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Carolina Parakeets

Thursday, November 11, 2010

When I think of John James Audubon, I think of an itinerant naturalist/painter, roaming from one drawing opportunity to the next, perhaps carrying a big portfolio of works in progress under his arm. I think about the difficulty of curating paintings like this, what with mice and bugs and fire and rain and mildew. All my original work is either framed or lain away in darkness in secure oaken or metal flat files, groaning now with the weight of the paper within.

How can it be that ALL  470 of Audubon's original watercolors (and with gifts to the New-York Historical Society, four more) have survived intact and in more or less pristine condition to this day? At the height of the Civil War, the Society purchased by subscription all of Audubon's original work from his widow, Lucy Bakewell Audubon. And it is to Audubon, to her, and to the N-YHS we owe this incredible legacy, this gift beyond value. They all survived, and they are all in one secure place, carefully curated, each one in its own baker's box on shelves in humidity-controlled conditions.

It defies belief, but there they all are, and I was looking at one of my very favorites, if not my favorite, Audubon painting with a magnifying glass and tears starting in my eyes.

The only parrot native to the United States was a beautiful little doozy, Conuropsis carolinensis. Like almost all parrots, it flocked and chattered and squabbled, searching for fruits and seeds in the bottomland forests and croplands of a settling nation.

Audubon's words:  " The woods are the habitation best fitted for them, and there the richness of their plumage, their beautiful mode of flight, and even their screams, afford welcome intimation that our darkest forests and most sequestered swamps are not destitute of charms. "

 To an orchardist, a rainbow-colored flock of Carolina parakeets descending on a row of peach trees was a most unwelcome sight. Before the days of scare tactics--tapes of distressed birds, played at high volume--before the days of conservation--before it occurred to us that nature may not renew itself inexhaustibly--we shot them.  By 1832, Audubon  noted that they were declining.

"Our Parakeets are very rapidly diminishing in number; and in some districts, where twenty-five years ago they were plentiful, scarcely any are now to be seen. At that period, they could be procured as far up the tributary waters of the Ohio as the Great Kenhawa, the Scioto, the heads of Miami, the mouth of the Manimee at its junction with Lake Erie, on the Illinois river, and sometimes as far north-east as Lake Ontario, and along the eastern districts as far as the boundary line between Virginia and Maryland. At the present day, very few are to be found higher than Cincinnati, nor is it until you reach the mouth of the Ohio that Parakeets are met with in considerable numbers. I should think that along the Mississippi there is not now half the number that existed fifteen years ago."

We shot them, and the still-living birds would circle and try to attend to fallen flockmates, so we shot those, too, until there were no more Carolina parakeets anywhere. They made splendid decorations for hats; they were taken for pets; they were simply wasted in every way we could waste them. The last free-flying wild flock was spotted by Frank Chapman in 1904. The last wild specimen, collected in Orlando, Florida in 1913. (Before Disney World, there were ivory-billed woodpeckers in Orlando, too. Must've been a heck of a place before the "Magic Kingdom" replaced the real magic kingdom.)

  A pair, Incas and Lady Jane, survived for 32 years in an aviary at the Cincinnati Zoo, the same aviary that had housed Martha, the last passenger pigeon. Lady Jane died in 1917, and Incas followed soon after on February 18, 1918. Another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.

 But here they were, as close to alive as anyone could make them, a whole flock of what must have been Audubon's favorite bird, too, judging from the love with which he drew them. The top male had 14 tail feathers instead of the usual 12, so Audubon spread his tail and made notes about it in his journal.

He's got the chaotic psittacine flock dynamic spot-on--bickering, biting, pirating, squabbling, scratching and preening. Parrots are such fun to watch as they constantly relate to one another. The composition flows in a graceful S-curve. Audubon drew his birds directly onto the watercolor paper. I, on the other hand, draw tracing paper dummies, which I Xerox and then cut and tape into endless combinations until I'm satisfied with the composition. Sometimes I'll spend most of a day composing and recomposing a painting, and then come in the next morning and tear it all apart and do it over. when I finally have a composition I like,  I put the taped-together construction on a big lightbox and trace my drawings onto the watercolor paper. I cannot imagine creating a composition like this, of life-sized birds, while drawing each one directly onto the paper. Each one is perfect! It boggles my mind.

In the lower tier, a green-headed juvenile, just trying out its own cocklebur pod, but probably still being fed by its parents. Its wings, loosely held to its body; a psittaciphile can almost see them shaking as it begs from its nearby parent.

The lower right bird, just launching itself right at the viewer in a gorgeous head-on shot that shows the blossom-like orange face to perfection.

 With a strong light aimed for a few moments, we could see the pencil lines Audubon inscribed over the paint, creating the effect of individual feather barbules. So masterful is his handling of the feather structure and the lights and darks, that each feather seems to lift off the paper and glow with iridescence. It's hard to describe until you see it close up, and it's hard to see when your eyes are full of tears. I was afraid I'd drip on them, so I had to step back. Though I've held their skins in my hand, I know that, through Audubon's incredible hand, this original watercolor is the closest I'll ever be to a live Carolina parakeet.

My own feeble attempt at capturing an extinct bird, 2001. I include it most humbly, to illustrate my point that genius is genius, and transcends time and space.  Audubon's birds are alive! and mine are kind of silly by comparison. Like I said, Audubon's the man, forever and always.

Thanks to my new friend Charles Alexander for digging out the Audubon quotes.


He, and we all, did owe and do owe a great deal to Lucy!

This has long been my favorite Audubon painting as well, but I know nothing about art; just know what I like... thanks for fleshing out some of the reasons this painting is so entrancing to the untrained eye.
And yeah, parrots ROCK!

Audubon's paintings are so exquisite. Details rendered with so much love. The story of the parrots' decline and demise is a heartbreak repeated much too often. To think they were gone before I even drew my first breath, I feel denied a birthright to their beauty.(And I feel that way about all the birds and animals who were sent to their extinction by our hungers.)

What they all said, and besides that--thanks for sharing your methods too. One always wonders what separates tiers of artists, and I'll share my bottom-rung story too. I sometimes do what you describe, which is perfect for composition. But can I get the lighting right, when one subject shines from the east and one from the south? I can't ever get it right.

In case you're wondering, sometimes I do that with fabric, too. I get a whole fabric dog done up (say), all floppy, and move him around till he's ter home.

But enough about me. That Audubon fellow--I think he'll go far.

Your words about these birds' extinction brought tears to my eyes. Man's inhumanity to its neighbors on this planet breaks my heart and angers me so; I do look forward to another heaven and earth where they will all live again with humans who will no longer "kill nor destroy in all My holy mountain." Until then, people like you who appreciate and care for all creatures make this a better place. Thanks.

What do you think about birds in cages?

Beautiful essay. I just discovered you via the Audobon society. It seems like you somehow managed to live the life I've imagined for myself. Drawing birds for a living. the most noble profession next to a poet...

Thanks for this informative article. JJ Audubon's originals survived, but many of his "Birds of America" books were lost or damaged. North Carolina is lucky to have the entire four-volume set, all 435 hand-colored plates, restored, and on display in our NC Museum of Art in Raleigh. I hope you will come and visit this exhibit soon! More info can be found at

What a thoughtful and thorough post, Julie. Thanks for taking us along for your visit to the work of a truly great artist. We owe him so much.

PS I like your painting of the Carolina Parakeets, too.

Maria, if "noble" equates to "hungry," you've hit it on the nose. Thank you for your kind words and support. I'm glad you've found the blog, and hope you'll come back.

Elizabeth, I'm still hacking away at it, but looking at Audubon's work while painting my own is like telling Yo Yo Ma you play a little cello.


This is my favorite too! Thanks for sharing so much about it!

As you know, Julie, this is my favorite Audubon, too, and one of the sadder stories of natural history in the 1800's. Thanks for this blog.

I too love the Carolina Parakeet. I remember seeing that image in a book as a child and being fascinated with the idea that maybe a few still existed.

Now I live in a place where I regularly see flocks on quaker/monk parakeets and other conures and small parrots. I imagine they are Carolina Parakeet . :-)

I love Audubon's talent for seeing and recreating the personality of the birds. This one looks like a wild party.

A melodious homage. Thanks for giving me a point of entry into an artist whose work never moved me.

Posted by Anonymous November 13, 2010 at 5:46 AM

what a great hunk of sharp criticism for those of us who don't know how it is/was/is done. Great entry. Thanks!XOM.

Posted by Anonymous November 13, 2010 at 5:39 PM

As you know from the message we exchanged, I'm about to embark on a Carolina Parakeet painting myself. Thank you so much for this post, as it gives an "artist's eye" view of the parakeets to go along with the more straight biological and behavioral research that I'm doing.

The week before you posted this, I was at the American Museum of History in New York, having gotten permission to access the parakeet specimens in the rare and endangered bird room.

I spent all day with 50 skins and a half dozen or so mounts and was allowed to handle them bare-handed, measure, photograph and sketch them. I had to remind myself that I was handling a bird that doesn't exist anymore, the mounts and skins were so beautiful. I just hope I can do the bird justice.

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