December 2022

Vol. 50, No. 6

About Books: A Pelagic Audubon

Mark Lynch

Audubon at Sea: The Coastal and Transatlantic Adventures of John James AudubonAudubon at Sea: The Coastal and Transatlantic Adventures of John James Audubon. Edited by Christoph Irmscher and Richard J. King. 2022. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Audubon At Sea shows us an Audubon who is truly at sea, physically and emotionally.” (p. 313)

When we think about the world-renowned bird artist John James Audubon, we likely conjure up an image of a pioneering ornithologist of America with rifle, paint, and paper, bushwhacking it through humid forests and swamps, procuring specimens for his watercolors that would later become the elephant folio sized prints in his The Birds of America. Most of us would not envision Audubon also on the deck of a ship, riding out a storm, seasick as all hell. But that image of Audubon is precisely what Irmscher and King present to the reader in Audubon at Sea.

In the popular imagination, Audubon’s art and science are shaped by landbirds, not waterbirds. The Birds of America begins with the American turkey, a bird made part of his personal seal. (p. 13)

The editors and authors of Audubon at Sea, by carefully editing and selecting certain materials, create a more complex image of the bird artist. This book will likely change forever how you think about John James Audubon. Recall how you felt on your first pelagic bird trip with the vast expanse of rolling sea and sky. Birds just didn’t fly to the next bush or tree—at sea they could easily disappear over the distant horizon. The sea can be a very unforgiving habitat in which to study birds, as Audubon learned.

In this volume we are asking the reader to imagine this different kind of Audubon, one challenged, on a deeply existential level, by an environment where he couldn’t rely on the instincts that normally made him such an effective observer and hunter of birds. (p. 14)

Christoph Irmscher directs the Wells Scholars Program at Indiana University, where he is also distinguished professor of English. Richard J. King is a visiting associate professor of maritime literature and history at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Both of them are scholars of Audubon’s writings. Together they have edited sections of Audubon’s Ornithological Biography that were written when Audubon was aboard a ship or describing seabirds or shorebirds. Irmscher and King also have written extensive introductions to Audubon’s text as well as important footnotes for each section. Audubon’s Ornithological Biography comprises written accounts of the birds featured in the collection of plates that is The Birds of America. These written species accounts feature Audubon’s detailed observations of how each bird lived, bred, flew, and migrated, as well as details of the places he visited and the people he met. Though many people are familiar with Robert Havell Jr.’s prints of Audubon’s art, few people have read these written accounts.

In Audubon at Sea, these excerpts from the Ornithological Biography are divided into geographical areas: “Southern Waters” (p. 86–167), “Mid Atlantic Waters” (p. 168–87), “Western Waters” (p.188–93); and finally, “New England and Atlantic Canada” (p. 194–266). The “Western Waters” section is by far the shortest section because Audubon never made it to the Pacific, and his descriptions of species like “Dusky Albatross” (perhaps Sooty Albatross) are based on accounts or specimens sent to him.

The species described in this midsection of Audubon at Sea include Black Skimmer, the “Frigate Pelican” (Magnificent Frigatebird), Sooty Tern, American Oystercatcher, “Little Auk” (Dovekie), Gannet, “Foolish Guillemot” (Common Murre), “Wandering Shearwater” (Great Shearwater), “Razor-billed Auk” (Razorbill), and many others. Audubon at Sea also includes color plates from Birds of America that feature these species.

If you have never read Audubon’s writings, his evocative texts will be a revelation. For instance, he loved to watch birds fly and described a species flight in excited details:

The flight of the Black Skimmer is perhaps more elegant than that of any waterbirds with which I am acquainted. The great length of its narrow wings, its partially elongated forked tail, its thin body and extremely compressed bill, all appear contrived to assure it that buoyancy of motion which one cannot but admire when he sees it on the wing. It is able to maintain itself against the heaviest gale; and I believe no instance has been recorded of any bird of this species having been forced inland by the most violent storm. (p. 126)

The flight of the American-Oystercatcher is powerful, swift, elegant at times, and greatly protracted. While they were on the wing, their beauties are as effectively displayed as those of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker of our woods, the colours of which are somewhat similar. (p. 170)

All together, these biographies in Audubon at Sea capture an Audubon we are unfamiliar with—a field ornithologist used to shooting birds in a forest, taken aback by the vast flocks of birds along the shore or on breeding islands.

Many of the biographies of seabirds evoke the vastness of the regions they inhabit, the immense, shimmering canvas of the water and wide canopy of the sky, traversed effortlessly by birds who are out of human reach. “How beautifully they performed their broad gyrations;” writes Audubon about thousands of white pelicans he sees flying past him at the entrance of the St. Johns River, “and how matchless, after a while, was the marshalling of their files, as they flew past us.” (p. 17)

It was not just birds he wrote about. Audubon noted the mesmerizing color changes that passed over the body of a dorado brought aboard the deck of the ship:

It was a magnificent creature. See how it quivers in the agonies of death! Its tail flaps the hard deck, producing a sound like the rapid roll of a drum. How beautiful the changes of its colours. Now it is blue, now green, silvery, golden, and burnished copper; but alack! It is dead, and the play of its colours is no longer seen. (p. 89)

Besides these lengthy sections, Irmscher and King have also included large excerpts from two of Audubon’s journals that were originally not meant for publication.

The Journal of a Sea Voyage from New Orleans to Liverpool aboard the Delos (p. 32–75) was written in 1826. Audubon had been working on his watercolors for two decades, and this trip to England and Scotland would result in his “long partnership with the world’s best engraver, Robert Havell Jr. (1793–1878) in London, who became the co-creator of Audubon’s The Birds of America” (p. 12). This journal is in the collection of the Field Museum in Chicago. The trip aboard the brig Delos took 64 days at sea, and that is why his journal often finds Audubon bored or grumpy or both. Furthermore, he “never overcame his fear of travel on the high seas.” (p. 11) Audubon occupied his time drawing and noting bird species like petrels and noddies. Included in this section of Audubon at Sea are several of his evocative drawings of sailors working or just hanging out. He also drew a number of the species of fish caught on the trip.

Irmscher and King decided to include all of Audubon’s weird punctuation, spelling, and inconsistent capitalization that is found in this journal. For example: “-the weather was Thick foggy and as Dull as myself, Not a sound of rejoicing did reach my ear, Not once did I hear the sublime ‘Hail Columbia happy Land’ No Nothing.” (p. 54)

The second journal excerpted for Audubon at Sea is The Journal of a Collecting Voyage from Eastport to Labrador aboard the Ripley in 1833 (p. 267–308). The original journal is lost, but long sections of the journal were copied by his wife Lucy Audubon in her book The Life of John James Audubon the Naturalist (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons 1869). This voyage found the artist traveling north to the great colonies of alcids, cormorants, and gannets. He was much older by then and feeling his age—the cold, wind, and seemingly endless foul weather bothered him and hindered his drawing. Grimly prescient is Audubon’s encounter with the now extinct Eskimo Curlew. While in Labrador he shot seven “Esquimaux” Curlew but found he could not draw them properly, so the image of this species in Audubon’s book is the only one shown dead, “a dead bird that’s not another bird’s meal but simply dead.” (p. 21)

This journal account is also a grim voyage for readers because of the wanton destruction of birds and animals that Audubon witnessed. “Humans, in Audubon’s Labrador essays are no longer observers but active participants in the destruction of avian lives.” (p. 25)

When reading Audubon at Sea, one finds that in addition to all of Audubon’s wonderfully detailed descriptions of life along the coasts of North America, a far darker reality emerges. Throughout his travels he comes across people whose impact on the wildlife is nothing short of devastating, bordering on ecocide. These people include eggers, turtlers, raiders of bird colonies, fishermen, and sealers. The sheer numbers of creatures killed by these people as captured in Audubon’s writings is jaw dropping. One example:

At bird key we found a party of Spanish Eggers from Havannah. They had already laid in a cargo of about eight tons of this Tern and the Noddy. On asking them how many they supposed they had, they answered that they never counted them, even while selling them, but disposed of them at seventy-five cents per gallon. (p. 147)

Things are no better in the northern regions he visits. In Labrador he comes across a hellish sight: a stinking pile of 1500 seal carcasses, rotting on the shore, being torn apart by dogs. To the sealers this was a good day’s work. At times it seems that no matter where he travels, Audubon comes across examples of humanity wreaking havoc on the birds and animals of that area. You realize that there used to be flocks of thousands of breeding birds in a number of places, thousands of seals, dense schools of fish. Bird and animal life was abundant along the coasts of North America before the coming of the Europeans. Reading Audubon’s accounts, you learn how quickly this natural world was violently wasted and mourn for the loss of what used to be here. But the most disturbing aspect of Audubon’s texts is that the reader comes to realize that Audubon was very much a part of this raping of the wild.

As Irmscher and King note: “To Audubon, the fishermen who killed thousands of guillemots in a day, plucking their feathers and throwing the bodies into the sea (July 23), must have seemed a monstrous caricature of himself and his pursuits.” (p. 268–69) Audubon shot many hundreds of birds in a day, much more than he needed to procure specimens. And these examples of mass slaughter are exciting to him. Here are a few examples from his Labrador journal:

The discharging of their guns produced no other effect than to cause the birds killed or severely wounded to fall into the water, for the cries of the countless multitudes drowned every other noise. The party had their clothes smeared with the nauseous excrements of hundreds of gannets and other birds, which in shooting off from their nests caused numerous eggs to fall, of which some were procured entire. The confusion on and around the rock was represented as baffling all descriptions; and as we gazed on the mass now gradually fading on our sight, we all judged it well worth the while to cross the ocean to see such a sight. (p. 202)

One place, in particular, was full of birds; it was a horizontal fissure, about two feet in height, and thirty or forty yards in depth. We crawled slowly into it, and as the birds affrightened flew hurriedly past us by hundreds, many eggs were smashed. The farther we advanced, the more dismal cries of the birds sound in our ears. Many of them, despairing of effecting their escape, crept into surrounding recesses. Having collected as many of them and their eggs as we could, we returned, and glad were we once more to breathe fresh air. No sooner were we out than the cracks of the sailors’ guns echoed among the rocks. Rare fun to the tars, in fact, was every such trip, and, when we joined them, they had a pile of Auks on the rocks near them. The birds flew directly towards the muzzles of the guns, as readily as in any other course, and therefore it needed little dexterity to shoot them. (p. 242)

In Labrador particularly, the slaughter of birds seemed never ending. As Irmscher and King note:

Thus, we see them stumbling through a landscape littered with the smelly carcasses of birds, many of them not killed by poachers, but by his own party. Audubon’s lyrical landscape descriptions become mere bookends to ornithological kill-fests, rendered in often excruciating detail. (p. 19)

The reader realizes, as Irmscher and King note: “No amount of contextualizing will allow us to airbrush Audubon into the St. Francis of the animal world.” (p. 310) At least during his Labrador trip, it seemed he began to realize what was happening. While talking about the disappearance of the indigenous people of an area, he notes:

I replied, I think not, they are disappearing here from insufficiency of food and physical comforts, and the loss of all hope, as he loses sight of all that was abundant before the white man came, intruded on his land, and his herds of wild animals, and deprived him of the furs with which he clothed himself. Nature herself is perishing. (p. 290–91)

Yet despite writing that, in what seems like an extreme example of cognitive dissonance, Audubon continues his mass harvesting of specimens. What was he thinking? Irmscher and King wonder too. “If he was genuinely concerned about nature perishing, why then did he represent himself, on so many occasions, as contributing to the problem?” (p. 310)

But this killing is by no means the only serious problem that Audubon presents the modern reader. “Confronting Audubon’s complicity in white supremacy is essential, a prerequisite for diversifying a field still dominated by white naturalists.” (p. 313)

The person we know today as John James Audubon was born “Jean Rabin” in Saint-Dominique, what is now known as Haiti. At the time of his birth, Saint-Dominique was “the greatest individual market for the European slave trade, a place of incomprehensible brutality.” (p. 9) His father, Capitaine Jean Audubon, participated in the “business of selling and buying human beings.” (p. 9) His family owned slaves, and Audubon as an adult owned slaves. When the slaves in Haiti began to revolt, Jean Rabin was sent to live with his sisters in Nantes, France, and later returned to America. As an adult, he would lie about his birthplace.

Throughout his writings, he maintained racist ideas about black Americans and indigenous people. Read his own writings in Audubon at Sea to get a sense of this bigotry. Irmscher and King confront this issue head on and present the facts. There is no avoiding the evidence about Audubon and John Muir, who also held racist and demeaning ideas about blacks and indigenous people, and it is time we look again and re-evaluate how we write about and reconsider these figures of American conservation and natural history. It is time to start a conversation about whether “Audubon” is an appropriate name for any conservation organization. In some parts of the country, this conversation has already begun:


Apologists will harp that Audubon was simply a man of his time, a time when people owned slaves and shot thousands of birds. But as Irmscher and King quote Drew Lanham from his piece in Audubon Magazine:

Sure enough, Muir and Audubon were “men of their time,” as the usual exculpatory narrative goes, but they failed to be “men ahead of their time.” (p. 313)

It is those men and women who were “ahead of their time” that we should hold in high esteem and name organizations after. Audubon at Sea is an outstanding contribution to the vast literature about John James Audubon because it presents his own voice. The two long sections from his private journals are a revelation to read and will be new for most readers. Irmscher and King’s introductions and footnotes add the needed commentary to Audubon’s writing. This book will forever change the way you think about the legendary artist/naturalist. Perhaps the best you can say about Audubon is only this:

As an artist, he sought to preserve birds for eternity; as a naturalist, he hunted them, killed them (by the barrelful), and often ate them too. (p. 2)

To listen to my interview with Christoph Irmscher and Richard J. King, go to:


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