Audubon's The Birds of America

Time Period
1825 to 1860
1861 to 1876
Art & Architecture
Geography & Environment

Exploring "Viviparous Quadrupeds" in the VMHC Research Library

John James Audubon’s pioneering contributions toward natural history, art, and conservation are still extremely influential today. In the VMHC collections are several rare editions of his work, including a first edition of Viviparous Quadrupeds (Rare Books folio QL715 .A916 1845) and the 1st Octavo edition of The Birds of America (Rare Books QL674 .A92 1840/44).

Audubon’s original Birds of America is his most famous work and consisted of 435 hand-illustrated prints measuring roughly 39 by 29 inches. The work was published from 1827 to 1838 in installments to subscribers, and only 119 copies are known to still exist. These books are extremely valuable today, and of the ten most expensive books of all time, five are The Birds of America.


White Breasted Nuthatches

The Royal Octavo edition of Birds of America was Audubon’s attempt to make his work available to a wider audience. Published between 1839 and 1844, the Royal Octavo consisted of seven smaller volumes and combined the plates with text from Ornithological Biography, which was written to accompany The Birds of America but was published separately. It added some new species, which brought the total number of plates to 500, and it replaced the etching of the original prints with stone lithography. The new volumes were more financially successful for Audubon and allowed him to enjoy the rest of his life in relative prosperity. 

Audubon’s images are the undeniable stars of the volumes, but the accompanying text makes for an interesting and often entertaining read. Though Audubon’s work has plenty of mistakes, his correct discoveries and insightful observations far outnumber them and are often revealed in both his plates and texts, such as with the White-Breasted Nuthatch: "It moves alertly, however, when searching for food, climbing or retrograding downwards or sidewise, with cheerfulness and a degree of liveliness, which distinguish it at once from other birds.” Audubon combined his description with a perfect illustration (Nuthatch #2) of this distinctive behavior. The Royal Octavos are also home to Audubon’s less heralded but still quite excellent anatomical sketches, such as the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. 


Ivory Billed Woodpecker

We also find evidence of Audubon’s love and appreciation of nature and some eloquent passages in favor of conservation. His defense of the American Crow, a frequently reviled bird, is a lengthy and persuasive paragraph, concluding with the plea, “I cannot but wish that they would reflect a little, and become more indulgent toward our poor, humble, harmless, and even most serviceable bird, the Crow.” His sentiments, however, were apparently tempered with pragmatism, as he later noted: “In conclusion, I would again address our farmers, and tell them that if they persist in killing Crows, the best season for doing so is when their corn begins to ripen.” 

These Royal Octavo editions, though not nearly as rare or valuable as his original folio editions, provide a fantastic opportunity to enjoy Audubon’s art and writing through an exciting piece of history. 

This article was written by Tony Walters while serving as a Library Clerk at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. 

Yellow-Billed Cuckoo
Belted Kingfisher

Here is Audubon’s Belted Kingfisher. (QL674.A92.1840_44.Rare.v4.Pl255) 

Common Mockingbird
Common Blue Bird
Red-Tailed Buzzard
Black-Crowned Night Heron