Audubon certainly viewed nature with the eye of an artist, but was he a true naturalist or simply an opportunist? In 1827, Noah Webster published the first American dictionary. That very same year, Audubon published the first volume of his spectacular bird book. Both works reflected American interest in words, in Audubon's case, new names for new species-as well as news, numbers, and lists of all kinds.
Audubon was a gifted writer, and his adventures recounted in his Ornithological Biography appeased a reading public eager for exciting books by Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. But was Audubon's art good science? During his lifetime, some naturalists criticized his illustrations as too "flamboyant" for science, too "unrestrained and painterly."
In his eagerness, Audubon was bound to make mistakes; for example, his illustration of mockingbirds shows a rattlesnake attacking the nest. Rattlers, his critics correctly claimed, do not climb trees, and furthermore, they do not feed on bird eggs. Poor preservation techniques also compromised Audubon's ability to save specimens as proof of his finds. Cleaning birds in the hot Florida sun and storing them without the benefit of refrigeration were not pleasant tasks, and Audubon was not able to save his specimens for others to examine and substantiate his claims. Furthermore, some species of North American birds were becoming scarce in Audubon's time.
There were no laws protecting endangered species. Too the contrary, laws mandated the destruction of agricultural pests. Songbirds were commonly sold in city markets for food. Although Audubon, a good marksman, enjoyed shooting birds, he also strove to create a public awareness of birds. His reputation, if not his hardworking wife's household accounts, benefited from this attention.
Retiring to New York, Audubon built a comfortable house called "Minnie's Land" on the banks of the Hudson River. Done with birds, he began a major illustrated work on North American mammals with the help of his two sons. When Audubon died in 1851, a reporter for Harper's Magazine remarked that Audubon had "linked himself with the undyingness of nature." Today Audubon's name is linked with the conservation movement through the society that bears his name.
Does Audubon deserve this association? Audubon published the first volume of his Birds of America at just the time when Andrew Jackson was successfully campaigning for the presidency of the United States. Under Jackson, the earlier ideal of preserving a virtuous republic gave way to the ideal of preserving individual opportunity and ensuring that the United States would remain a nation of self-made men. A self-made man like Jackson, Audubon quite literally embodied the Jacksonian ideal. When an artist friend, John Vanderlyn, painted a famous full-length portrait of Jackson he drew the Indian fighter's face from life, but persuaded Audubon to model for the body. Like Jackson, Audubon mastered the politics of opportunity. In Florida, he did not hesitate to purchase natural history specimens from "wreckers," men lured ships onto rocky reefs to salvage their cargos, and he wrote a song celebrating their dubious feats.
The one week's cruise we'll have on shore, But we do sail again; And drink success to the sailor lads That are plowing of the main. And when you are passing by this way, On Florida reef should you chance to stray, Why, we will come to you on the shore, Amongst the rocks where the breakers roar, When daylight dawns we are under weigh, And every sail is set; And of the wind it should prove light, Why then our sail we wet. To gain her first each eager strives, To save the cargo and the peoples' lives; Amongst the rocks where the breakers roar, The wreckers on the Florida shore.