Feathers Fly: Kenn Kaufman unveils the rivalry of John J. Audubon and Alexander Wilson in new book

In 1810, a harried and tired Alexander Wilson walked into a general store in Louisville, Kentucky, which at the time was still part of the frontier. 

Wilson, an accomplished ornithologist, scientist, and writer, was traveling the country to sell subscriptions to his books about birds of America, which featured Wilson’s painted illustrations and written descriptions of the birds. 

The shopkeeper he tried to sell a subscription to was a young man named John James Audubon, who also had an interest in birds and was a very talented painter. 

That meeting brought together Wilson, who was renowned at the time but today largely forgotten outside of birding circles, and Audubon, who would go on to be the most famous ornithologist of all time. 

It also was the beginning of a rivalry, at least on Audubon’s part, to see who could find the most new bird species and describe and illustrate them in published books. 

The United States was still a largely undeveloped, fledgling country, filled with different species of animals and plants that were still being discovered, identified, and named. Although Native Americans had lived here for centuries, were familiar with these animals and plants and gave them their own names, much of the information was new to Western science. 

Ornithologists like Wilson, Audubon, and others were obsessed with chasing down new birds and publishing their findings. They also were compelling personalities who were engulfed in competition that often involved petty comments and incidents.

Kenn KaufmanAnd they did all of it without the benefit of instruments ornithologists and birders use today, such as binoculars and high-powered cameras with zoom lenses. Instead, they would have to shoot the birds – not an easy feat for warblers that would fit in the palm of a hand and move quickly – and study their corpses before decay took over.

Audubon, who had a fragile ego, was so desperate that he passed off a hawk specimen found by someone else as his own and claimed to have found an eagle with a 10-foot wingspan, much larger than the bald eagle, that he dubbed, “the Bird of Washington.”

In his latest book, renowned naturalist and birding expert Kenn Kaufman chronicles the race to find and identify these birds, the interesting personalities involved and their sometimes testy interactions, and more. The book, “The Birds That Audubon Missed: Discovery and Desire in the American Wilderness,” will be published May 7 by Simon & Schuster.

This is Kaufman’s 14th book. Past titles include several bird and wildlife field guides, as well as his birding memoir, “Kingbird Highway.” 

In the fascinating “The Birds That Audubon Missed,” Kaufman takes a historical look at an era of discovery when it was still possible to find a wide range of new species; the different species that would have been migrating through areas Audubon studied but that he and his counterparts somehow didn’t see or didn’t identify; a look at the methods of the ornithologists at the time; and insight on their personalities and interactions.

“I feel comfortable saying that no publication before has really looked critically at what these guys wrote to assess their accuracy and reliability,” Kaufman says.

He also deftly connects the sense of wonder of the ornithologists he profiled to birders and people discovering nature today. 

Kaufman's new book is titled "The Birds That Audubon Missed."“We’re still learning,” says Kaufman, who lives near Oak Harbor. “The age of personal discovery can be every day. There is an awful lot that is known to science, but when we discover it for ourselves, that’s when the real excitement comes in.”

The idea for the book started a decade ago, when Kaufman learned that Audubon never included the Swainson’s thrush, which is a common migrant that would have been in the same areas Audubon was, in his publications. Audubon – the namesake of the National Audubon Society – published life-sized paintings of birds and information regarding them in his “Birds of America,” as well as other related publications. 

“I realized, how could he not have?” says Kaufman, who lives near Oak Harbor. “I started looking into other species that he missed. My first idea was having a chapter on each one. But the more I got into it, the more I saw that there is more to it than that with the interactions among these people and the adventures they had.”

Additionally, Kaufman, who has been sketching and painting birds since childhood, wanted to try to replicate Audubon’s style of painting birds with watercolors on paper. He normally works with oil paints and wanted to learn about Audubon’s painting process. 

Kaufman’s paintings in Audubon’s style illustrate the cover of the book and can be found in a color insert in the text, as well. He is, however, critical of his attempts at Audubon-like paintings.

“When I look at them, I can easily see that they’re not Audubon paintings,” he says. “They’re miles from his best. They don’t really match up even with his worst attempts. It was really an interesting experiment to try. It really made me appreciate more of what he did. He was an amazing artist.”

For the research portion of the project, Kaufman pored over tens of thousands of pages of writings by Wilson, Audubon, Charles Bonaparte (nephew of Napoleon), George Ord, and Thomas Nuttall.

He was struck by the passion these men had for the birds and identifying new species, as well as their lives and personalities. 

“Audubon is such a colorful character,” Kaufman says. “There have been so many books that have been written about him. Only about half the material in the book is about him. The rest is about all these other people.”

Wilson, always on the go trying to sell subscriptions to continue his work and trying to discover new species, was a famous ornithologist of the day. Kaufman describes him as an admirable person and a great scientist and writer, who had his quirks and was a bit socially awkward. 

When Wilson first met Audubon, Audubon hadn’t yet started his “Birds of America.”

“He was just so competitive, and he was jealous of the fame that Wilson had,” Kaufman says. “He was constantly trying to outdo him every way he could. When they first met in Louisville in 1810, Wilson had already published the first two volumes of his ornithology, and he was already Mr. Birdman.”

Audubon would not achieve his own fame until after Wilson died. Yet, he couldn’t resist taking shots at Wilson for his mistakes – or mistakes Audubon perceived he had made - and Wilson’s work in his own writings. 

So prone to fabrication was Audubon that Kaufman felt he couldn’t believe anything the man had written and had to verify it independently. Despite that, Audubon was an unparalleled artist who made extremely valuable contributions to ornithology, he says. 

“I have no desire to ‘cancel’ Audubon or Wilson or Nuttall or any of those people,” Kaufman says. “What I was hoping to do was present these people in a three-dimensional way and celebrate the good or amazing things that they did while acknowledging the things that they did that were just not admirable at all. It should be possible to do both. No one is perfect. No one is totally imperfect.”