5

Birds of America

Packed with both artistic and scientific merit, John James Audubon’s Birds of America series is one of the most beautifully illustrated books ever published. Audobon—an ornithologist, naturalist and painter—decided to identify and paint every single North American bird in its natural habitat—life sized. Over several decades throughout the early nineteenth century, before the invention of photography, he travelled across the continent and amassed a large amount of drawings. He observed and collected wild birds, studying each one in detail and rendering them into exquisite paintings, which his students hand-coloured under his supervision. All up, he documented 1,065 individual birds from 506 different species, with his jotted notes on each specimen accompanying the paintings. People were captivated by his work, and 435 paintings were printed into a folio over a 12-year-period, from 1826 through 1838. The kings of England and France were among those who paid large sums of money for first editions, but only between 160 and 180 copies were published in this original format—and just 110 are known to have survived.

(Image Credit)

(The legendary Cang Jie was said to have invented writing after observing the tracks of birds.) 

 A light snow last night,
and now the earth falls open to a fresh page.

A high wind is breaking up the clouds.
Children wait for the yellow bus in a huddle,

and under the feeder, some birds
are busy writing short stories,

poems, and letters to their mothers.
A crow is working on an editorial.

That chickadee is etching a list,
and a robin walks back and forth

composing the opening to her autobiography.
All so prolific this morning,

these expressive little creatures,
and each with an alphabet of only two letters.

A far cry from me watching
in silence behind a window wondering

what just frightened them into flight —
a dog’s bark, a hawk overhead?

or had they simply finished
saying whatever it was they had to say?

Billy Collins, Ornithography

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