The world is celebrating the birthday of naturalist John James Audubon today. Audubon, who was born April 26, 1785, first rose to fame through the 435 magnificent paintings he created for his landmark work, "Birds of America," which detailed more than 700 bird species and was first published as a series on a subscription basis between 1827 and 1838.
Despite the book's continued popularity — and the enormous impact of the National Audubon Society, the organization that bears his name — most people don't know much about Audubon himself. Here are five facts that should shed some well-deserved light on this important ornithologist.
1. He shot and killed every bird he painted. Audubon was a noted hunter and taxidermist, and much of the money he made during his lifetime was from selling animal skins, a practice that in part helped to fund the printing of "Birds of America." But don't assume that he took pleasure from killing the birds he painted: "The moment a bird was dead," he said, "no matter how beautiful it had been in life, the pleasure of possession became blunted for me."
2. Although American birds were of central importance to his work, Audubon was not American by birth. He was born in a French colony on what is now Haiti and did not learn English until he immigrated to the United States in 1803 (which he did under a fake passport to avoid being drafted into the Napoleonic Wars). He became an American citizen in 1812.
3. Audubon was the first person to place bands on the legs of birds in North America. He tied colored yarn to the legs of small birds known as Eastern phoebes. This led him to the discovery that the birds returned to the same nesting spots every year. It was just one of his contributions to the conservation movement, not the least of which was his oft-quoted statement, "A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children."
4. Despite numerous bouts with illnesses, including contracting yellow fever while immigrating to the U.S., Audubon was described as "indefatigable." He was known to rise at 3 a.m. for his hunting and research trips, return after noon, draw all afternoon, then return to the field for a few hours in the evening.
5. He did not found the National Audubon Society. Audubon died in 1851 after a brief period of declining mental health. The National Audubon Society was founded in 1905 and named in his honor.