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John James Audubon, “Louisiana Heron” (Plate 217 from ‘The Birds of America’) (courtesy Audubon Society)

When the Audubon Society launched its redesigned website last month, it included gorgeous high-resolution images of the 435 plates from John J. Audubon’s The Birds of America. Available for free download and online navigation into all their details, the images are accompanied by Audubon’s original text and link into a bird guide with details on the species’ current habitats and audio of their songs.

Some, however, have gone extinct since Audubon worked from 1827 to 1838 on the life-sized watercolors. The Audubon Society’s digital library, designed by Mule, has the option to arrange the birds alphabetically, chronologically, or by those that have vanished, such as the Carolina Parrot, where the last known member of its species died in 1918 at the Cincinnati Zoo. The stunning illustration of a small flock of the birds on a tangle of branches is the subject of one of Audubon’s personal asides: “Doubtless, kind reader, you will say, while looking at the figures of Parakeets represented in the plate, that I spared not my labour. I never do, so anxious am I to promote your pleasure.”

John James Audubon, “Carolina Parrot” (Plate 26 from ‘The Birds of America’) (courtesy Audubon Society)

Mostly, though, the text is a thorough documentation of the observed habitats of the feathery fauna, although even there Audubon had a poetry to his words that revealed his awe for these birds. On the Louisiana Heron he wrote: “Delicate in form, beautiful in plumage, and graceful in its movements, I never see this interesting Heron, without calling it the Lady of the Water.”

The digital version of Birds of America draws you back into Audubon’s world while emphasizing the need for conservation today. As you zoom into the images, a feature activated by a tiny pair of binoculars, it’s about as good as it gets for seeing the illustrations other than in person. As it happens, there’s a chance to do so next month at the New-York Historical Society when it opens Audubon’s Aviary: The Final Flight (Part III of The Complete Flock), the third part of the museum’s trilogy on Audubon’s preparatory watercolors. Until then, you can scroll through all the close details of the avians through the Audubon Society’s platform.

Zooming in on the details of a watercolor in the Audubon Society’s portal for ‘Birds of America’ (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

John James Audubon, “Columbia Jay” (Plate 96 from ‘The Birds of America’) (courtesy Audubon Society)

John James Audubon, “Barn Owl” (Plate 171 from ‘The Birds of America’) (courtesy Audubon Society)

John James Audubon, “Scarlet Ibis” (Plate 397 from ‘The Birds of America’) (courtesy Audubon Society)

The Audubon Society’s portal for ‘Birds of America’ (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

View all of the 435 prints from John James Audubon’s Birds of America on the newly redesigned Audubon Society website. 

h/t Austin Kleon

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

3 replies on “All of Audubon’s ‘Birds of America’ in One High-Resolution Flock”

  1. Perhaps running against the ever-flowing river of adoration that Audubon portfolios receive, I am not particularly impressed. They are, very much so, expression of their time in history, yet they miss the integrity, the expression of nature.
    A child of happenstance wealth, entitled, and provided with little other than his own mind, Audubon achieved little understanding of that which he professed to be. If you look at any of his paintings, you will find but caricatures, cartoons not terribly dissimilar to the “wide-eye” paintings that used to adorn gas-stations in the 60’s.
    Why would this wonderful site, Hyperallergic, post this expose?

  2. “…wealth, entitled, and provided with little other than his own mind” That’s quite a bit of hypocrisy in one part of a sentence. When Audubon was working, his contributions were revelatory to the public. A great many foundations and organizations to survey and protect birds have been set up in his name. Why would you bother to posit your disgruntlement here? Lame.

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