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.”
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.
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