A Naturalist’s Feast for the Eyes

Hardly a Thanksgiving goes by without someone mentioning Benjamin Franklin’s affection for the American turkey. That founding father famously proposed it as the country’s national bird, arguing that it was a more virtuous creature than the bald eagle, which he despised as “a bird of bad moral character.” But the turkey has had at least one other prominent American fan. Naturalist and artist John James Audubon (1785-1851) began his ambitious “The Birds of America” picture series with an image of the wild turkey cock.

Audubon’s turkey cock is memorable for its vivid suggestion of movement, with the bird glancing backward, as if eyeing the approach of a predator, and pumping its legs forward in a purposeful stride. While his contemporaries’ painted birds are often as static as butterflies pinned to velvet, Audubon’s wildlife studies shimmer with kinetic intensity. For Audubon, nature was not a noun but a verb, and he conditioned viewers to think of the wild as a place where something is always happening, a precursor to the modern nature documentary.

The American turkey

As his depiction of the turkey cock also makes clear, Audubon was keenly aware of the stage on which his wildlife dramas unfolded. The canebreak in the background evokes the area near Beech Woods plantation in Louisiana where Audubon spotted the bird that inspired the picture. Audubon often used other artists to help create his backgrounds, but this wasn’t because he regarded the backdrops of his paintings as afterthoughts. He liked to make landscape an active character in his art, and in his picture of the turkey cock, scenery becomes a scene-stealer.

Notice how the cock’s gaze directs the viewer’s attention toward the thicket. What dark mystery lies beyond that curtain of green, inspiring the turkey’s apprehension? Audubon’s posing of this beguiling, unanswered question attests to his gifts as a showman. There’s also his lavish layering of color—the turkey cock is a pageant of dusky browns and hints of orange, along with shades of chocolate and mahogany.

Most bird books are arranged by type—shore birds in one chapter, song birds in another, birds of prey somewhere else. But Audubon broke with that tradition, instead sequencing his bird pictures for dramatic effect. In selecting the turkey cock as Plate No. 1 in his series, he seemed to celebrate the turkey as the alpha bird of the American landscape.

Audubon, who was also a perceptive writer about birds, devoted more words to the turkey than to any other bird in his “Ornithological Biography.” For many years, Audubon, a naturalized American of French heritage, closed his letters with a seal bearing the likeness of a turkey cock and the words “America My Country,” a gift from a friend that appeared to affirm the turkey as an icon of national greatness. Audubon even adopted a turkey as a pet, though—in a bit of darkly comic farce—his hunting dog almost nabbed it by accident. The pet survived that close call, only to be fatally shot later by another hunter.

What was it about turkeys that sparked the special admiration of an artist who had painted hundreds of other birds?

Obviously, the basic bigness of the turkey appealed to Audubon’s epic sense of scale. In a striking gesture of grandiosity, Audubon insisted on rendering the subjects of “The Birds of America” life-size, which required pages that were more than two feet wide and more than a yard high. The resulting project, which appeared between 1827 and 1838, was an early coffee-table book the size of a table itself. To promote his book, which cost about $1,000—roughly $23,000 in today’s dollars—for a finished copy, Audubon recruited wealthy subscribers, many of them across the Atlantic, by dressing the part of a frontiersman, creating a buzz in England. Old World admirers found Audubon’s paintings no less exotic than the artist, and the turkey had particular appeal because it seemed, like Audubon himself, such a magnificent American oddity.

With the turkey cock, as with so many of his other subjects, Audubon achieved lifelike effects in his pictures by using dead birds as his models. This isn’t unusual; even today, scientists and bird artists often depend on dead specimens for study. But in the days before air conditioning and refrigeration, the practice was often a race against time.

As he worked on his picture of the turkey cock at Beech Woods in 1825, Audubon’s methods drew the disgust of Robert Percy, a member of the plantation family. “The damned fellow kept it pinned up there until it rotted and stunk,” he recalled of Audubon and his lifeless subject. “I hated to lose so much good eating.”

The irony would not have been lost on Audubon, who probably also liked the turkey because it was such an inviting game bird. Much of his extended written commentary on the turkey deals with the best way to bag a bird for the table. Perhaps ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson had the best summary of Audubon’s culinary predilections: “Not only does he speak with a gourmet’s authority about the edibility of owls, loons, cormorants and crows, but also the gustatory delights of juncos, white-throated sparrows, and robins.”

Although some modern naturalists have trouble squaring Audubon’s hunting and his art, the simple truth is that each enterprise mutually sustained the other, relying on a shared set of skills: patience, sharp observation, and a shrewd understanding of wildlife.

What is also true is that Audubon often killed more birds than he could either eat or draw, making him a dubious poster child for conservation. He did raise occasional alarms about the health of bird populations, including that of the turkey, which he lamented as being “less numerous in every portion of the United States, even in those parts where they were very abundant thirty years ago.” Thanks to game laws and conservation efforts often spearheaded by hunters, wild turkey populations in North America have actually rebounded to more than seven million birds, up from 1.3 million birds in 1973.

Audubon “recognized and often speculated about the impact overhunting could have on wildlife populations,” biographer William Souder has written. “But he was never deterred. He sometimes said that a day in which he killed fewer than a hundred birds was a day wasted.”

Audubon’s real contribution to the cultural understanding of wildlife, said Mr. Peterson, “was not the conservation ethic but awareness. That in itself is enough; awareness inevitably leads to concern.”

Such awareness can also be the wellspring of gratitude, which is why this Thanksgiving, as in all others, Audubon’s wild turkey cock should be savored as a feast for the eyes.

Mr. Heitman, the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House,” ia a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate.


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704312504575618700444769566.html