About us: We own the Wild Birds Unlimited nature shop in East Lansing, Michigan,
a store that provides a wide variety of supplies to help you enjoy the birdwatching hobby.

This blog was created to answer frequently asked questions & to share nature stories and photographs.
To contribute, email me at bloubird@gmail.com.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Audubon's First Engraving of a Bird Discovered

A 200-year-old mystery has finally been solved.

PHILADELPHIA—In 1824 John James Audubon (1785-1851), the eminent artist of American birds and animals, created a drawing of a running grouse for use in the design for a New Jersey bank note. Although the artist mentions the drawing and the resulting engraved paper money in two separate diary entries, no one has ever been able to locate or identify such an illustration.

Now, after a decade-long search by an Audubon scholar from Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences and a numismatic historian from St. Louis, Audubon's first published illustration of a bird has been discovered.

The effort to find Audubon's missing bank note illustration dates back to the 1950s. Every Audubon scholar since then has met with failure -- until now.
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Robert M. Peck, curator of art and artifacts and senior fellow at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and Eric Newman, a currency historian, studied 19th century American banking and engraving companies known to manufacture paper money in Audubon's time.
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The men traced the different engravings of one particular bank note artist, Gideon Fairman (1774-1827), and discovered that Audubon had given him the Heath Hen drawing.
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The grouse image was eventually discovered on sample sheets of engraved bank notes in a private collection according to an Academy of Natural Sciences press release. The illustration did wind up on proof bank notes made for at least two independent banks, the academy said.
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However, because the notes were used in Connecticut and Ohio and made years after the artist's initial contact with Fairman, they were not identified as Audubon's handiwork.
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Peck and Newman trace their discovery in the upcoming issue of the Journal of the Early Republic.
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Unfortunately the Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) that Audubon depicted has since gone extinct. Heath hens were so cheap and plentiful in their habitat during Colonial times they had a reputation as poor man's food. Overhunting led to their rapid decline and eventual extinction. However Heath hens were one of the first bird species that Americans tried to save from extinction. As early as 1791, a bill "for the preservation of heath-hen and other game" was introduced, and even though it was ultimately unsuccessful, it paved the way for conservation of other species.

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