January 26, 2024

Audubon's Fantasy Species

         John James Audubon (France/USA, 1785-1851) is probably the most famous artist of birds and wildlife in the western world.  However, unlike Bewick, he didn’t do relief prints… so what’s he doing in this blog?  It’s not the medium of art he used that prompts me to feature him, but some of the more unusual creatures he discovered.
        Most of these creatures are reported not by Audubon himself, but by an eccentric naturalist called Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840).  In 1818 Rafinesque visited Audubon in Kentucky for three weeks, eagerly filling notebooks with all the species that Audubon told him about.  According to a story related by Audubon and generally corroborated by Rafinesque, on the very first night of the visit, bats flew into the visitor’s room through the open window.  Convinced they were a new species and frantic to kill some specimens for study, Rafinesque grabbed Audubon’s violin and began chasing around the room, wildly flailing at bats, and generally trashing everything.  It is assumed that Audubon proceeded to slip Rafinesque tales of unique species both as payback for the destruction of the violin and as a test of how far Rafinesque’s passion for new species could be pushed.
        Among these creatures are some rarities that have never since been sighted, including the Devil-Jack Diamond Fish.  Up to 10 feet long with bulletproof scales, these fish often float motionless at the surface of the water, resembling logs from a distance.  Audubon actually pointed one out to Rafinesque.  In all, there are at least ten species of fish reported by Rafinesque that are dependent entirely upon Audubon’s authority, including the Toad Mudcat and the Buffalo Carp Sucker.  There is also a Tri-valve Brachiopod, and a number of “wild western rats” including the Three-striped Mole Rat, the Lion-Tail Jumping Mouse and the Brindled Stamiter, all of which more closely resemble Old World species - although still having a number of unique characteristics of their own.
        In general, Audubon took his work with birds more seriously, but even here he introduced the world to a number of singular species.  The best name of a mystery bird is the Carbonated Swamp Warbler, because I love to imagine either a fizzy little bird or, better yet, one of the strange species of the great bubbling Carbonated Swamp of Kentucky.  However, Audubon himself was dubious about these specimens, which he suspected might simply be juveniles of another species, a perfectly reasonable mistake to make in the days before DNA analysis, and frankly no fun at all!  Indeed most of Audubon’s anomalous birds are assumed to be simple errors.
        So let’s talk about the  Blue Mountain Warbler and the Small-headed Flycatcher.  The first was recorded by Audubon’s chief rival Alexander Wilson, and Audubon later claimed to have gotten his own specimen to include in his own book.  Meanwhile, he claimed that Wilson had copied the flycatcher from him.  Neither bird has ever been seen again, and I can’t help suspecting that the two rivals were playing the same games with each other.  Unfortunately, these birds have no interesting characteristics such as bulletproof feathers or 100-year lifespan or something.
        Finally, I have to mention the great Bird of Washington.  This eagle looks very much like a golden eagle or juvenile bald eagle, but is far larger than any other eagle known in the New World, with a wingspan of over 10 feet - for the male, which would make the females of the species even larger.  Other than the remarkable size of this noble bird, its other remarkable feature is its timing.  Audubon had just headed to Europe in a desperate attempt to gain support and funding for his long-dreamed-of project of an epic illustrated book.  His financial state was at its lowest ebb, his nomination for membership in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia had been rejected, and he was afraid that if he couldn’t make a success of this project, he’d have to leave America forever.  (Frankly, I feel his pain — he was, after all, essentially launching a Kickstarter campaign for the project dearest to his heart!  So, for Audubon’s sake, please check out my Kickstarter campaign for my illustrated book project!)
        Back to Audubon, freshly arrived in England in 1826.  He unveiled a magnificent large painting of a magnificent new American species: a noble and wonderful bird worthy of the noble and wonderful continent his book was to depict.  And suddenly the nobility were all enthusiastic about the project and subscriptions started pouring in.  Thus Audubon’s epic book The birds of America was  brought to life.  (Did I mention my beautifully illustrated book?  I’m making up everything in mine, so it should be even more enthusiastically received!  Help me bring it to life!)  Too bad the magnificent Bird of Washington has never been seen again.
        Normally I might have been inclined to post this to celebrate Audubon’s birthday on April 26, or possibly on April 1.  But in this blog April is always taken over by the A to Z Challenge, so I’m celebrating instead for Audubon’s deathday, which is January 27.  At any rate, in conclusion, John James Audubon is widely acclaimed as both an artist and a naturalist, and rightly so.  But while I certainly do not condone scientific fraud (or indeed fraud of any sort), I have to confess that Audubon’s lesser-known species do tickle my fancy!

[Pictures: Devil-Jack Diamond Fish, pencil and ink sketch by Rafinesque, 1818;

Toad Mudcat, pencil and ink sketch by Rafinesque, 1818;

Three-striped Mole Rat, Big-eye Jumping Mouse, and Lion-tail Jumping Mouse, pencil and ink sketch by Rafinesque, 1818;

Brindled Stamiter, pencil and ink sketch by Rafinesque, 1818 (All Rafinsesque images from Biodiversity Heritage Library);

Carbonated Warbler, engraving by Robert Havell, hand-colored, based on painting by John James Audubon, c 1827-38 (Image from University of Pittsburgh);

Bird of Washington, engraving by Robert Havell, hand-colored, based on painting by John James Audubon, c 1827-38 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

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