Tag Archives: ornithology

“The Birds of America” by John James Audubon – the most valuable book in the world!

Copies of the elephant folio version “The Birds of America” by John James Audubon are very rare. The Library of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia was a subscriber to the original edition of this mighty work. And you can see it whenever the Library is open, which is almost every working day!

I visited the Academy last week. At 3 pm, it was announced that the daily page turning was about to take place. The folio rests in a climate controlled cabinet. Each day at 3:15, it is opened and a Library employee wearing white gloves turns a page so a new print can be appreciated. To me, there’s something magical about a really old book, especially one that is in such lovely condition.

I was not the only spectator for the page turning. I chatted with another guest and also the employee who turned the page. He was not well informed about the bird revealed (a gallinule), being a historian rather than an ornithologist, but he willingly went on line to check when I asked him if the folio included a picture of the black vulture, the newest bird on my (non-existent) life list. Yes, Audubon painted my favorite scavenger.

Turning one page each working day means the entire collection of 435 prints can be viewed in about two years. Not more than 200 copies of the elephant folio were produced, and 119 can now be accounted for. Thirteen are in private hands. The value of a complete set is about $12,000,000, but they are seldom sold.

What makes this book so wonderful? There’s the artistry. The plates were produced by copper etching and aquatint, followed by hand application of water color. They are detailed and very beautiful. The birds look alive, although they were painted from skins and mounted specimens.

Audubon later produced smaller prints of the original works, and now, of course, all is available digitally on line. But there’s nothing quite like gazing at the old, fragile pages and enjoying their color and detail. Go and see this treasure! It is breathtaking.

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“Bird of Jove” by David Bruce

I found this book in an unlikely place, the gift shop of the Cape May Bird Observatory, which was about to close for the summer. There were the “real” books, the sale books, the donated books, and finally a shelf of books marked “no further reduction”. I can’t resist a bargain. I purchased “Bird of Jove” for one dollar.

“Bird of Jove” was published in 1971. It tells of the purchase of a rare Burkut eagle by an Englishman, Sam Barnes, who was traveling in a remote part of Kirgistan. Barnes was a naturalist and falconer. He was able to buy the rare eagle only because she suffered from a disease not curable in that isolated part of Asia. The eagle was cured quite simply with a common antibiotic, but getting Atalanta (as he eventually named her) to England was a monumental task in itself.

Living with (and training) a wild eagle in a small Welsh seaside resort town was challenging. Barnes and Atalanta had to cope with tourists (mostly harmless), aggressive motorcycles gangs and, to top it off, a fire bombing by Welsh ultranationalists. Time and again, Barnes had to nurse his terrified and sometimes injured eagle back to health and calmness.

Barnes says of falconry that a falconer must be “a practicing field naturalist first” and must also study folklore, history, botany and medicine.

This book raises SO many interesting questions! Is falconry an art and science that brings out good qualities in both human and animal, or is it a cynical exploitation of a wild creature? What is “intelligence” and what is “instinct”? When a trainer “dominates” a bird, does that behavior parallel anything seen in nature?

Barnes (and Bruce) anthropomorphize (make human) Atalanta a great deal. When they speak of her having a “temper”, what do they really mean? Might they be seeing something quite different, like fear or some other survival instinct? A bird may, to us, look “proud”, but I don’t believe it can feel “proud”. So what are we really seeing?

A part of the book I found especially endearing was Barnes’s efforts to deal with Atalanta’s natural cycle of mating, brooding and nurture of offspring. There was no eagle in England as a potential mate. Atalanta’s instincts led her to try to make a nest. She did it very badly – in the wild, the male would do most of the work. She laid two sterile eggs, and brooded them lovingly. Barnes was distressed for her. By chance, he found a nestling owl and decided to put it under Atalanta, taking away one of her eggs at the same time. Atalanta “adopted” the owlet, so Barnes got a second one, setting up a foster family. This seemingly logical step was complicated by the fact that owls and eagles don’t work the same shift! The owlets were active at night, when Atalanta’s daily rhythm led her to sleep. One owlet, which was driving Atalanta crazy, was soon returned to its original nest. The other was happy as an adopted eagle, until the age when baby eagles are normally driven away by their parents. Interestingly, the owl parents had never lost track of it and had continued to show up regularly with mice and other tidbits. So both baby owls returned to the wild, apparently unharmed by their temporary lives as eagle chicks.

This book is a wonderful read for anyone who loves animals and nature. David Bruce tells a great story. The book ends when Barnes leaves on an expedition seeking a mate for Atalanta.

“Bird of Jove” is dated, and I plan to go looking for “the rest of the story”, but I wanted to examine it first without “outside” input. Stay tuned!