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The “American Woodsman”
As the frontier moved westward and wildlife declined, the tireless Audubon drove himself to record its wonders
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
Thanks to the plundering agents of the millinery trade, one of the best rambles for a bird watcher in the 1880’s was along the fashionable shopping streets of downtown New York City. On two successive late afternoons in 1886 one sharp-eyed naturalist spotted more than forty different species, including such unlikely specimens as a laughing gull, a ruffed grouse, a green heron, and a saw-whet owl, all in the crowded precincts of lower Manhattan; all dead, to be sure, and perched stiffly and properly as costume accessories on the habits of well-dressed ladies of the metropolis. The plume merchants never had such spectacular opportunities as they did in the Gilded Age.
To such ends and others, in the past we Americans managed to wipe out astronomical numbers of birds. In recent times, however, man and bird have achieved a tolerable state of coexistence in our part of the world. Country folk may continue to worry about the nuisance of hawks and crows, and city dwellers about the untidy habits of pigeons and starlings. But we have abandoned the practice of massacring songbirds to decorate our ladies’ hats. Notwithstanding the conflicting interests of our Air Force, we have provided peaceful sanctuary for the whooping crane, and have even granted immunity to the peregrine falcons that occasionally rocket down from the heights of tall buildings for tasty bits of the more domesticated birds that, in a horseless age, still feed as before in the city streets.
On their side, the birds—some of them—have accommodated their habits to the strange ways of man, finding new homes in chimneys and barns, or abandoning their ancestral forest habitat for life among the commuters in our burgeoning suburbs. And everywhere, for the past fifty years or so, the watchful eye of an Audubon society guards their interests.
There is a measure of irony in the fact that if any such organization had existed during the lifetime of John James Audubon, we might never have heard of the man, much less celebrated his memory as a great pioneer naturalist. In the course of compiling his mammoth inventory of the birds of America, Audubon must have killed a formidable number of specimens. He once boasted that it was a poor day’s hunting when he shot fewer than a hundred. Like a number of his tales, this one may be taller than the actual truth. On the other hand, his diary candidly reports the amusement he occasionally took in firing into a flock of birds to test his excellent marksmanship, or simply pour le sport . Once, on December 25, 1810, with a party of Shawnee Indians, he caught a lakeful of swans in a pitiless cross fire, until the surface of the water was “covered with birds floating with their backs downwards, and their heads sunk in the water, and their legs kicking in the air.” After eating a meal of pecannut and bear-fat soup, while the squaws worked into the night, Audubon went to sleep before the campfire “very well satisfied with [his] Christinas sport.”
Which is no stick to beat Audubon with. In his heyday the American wilderness was just about the last place in the world to expect the prevention of cruelty to wild creatures or the preservation of any living thing save the human interloper, perhaps, and his livestock. The forests of the New World and all the game that sought their cover were “inexhaustible.” Yet they would have to give way to man and his works. There would be time enough to regret the wasteful plundering that went with pioneering when the nation finally spread out over and settled down on its three billion acres of virgin land.
Audubon never did become a conservationist as the word is understood these days. Even as he picked oft his huge toll of feathered specimens, he was aware that his beloved frontier world was rapidly vanishing about him. He did not pretend to say whether the changes were for the better or for the worse. He only knew with passionate conviction that no one coming after him would ever have the same opportunity to record the birds of North America in their primeval haunts, and that realization drove him mercilessly to finish his inventory before it was too late.
He needed all manner of variants to complete his studies, and from the beginning he hired hunters when his own gun for some pressing reason was idle. In later years, when he was obliged to remain in England to attend to publication matters, he wrote his naturalist friend, the Reverend John Bachman of Charleston, pleading for more specimens: “Take to your gun … go to the Woods, and go to the shores, or if you cannot at all send some worthy one on whom you can and I also depend … It will save me one year of Shooting and of ransacking the Woods singly. …”