John James Audubon’s Great Footed Hawk & Barred Owl
On view in From Audubon to Sisto: Highlights from the Permanent Collection January 26-April 1, 2023
Can you imagine not having the internet to learn about animals? In the 1800s, knowledge of most animals was still scarce and difficult to access. John James Audubon was among many who pursued more information about the world around us, in his case, birds!
Audubon was born in 1785 in Haiti, then a French colony called Saint-Domingue. In his youth, Audubon developed an interest in art and natural science. Audubon found his way to America at 18, likely to avoid being drafted for Napoleon’s war.
Audubon lived in what some call the golden age for naturalists–people who study nature, like plants and animals–because there was so much to discover and learn. Audubon took on the ambitious project of illustrating birds in America, completing 1,065 birds representing 489 species in his book The Birds of America (1827-1838), which contains 435 hand-colored engravings based on Audubon’s paintings.
The significance of his work is not only the quantity but the quality. Ornithologists–people who study birds–in the 1800s created images of birds, but they were of birds in profile with static poses, identifying a species for all its characteristics. Audubon blended scientific accuracy with color and motion. He was among the first to draw birds as they lived daily, including their environment.¹ He also created life-size paintings and insisted the prints for Birds of America be the same scale, which required a special paper referred to as “double elephant” paper–at 29.5 inches by 39.5 inches, it was the largest paper available.
Carnegie Center’s exhibition, From Audubon to Sisto: Highlights from the Permanent Collection contains two of Audubon’s prints. The earliest one is from 1827 of the Great Footed Hawk, also known as the Peregrine Falcon. In Audubon’s work, we see two hawks feeding, lurching over the prey protectively as we, the viewer, interrupt their meal. While the background behind the bird is blank, the environment is visible; based on the gray stone-colored ground. Today it is known that the Great Footed Hawk prefers the cliffs (mountains to cliffs) in addition to the country and some cities. Audubon’s Ornithological Biography or an Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America describes how nests rest on shelves of rocks, and Audubon has spotted the hawk in “crevices of high cliffs.”² Speaking directly to Plate XVI of the Great Footed Hawk, Audubon boldly explains:
“… you will see a pair [of Great Footed Hawks] enjoying themselves over a brace of ducks of different species. Very likely, were tame ducks as plentiful on the plantations in our States, as wild ducks are on our rivers, lakes and estuaries…
Look at these two pirates eating their déjeuné à la fourchette, as it were, congratulating each other on the savoriness of the food in their grasp. One might think them real epicures, but they are in fact true gluttons. The male has obtained possession of a Green-winged Teal, while his mate has procured a Gadwal Duck. Their appetites are equal to their reckless daring, and they well deserve the name of “Pirates,” which I have above bestowed upon them.”
With a flourish of description, Audubon narrates the story he has illustrated to describe what he observes as the nature of the Great Footed Hawk. Through image and description, we can perceive the Great Footed Hawks as bold creatures indulging in their hunger by any means to satisfaction. Audubon observed the Great Footed Hawk close to New Albany, in Louisville, KY.³
Unlike the Great Footed Hawk Audubon spotted in Louisville, he saw the Barred Owl on the Ohio River. Audubon’s Barred Owl depicts the creature with an open beak creating a noise that Audubon describes as “discordant screams,” which he compares to the sounds of bursts of laughter. Today, the Barred Owl hoot is described as a “rich baritone” for pairs to call back and forth to each other, also occurring when hunting. Which noise can you imagine coming from the owl in Audubon’s print, a discordant scream or a rich baritone? Regardless, the squirrel seems utterly unfazed by the looming predator.
While there is always more to say about these prints and the extraordinarily complicated artist, I implore you to visit and explore the works and gather your own interpretations.
- John James Audubon was not the first to attempt to paint and describe all the birds of America. Alexander Wilson wrote a nine-volume Ornithology, which is considered the first account of America’s birdlife, containing illustrations of 268 species and predating John James Audubon’s well-known The Birds of America by over a decade.
- We now know that all of Audubon’s research isn’t entirely accurate. In addition to the contemporaneous and posthumous accusations of academic fraud and plagiarism, he did make great efforts to accurately capture the scale of the Great Footed Hawk, including the measurements of two adults in his Ornithological Biography.
- Audubon states, “These birds sometimes roost in the hollows of trees. I saw one resorting for weeks every night to a hole in a dead sycamore, near Louisville in Kentucky. It generally came to the place a little before sunset, alighted on the dead branches, and in a short time after flew into the hollow, where it spent the night, and from whence I saw it issuing at dawn.”
By: Sheridan Bishoff
Interested in learning more? There are several books available at Floyd County Library for additional reading on John James Audubon! Explore here: https://nafcl.tlcdelivers.com/#section=search&term=John%20James%20Audubon