Nikon Monarch 7

aba events

Audubon’s Little Ruff-necks

This coming spring, we will have what may be for many of us the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see more than 100 of the watercolors John James Audubon prepared for his Birds of America, the original art from which the plates of that most famous of American picture books were engraved. In 1863, Lucy Audubon, impoverished to the point of desperation, sold all 435 of her late husband’s works to the New-York Historical Society. Beginning in 2013, these monuments of early American natural history and art have been exhibited in three installments, the last of which will hang from March 6 to May 10, 2015, in New York.

Audubon on his return from the Missouri

Among the paintings to be exhibited next year is the original of Plate 379, the ruff-necked hummingbird—a species we now know as the rufous hummingbird, the ABA 2014 Bird of the Year. Contrary to the claim made in the caption of the published plate—“Drawn from Nature by J.J. Audubon F.R.S. F.L.S.”—most of this watercolor, produced in Charleston in late 1836 or 1837, was the work of another artist, Audubon’s “amiable friend” Maria Martin, the sister-in-law and later the wife of John Bachman. Both the hummingbird nest and the attractive cleome beeplant were “figured” by Martin, while Audubon’s own contribution comprised only the three birds, two males feeding acrobatically at the flowers and a quizzical female perched on the edge of her nest.

Audubon, Birds of America 379, rufous hummingbird

In addition to their aura of authenticity and originality, many of Audubon’s watercolors preserve the artist’s notes, to himself, his publishers, and his collaborators. The hummingbird painting is annotated with instructions to the engraver:

Mr Havell will please to place the lower portion of the nest at point a marked above and take off the leaf now there—this will make the plate less, and [make] for a better calm position,

a direction Havell entirely ignored in engraving the plate for publication.

A close look at the penciled notations also reveals Audubon’s efforts to determine the correct nomenclature for a bird still so little known. As if reminding himself to look, he cites John Latham’s account of the ruff-necked hummingbird in the General Synopsis, and considers—then crosses out—two alternative names, “ruffed humming bird” and “Nootka Sound humming bird.” Finally, he turns the whole matter over to one of his sons:

Victor must look in Swainson & Richardon’s Fauna borealis—for the name both English & Latin given to this bird.

Dutiful Victor Audubon most likely did look it up, but in his published works, the elder Audubon preferred Latham’s common name “ruff-necked” to Swainson’s “cinnamon, or Nootka humming-bird.” We can only guess how much that decision owed to the personal bitterness that had arisen between Audubon and his on-again-off-forever friend.

Similar notes and queries adorn most of the paintings in the exhibition. Come see them for yourself—and get a first-hand look into the creation of a classic of American natural history.


The following two tabs change content below.
Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright studied French, German, philosophy, and biology at the University of Nebraska. Following a detour to Harvard Law School, he took the Ph.D. at Princeton University in 1990. He held appointments as Assistant Professor of German at the University of Illinois, Reader in Art and Archaeology at Princeton, and Associate Professor of Medieval Studies at Fordham. Rick was a department editor at Birding from 2004 to 2008 and editor of Winging It from 2005 to 2007. He leads birding and birds-and-art tours for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and lives in northern New Jersey with his wife, Alison Beringer, and their chocolate lab, Gellert.
Rick Wright

Latest posts by Rick Wright (see all)

American Birding Podcast
Birders know well that the healthiest, most dynamic choruses contain many different voices. The birding community encompasses a wide variety of interests, talents, and convictions. All are welcome.
If you like birding, we want to hear from you.
Read More »

Recent Comments

  • Nate, in Rare Bird Alert: October 13, 2017... { That's fair about the weather timing. I recall the observers saying something about Hurricane Nate being involved, but how much is not clear. As to... }
  • Gary Bloomfield, in Birding with a Tricorder... { Great essay, Ted! Feel sorry for the guy in the photo who's wearing a red shirt, though. }
  • Steve Shultz, in Rare Bird Alert: October 13, 2017... { I believe the NC swift was seen on Saturday, October 7 (unless the date indicated by the observer on the photo was incorrect). Nate did... }
  • Rick Wright, in #ABArare - Yellow-breasted Bunting - Newfoundland & Labrador... { What a great bird! Sadly topical: }
  • Nate, in Rare Bird Alert: October 13, 2017... { Whoops. You're right. Those I names turned me around. I'll fix when I get a chance. Sent from my phone }
  • Older »




ABA's FREE Birder's Guide

If you live nearby, or are travelling in the area, come visit the ABA Headquarters in Delaware City.

Beginning this spring we will be having bird walks, heron watches and evening cruises, right from our front porch! Click here to view the full calender, and register for events >>

via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

  • Open Mic: Young Birder Camp at Hog Island: Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens September 11, 2017 3:07
    At the mic: Dessi Sieburth, an avid birder, photographer, and conservationist, is a 10th grader at Saint Francis High School in La Canada, California. He is a member of the Pasadena Audubon Young Birder’s Club and Western Field Ornithologists. Dessi enjoys birding in his home county of Los Angeles. Last summer, Dessi attended Camp Colorado, […]
  • Introducing the Whimbrel Birders Club! September 7, 2017 2:33
    Whimbrel Birders Club was established at the first annual Illinois Young Birders Symposium in August 2016. We are a birding club truly meant for everyone, no matter your age, disability, or ethnicity. […]
  • Open Mice: Kestrels–An Iowa Legacy May 16, 2017 6:29
    A few years ago, a short drive down my gravel road would yield at least one, if not two, American Kestrels perched on a power line or hovering mid-air above the grassy ditch. Today, I have begun to count myself lucky to drive past a mere one kestrel per week rather than the daily sightings. […]

Follow ABA on Twitter