I knew the job was dangerous when I took it ...
- Jul 19, 2004
- Reaction score
- Out of Bounds
In response to a mention elsewhere on the forum, here's a thread dedicated to Audubon's 5 "mystery birds."
FULL STORY: https://www.audubon.org/news/john-james-audubon-crazy-wrong-or-neitherJohn James Audubon: Crazy, Wrong, or Neither?
Audubon painted a bunch of birds that no one has seen since. We explore the most likely options behind the mystery birds.
John James Audubon’s Birds of America is an incredible feat—in large part thanks to how comprehensive the 435 watercolor paintings are for their era. Audubon wasn’t just working at a time when European Americans didn’t know the breadth of American birdlife…they didn’t really know the extent of America itself. Painted during the early 1800s with little more than a rifle and some friends’ help, Audubon was able to correctly distinguish and paint (to scale!) more than 400 distinct species—more than half of our native birds.
For Audubon, every unusual song could signal a new bird, every isolated swamp or mountain range could host species no ornithologist had ever seen before. All that possibility must have been exhilarating—maddening, even. To avoid missing out, he shot heaps of birds…and compatriots exploring far-flung regions of the continent brought him heaps more. Among the messes of (dead) birds he had to sort through were weird-looking juveniles, birds with plumage anomalies, or even the occasional hybrid.
So it’s no wonder the man didn’t get everything right. And indeed, there are several birds painted and explained in Birds of America that are not, in fact, actual species. Some are immature birds mistaken for adults of a new species (the mighty “Washington’s Eagle” was, in all likelihood, an immature Bald Eagle). Some were female birds that didn’t look anything like their male partners (“Selby’s Flycatcher” was a female Hooded Warbler).
Others were…well, no one really knows. Audubon painted a handful of birds that aren’t an exact match for anything we’ve currently got. These are Audubon’s mystery birds.
Maybe they’re just mistaken plumages, like the eagle or the flycatcher, and we still can’t sort it out. Maybe they were birds that Audubon just painted poorly, or from a vague memory, or from a partially decomposed corpse.
Maybe they’re species that have gone extinct since Audubon painted them. There certainly are a bunch of those, sadly, including Bachman’s Warbler, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Passenger Pigeon, and Carolina Parakeet. It’s certainly possible that some already-range-restricted species could have been wiped out before conservationists even knew to notice.
Or maybe these birds are still out there somewhere, flitting around unseen. In any case, it’s worth taking a look. Here’s a rundown of Audubon’s mystery birds, and what the likely scenario behind each one might be. ....