Skip to Content
Search Icon

Arts and Letters

Millions of Songsters

Birds of North America, by the Audubon Society


Birds of North America

Audubon Society

Knopf, pp.912, $49.95

I first became aware of birds when I was six and a tufted titmouse slammed into the big glass window near my school desk. My whole class ran outside and gathered around its lifeless grey body. Our teacher briefly explained how to identify it, and, after silencing some (oops) tittering about its name, he buried it.

Shortly after that incident, my parents gave me a few of Roger Tory Peterson’s field guides, as well as some birdsong tapes, and encouraged me to keep birding. Soon I knew the difference between the blue jay and the bluebird, and that the former sometimes kills the latter’s young. I discovered migration patterns and learned about invasive species. I developed complicated feelings about the starling, which was originally released to the United States by an overly enthusiastic Shakespeare fan.

By the time I was ten, I could identify most common species in the mid-Atlantic area. Peterson remained my field guide, but my ultimate authority was the National Audubon Society’s Encyclopedia of North American Birds, a massive hardcover compendium published in the mid-1990s which claimed to catalogue every bird on the continent. For twenty-five years, it was indespensable for many amateur birders because it contained a wealth of avian photographs, illustrations, and essays—a bird dictionary produced very much in the style of the society’s namesake, John James Audubon.

Only this year did the society decide to update it. In an homage to Audubon’s seminal double-elephant folio of 1838, it titled the new book Birds of North America and released it in tandem with a similar compendium covering North American trees. The two books are the fruit of a massive undertaking, and the society touts Birds as a “must-have reference for the library of any birder” and an “authoritative” guide to the more than eight hundred species living in North America.

There’s no doubt that Birds is the final word on the continent’s avifauna. But it’s almost completely useless for the casual birder. Most of the more than three thousand photographs are small; they are oftentimes blurry and taken at angles unhelpful for identification. The accompanying essays are terse but packed with jargon. The book’s heft makes it impractical in the field and its cheap binding an unlikely coffee table item.    

Worst of all, there’s not a single illustration in the whole thing. This is shocking for an organization that thrives on the fame of Audubon’s paintings, which are arguably the greatest pieces of commercial art in American history. It’s easy to suspect that Birds, no doubt long in production, was rushed into print by nonprofit executives desperate for some good press.

Because, after all, it has been a bad decade for the Audubon Society in the press department. No matter what the institution does, someone accuses it of doing everything wrong. When the society declared in 2014 that climate change was the top threat to bird conservation, the novelist and amateur ornithologist Jonathan Franzen said it was capitalizing on a trendy issue to sell “holiday cards and its plush-toy cardinals and bluebirds, which sing when you squeeze them.”  

The society responded with a series of huffy blog posts, in which Mark Jannot, then the society’s vice president, dismissed Franzen’s comments as “the sad ravings of a man trying to escape his guilt-ridden Protestant Puritan heritage and justify his consumerist lifestyle.” Franzen replied in the pages of the New York Times piece, claiming that the Audubon Society, which was founded as one of the first conservation groups in 1905, had stooped to letting the “the marketing tail wag the organizational dog.”

The Franzen episode was embarrassing, but the outburst of hatred against the society last summer was much worse. This time the fire focused on Audubon’s legacy. Despite his exquisite paintings, he was not the most virtuous man. When he could afford it, he was a slave owner. When he could not, he demeaned the enslaved. And the field he helped to pioneer, avian conservationism, was for many decades dominated almost exclusively by white people. In a year in which the American Ornithological Society was renaming birds—it’s a thick-billed longspur now, thank you very much—it was not a surprise that all of this came to a head. The poor quality of Birds is probably a result of this internal battle. And it doesn’t bode well for the future of the Audubon Society. The more time the society spends attempting to redefine its namesake’s legacy, the less effort it can expend on conserving and promoting care for birds in North America. And it’s unlikely to succeed at either project.  

Conservation of any sort, at its heart, is an inherently futile pursuit, only undertaken when it’s much too late. Audubon himself realized this all too well when he lamented the Jackson-era population boom in the Ohio River Valley. “Neither this little stream, this swamp, this grand sheet of flowing water, nor these mountains will be seen in a century hence as I see them now,” he wrote in his journal. “Scarce a magnolia will Louisiana possess. The timid deer will exist no more. Fishes will no longer bask on the surface, the eagle will scarce ever alight, and these millions of songsters will be drove away by man.”

It took less than a century for all of that natural beauty to disappear, and what came next was much more horrifying. After driving out the animals, people in that area—as they do everywhere—began abusing their neighbors in equally grotesque ways. Audubon was no exception, but he at least realized that outside Eden, the natural world knows no peace. The closest a birder can get is a glimpse.

“I wished to possess all the productions of nature, but I wished life with them,” Audubon once remarked. “This was impossible.”

Nic Rowan is a staff writer at the Washington Examiner.

To continue reading, subscribe to The Lamp.

Get unlimited access to our complete archive when you subscribe.

Already a Subscriber?