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Cindy Crosby

The Bird Man

John James Audubon.

Outside my kitchen window, a scarlet cardinal and his dusky mate crack sunflower seeds. The visitors to my five birdfeeders change by the minute: goldfinches turn upside down to dip into thistle, hummingbirds buzz in and out sipping nectar, and a downy woodpecker chips away at my suet and peanuts. Once in a while the feeders clear out in a sudden swoop of wings for no apparent reason—then I spot the sharp-shinned hawk sitting on our porch rail, attracted to my feathered smorgasbord for hungry reasons of her own.

It's easy to get hooked on watching birds: so many colorful personalities, so much evidence that Someone pays attention to details. But for John James Audubon during the first half of the 19th century, birding was more than a hobby. Birds were the driving passion that shaped his life and that of his family. Audubon's prolific drawings and writings would eventually transform the way we view the natural world.

Mention the name Audubon and most of us can conjure up the image of the doubled-over hot pink flamingo, perhaps the most famous print from his magnum opus, The Birds of America. His "elephant folio" consisted of life-sized paintings of 435 birds, published in installments on oversized paper, and then bound into a final book by the subscriber over a ten-year period. It was an unprecedented undertaking that has never been matched.

Aubudon's name is also linked in most minds with conservation. Although he was a prolific hunter, killing thousands of birds, dissecting them for his work (he often ate them as well), and selling them alive and dead for profit, his dawning realization that the natural landscape he loved was vanishing would set the stage for the conservation-minded Audubon Society that bears his name today.

The lively and flamboyant Audubon is the stuff of which legends are made, which is why you can find numerous biographies chronicling his life and work. Especially absorbing are four recent books: John James Audubon: The Making of an American by ...

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