise Rosenthal Library Reading Room.

John James Audubon Journal

John James Audubon journal of 1826: incomplete autograph manuscript showing page with handwriting and housing for detached leaf 214. Located in Field Museum Library Rare Book Room. Gift of Charles Palmer and family.