Audubon's Birds A brief look

Audubon's masterwork, The Birds of America, was published from 1827 through 1838 and consists of 435 hand colored prints made from engraved copper plates and printed on double elephant sized sheets of paper.

In the early 1800s John James Audubon traveled extensively and painted the birds that he saw using watercolors, pastel crayons, pencil, charcoal, chalk, gouache, and pen and ink. In 1810 while he was working in a shop in Louisville Kentucky, he encountered ornithologist Alexander Wilson.

Plate 17, Carolina Turtle Doves

Wilson was out to discover and document for the Western world, the birds of North America for his multi-volume book American Ornithology. He shared some of his paintings and asked Audubon to subscribe to his book. In his journals, Audubon says that he was about to subscribe when a friend pointed out that Audubon’s paintings were better. This encounter set him off on a 28 year project to document and publish his own work, which would become the double elephant folio Birds of America.

Plate 21, Mocking birds - George Ord, ornithologist and friend of Wilson, accused Audubon of inaccuracy and pandering to the public with overly dramatic images like this one.

Audubon took his paintings to Scotland where he worked with engraver William Lizars to print the first ten images.

Plate 7, Purple Grackle engraved by Lizars.

When Lizars developed labor problems, Audubon took his project to England and began working with up and coming expert printer Robert Havell, Jr., with whom he completed the work.

Plate 47, Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Audubon decided that his work would be printed on one of the largest size sheets of paper called a double elephant folio. This would allow the birds to be printed at life size or as close as he could get. The paper was still not large enough for the biggest birds causing some of them to have awkward poses, like this one of the Great Blue Heron.

Plate 211, Great Blue Heron

While Havell worked to print the paintings that Audubon brought him, Audubon went back to North America to paint more birds. He also made sales calls to the wealthy and titled families of Europe and North America.

Plate 206, Summer Wood Duck

The Birds of America were sold as an ongoing subscription and the prints were delivered in sets of five images. Each set included three small prints, like this one of the goldfinches...

Plate 33, American Goldfinch

...a medium sized print, like this one...

Plate 333, Green Heron

...and a large print, like this one of the Brown Pelican. A subscriber got approximately eight sets per year over the course of eleven years. Once a subscriber had all 435 prints, they would hire a book binder to bind their set of prints.

Plate 251, Brown Pelican

Audubon's images were not just beautiful but, unlike previous catalogs of birds, they were full of action, tension, and sometimes violence.

Plate 16, Great-footed Hawk or Peregrine Falcon

Audubon captured several species which would become extinct, including the ivory billed woodpecker...

Plate 66, Ivory Billed Woodpecker

...and the social Carolina Parrot.

Plate 26, Carolina Parrot

Transylvania’s copy of Audubon’s double elephant folio Birds of America was given to us in the 1980s by Clara Peck, an important rare book collector and heir to the Woolworth fortune. She lived in upstate New York, but also had a horse farm here in Lexington, Kentucky called Winganeek where she bred saddlebred horses. Because of her friendship with librarian Roemel Henry, part of her rare book collection was gifted to Transylvania.

This amazing and beautiful book is used in course work at Transylvania by courses like Dr. Becky Fox’s ornithology course, Jack Girard’s drawing classes, Martha Gehringer’s course on nature writing and others.

It was digitized in 2017 by Dr. James Wagner and student Nikki Fox and these images were used to create this presentation.

Text & layout by Susan Brown, Library Director

Visual layout coaching from Kevin Johnson, Digitization and Metadata Specialist


Burns, Frank. “Alexander Wilson The Audubon Controversy.” March 1908 The Wilson Bulletin. Vol 20 No. 1.

Boarman, Don. "Audubon’s Masterpiece: The Double Elephant Folio Edition of The Birds of America." Transylvania Treasures 1.2 (Spring 2008) p. 2.

William Home Lizars. Wikipedia.

John James Audubon Center

National Audubon Society Birds of America

Recommended further reading and viewing:

Hart-Davis, Duff. Audubon's Elephant : America's Greatest Naturalist and the Making of the Birds of America. Henry Holt and Company, 2004.

Rhodes, Richard. Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

Garey, Diane, and Ken Chowder. John James Audubon : Drawn from Nature. American Masters series. Bullfrog Films, 2006.

Explore the 435 prints in more detail courtesy of the John James Audubon Center in Pennsylvania.