The Birds of America

The Birds of America

The Birds of America
Book cover shows Louisiana Heron,
Egretta tricolor (now called tricolored heron)
Author John James Audubon
Original title The Birds of America; from original drawings by John James Audubon[1]
Illustrator John James Audubon
Country United Kingdom
Subject Birds – North America; Birds – pictorial works[1]
Publication date
LC Class QL674 .A9 1827[1]

The Birds of America is a book by naturalist and painter John James Audubon, containing illustrations of a wide variety of birds of the United States. It was first published as a series in sections between 1827 and 1838, in Edinburgh and London.

The work consists of hand-coloured, life-size prints, made from engraved plates, measuring around 39 by 26 inches (99 by 66 cm). It includes images of six now-extinct birds: Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, Labrador Duck, Great Auk, Esquimaux Curlew, and Pinnated Grouse.[2]

Early publication history

About 1820, around the age of 35, Audubon declared his intention to paint every bird in North America.[3] In his bird art, he mainly forsook oil paint, the medium of serious artists of the day, in favour of watercolours and pastel crayons (and occasionally pencil, charcoal, chalk, gouache, and pen and ink).[4] As early as 1807, he developed a method of using wires and threads to hold dead birds in lifelike poses while he drew them.[3]

In 1823, Audubon went to Philadelphia and New York, looking for financial support in the form of subscribers to enable him to publish his artwork, but he found support lacking.[3] As a result, in 1826, he set sail for the United Kingdom with 250[5] of his original illustrations, looking for the financial support of subscribers and the technical abilities of engravers and printers. After exhibiting his drawings in Liverpool and Manchester, he journeyed to Edinburgh, where he met the accomplished engraver William H. Lizars. Lizars engraved up to ten of the first plates but was unable to continue the project when his colourists went on strike.[1][6] In 1827, Audubon engaged the noted London animal engraver Robert Havell Jr., and his father, Robert Havell Sr. Havell Jr. oversaw the project through to its completion in 1838.[6]

Carolina pigeon,Zenaida macroura (now called mourning dove).

The original edition of Birds of America (sometimes called the Havell Edition[7] after its printer, and sometimes called the "Double Elephant Folio", because of its size) was printed on handmade paper 39.5 inches tall by 28.5 inches wide.[7] The principal printing technique was copperplate etching, but engraving and aquatint were also used.[7] Watercolour was then added by hand.

Audubon funded the costly printing project through a pay-as-you-go subscription. From 1826 to 1829, he travelled around the UK and to Paris, lecturing on ornithology and frontier American life[8] in an effort to entice wealthy patrons to subscribe to the series of prints. Subscribers included Earl Spencer, and, later, the Americans Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.[8]

Prints were issued in sets of five every month or two in tin cases[9] and each set usually included one very large bird, one medium-sized bird, and three small birds.[8] In 1838, at the end of the thirteen-year project, 435 plates (87 sets of five) had been issued at a total cost of $870 or 175 British guineas (£183.75).[4] The plates were published unbound and without any text to avoid having to furnish free copies to the public libraries in England.[1] It is estimated that not more than 200 complete sets were ever compiled.[7][8] An accompanying text, issued separately, was written by Audubon and the Scottish naturalist and ornithologist William MacGillivray[10] and published in five volumes in Edinburgh between 1831 and 1839, under the title Ornithological Biography, or, An account of the habits of the birds of the United States of America.[1] The additional cost of the five volumes of text brought the total cost of plates and text to about $1000.[7]

After the folio edition was completed, Audubon decided to produce a more affordable edition and employed a lithographer from Philadelphia named J. T. Bowen. Bowen and his team created a smaller Royal Octavo edition, which was issued to subscribers in seven volumes and completed in 1844 after selling 1,199 sets. Five more octavo editions were completed through 1877. The octavo edition used the text of the Ornithological biography but increased the number of plates to 500, separating some birds which had originally appeared together. Some new drawings were included, mostly by John Woodhouse though Audubon and members of Bowen's team also contributed.[11][12]

The Bien Edition (after chromolithography pioneer Julius Bien), was a full-sized reissue published in 1858 by Roe Lockwood in New York under the supervision of Audubon's youngest son, John Woodhouse Audubon.[13] Due in part to the Civil War, the edition was never finished; only 15 parts of the 44 part series were completed. This edition consisted of 105 plates and included none of the original text.[14] Fewer than 100 subscriptions were sold, making this edition rarer than other early editions.[15]

Public exhibition

Prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea) in plate 3

Since 1992, the Louisiana State University Libraries have hosted "Audubon Day," a semi-annual public showing of all four volumes of LSU's copy of the Birds of America. The set formerly belonged to one of the original subscribers, the Duke of Northumberland, and was purchased with a grant from the Crown Zellerbach Corporation in 1964. In recent years, the event has drawn more than 200 visitors. It was profiled in a 2011 Wall Street Journal article titled "The Joys of Slow Looking."[16]

A full 8-volume, double-elephant folio version is on public display in the Audubon Room at the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. One page is turned weekly. This, the first book purchased by the University, was bought in 1839 for $970 (equivalent to $70,000 in 2015), at the time an amazing sum. The entire volume of 425 plates is also available for viewing online at the University of Michigan's website.[17]

The California Academy of Sciences displays pages from its four-volume set of Birds of America in the Academy Library, and selects pages which correlate to current exhibits in both the library and museum.

In 2003, the University of Pittsburgh, which owns a complete collection of Birds of America that had been recently restored and preserved by the Etherington Conservation Center, mounted a major exhibition of 62 selected plates and other materials in its University Art Gallery. Following this, the university constructed an exhibit case on the ground floor of the school's Hillman Library to continuously display a rotating selection of plates to the public. Single plates are exhibited for two weeks at a time in plate number order.[18] In 2007, the university undertook a project to digitise every plate from Birds of America, as well as Audubon's Ornithological Biography, and, for the first time, presented the complete set for public viewing in one place on the web.[19]

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University's daily page-turning event

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, an original subscriber to Birds of America has a daily "page turning" event at 3:15 p.m. in the Academy's Ewell Sale Stewart Library. The Academy's website also includes a digital version of the event.

In 2007 the book was the subject of an exhibition by the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, which owns a copy it ordered from the original subscription, along with the table sold to house and display it. The book's subsections fit into special drawers around a fly-leaf table; the table formed the centerpiece for gatherings of the Teyler's gentleman's society of science.[20] To commemorate the book's record-breaking sale, the museum decided to display its copy (for which the museum eventually paid 2200 guilders—a fortune at the time—during the years 1827–1838) until January 2011.[21]

All of Audubon's known extant watercolors preparatory for Birds of America are housed at the New-York Historical Society in New York City.[4]

The Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas owns and exhibits John James Audubon's personal copy of Birds of America.[22]

In 2010 the North Carolina Museum of Art began a five-year exhibition of its restored four-volume set purchased for the state by Governor William Alexander Graham in 1846.[23]

Liverpool Central Library currently has a copy of Birds of America on display in a glass case, with its pages turned weekly,[24] as well as being displayed through an interactive kiosk, allowing readers to get up close and personal with the book's contents without damaging the original copy using an Evoke Ev5 Kiosk.[25]

One of the original books was bought by Laurance Spelman Rockefeller, who had each plate individually framed. They are all hanging throughout the public areas of the Woodstock Inn, in Woodstock, Vermont, which he built in 1969.


Fabric, from Lancashire, 1830s

In 1830s, immediately after the publication, several plates were used as a basis for the design of a series of roller-printed furnishing fabric, produced in Lancashire, United Kingdom.[26]

Recent sales

Great horned owl
(Bubo virginianus)

In March 2000 Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar purchased a copy of The Birds of America at a Christie's auction for $8.8 million, a record for any book at auction.[27]

In December 2010, The Economist magazine estimated that, adjusted for inflation, five of the ten highest prices ever paid for printed books were paid for copies of Birds of America.[28] Of the 119 copies known to survive, only eleven are held in private collections.[29] In March 2000 the Fox-Bute copy sold at Christie's (New York) for $8,802,500.[30][31] In December 2005 an unbound copy, the Providence Athenaeum Set,[31] sold, again at Christie's (New York), for $5.6 million.[32]

On 6 December 2010, a complete copy of the first edition was sold in London at Sotheby's for £7,321,250[33] (approximately $11.5 million)[34] during the sale of Magnificent Books, Manuscripts and Drawings from the Collection of Frederick, Second Lord Hesketh. The winning bid was a record auction price for a printed book and was placed by London-based art dealer Michael Tollemache, who outbid three others during the auction.[34] According to the provenance details reported by the auction house, the copy's original owner was Henry Witham of Durham, listed as subscriber 11 in Audubon's Ornithological Biography; the first volume of the set bears a presentation inscription from Witham's wife, dated 24 June 1831.[33] Lord Hesketh had bought the copy from a descendant of Witham at a Christie's auction on 3 July 1951, paying £7,000.[33]

On 20 January 2012 a complete copy of the first edition was sold, by heirs of the Fourth Duke of Portland, at Christie's auction house in Manhattan, for $7.9 million. The buyer was identified only as "an American collector who bid by phone." The sale brought to 120 the number of copies known to have survived – 107 in institution collections and 13 in private hands.[35]



  1. ^ a b c d e f "The birds of America; from original drawings".  
  2. ^ Birds of America By John James Audubon – Extinct Birds from the National Audubon Society
  3. ^ a b c Central Park's Winged Tenants, By Audubon in The New York Times 26 December 2003.
  4. ^ a b c by Bill Steiner excerpts at minniesland.comAudubon Art Prints: A Collector’s Guide to Every Edition
  5. ^ Audubon and men of influence at National Library of Scotland
  6. ^ a b Birds of America and Audubon's legacy at University of Liverpool
  7. ^ a b c d e Havell Edition at
  8. ^ a b c d Rarae Aves: Audubon At Auction in The New York Times 3 March 2000.
  9. ^ Vibrant Birds Of America, Via Germany in The New York Times 25 June 2004.
  10. ^ Biography of William MacGillivray at Natural History Museum
  11. ^ Bowen Royal Octavo Gallery – Birds of America – Audubon House Gallery from the National Audubon Society
  12. ^ The Registry Of Nature Habitats – Audubon Birds of America – GENUS I.-CATHARTES, Illiger. TURKEY-VULTURE from
  13. ^ Flynn, Ron. "The Bien Edition / The Project, Quality, Errors and Market Value". Retrieved 30 September 2012. 
  14. ^ "Audubon Galleries Original Audubon Books and Prints". Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  15. ^ Ron Flynn. "About Audubon and His Octavo Edition Prints". Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  16. ^ Willard Spiegelman, "The Joys of Slow Looking," Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2011.
  17. ^ [1]
  18. ^ "Audubon at Pitt". University Library System, University of Pittsburgh. 2008. Retrieved 2011-08-22. 
  19. ^ Hoover, Bob (4 March 2008). "Audubon's 'Birds' now in flock on one Web site". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA). Retrieved 2011-08-22. 
  20. ^ "Teyler's 2007 exhibition website". 3 November 2007. Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  21. ^ "Teyler's announcement to show the book". 6 December 2010. Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  22. ^ Stark Audubon, KOGT Radio, 1600 AM 11 December 2010.
  23. ^ Audubon, North Carolina Museum of Art, 20 February 2011.
  24. ^ "Rekindling Liverpool Central Library". Retrieved 2013-01-24. 
  25. ^
  26. ^ "Furnishing fabric, Lancashire, 1830s, Victoria and Albert Museum, CIRC.305-1956". Retrieved 23 February 2012. 
  27. ^ Birds Of America’ Sells for $8.8 Million, Art&Antiques.
  28. ^ "Book value". The Economist. 8 December 2010. 
  29. ^ Collett, Mike. "Rare 'Birds of America' book fetches $11.5M at auction - Books - booknews -". Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  30. ^ BBC, 9 September 2010, World's most expensive book goes back on sale
  31. ^ a b Shakespeare first edition breaks Sotheby's record with £2.8m sale, The Independent, 14 July 2006.
  32. ^ Stalking a Masterpiece, The Wall Street Journal 26 November 2010.
  33. ^ a b c "Lot 50: The Birds of America; from original drawings by John James Audubon. London: published by the author, 1827–1838".  
  34. ^ a b Reyburn, Scott (7 December 2010). "‘Birds of America' Book Fetches Record $11.5 Million". Bloomberg. 
  35. ^ "Audubon's ‘Birds' sells for $7.9M". New York Daily News. Associated Press. 20 January 2012. Retrieved 1 May 2012. 

External links

  • "Birds of America" at the University of Pittsburgh — with high resolution images of all 435 double elephant folios.
  • Meisei University: "Birds of America" — the complete sets of 435 plates of drawings, with the accompanying five volumes of textbooks.
  • Teylers Museum: Digitized version of "Birds of America"
  • The short film John James Audubon: The Birds of America (1986) is available for free download at the Internet Archive []