Everyone knows about John James Audubon’s masterful portrayal of North American birds. Less well known is that shortly after completion of his widely acclaimed bird folio, the Reverend John Bachman recruited him to illustrate a planned encyclopedic work about North American mammals. This project was conducted most thoroughly. They not only shot mammals to paint and describe, but also wherever they traveled, they stayed in a cabin and had live specimens living with them to study their food preferences, breeding habits, manner of defending themselves, etc. These might be a marmot or porcupine wandering around loose, or a wire cage with flying squirrels or western chipmunks on the table.
They took a steamboat up the Missouri and stayed in Army forts to sample the plains fauna; traveled by dogsled in Labrador to learn about Arctic species; and friends from all over the eastern states sent them specimens, both living and dead. JJ’s two young sons started out as camp assistants, then graduated to painting the backgrounds, with son John then painting many of the mammals. Even after the first full edition was published in 1846, one of the boys went to California with the gold rush and sent back observations and specimens, which were incorporated in later editions.
Wherever they went, the team interviewed trappers, hunters, soldiers, Indians, ship captains, and others to learn the identity and behavior of the local mammals, and then sorted through the realities and the legends, based on their own observations, so their text contains many vignettes of these pursuits. Where some critter was part of the local cuisine, they also made a point to sample it. Their luggage contained a lot of pelts and skulls they kept for comparative study.
After “working up” their North American collection, they visited European museums, many of which had sponsored collecting trips to the New World. They especially studied whether American species were the same or different from similar European species. Some European cities also maintained “zoological gardens,” and on several occasions JJ wished this were also true in the States.
The first full edition was a three-volume set of large folios, which was pricy and sold well. It’s not clear who actually painted what, because JJ’s son John grew into a talented artist as the project continued, and Reverend John Bachman was also a naturalist and artist. There is little indication that this mattered to them, they were all part of the team. The word “we” is used many times on every page of text, and it is difficult to find an “I.” Later editions were published at different scales and with variable amounts of accompanying text, but the Audubon name was usually in the title, even long after his death. My copy is a hefty volume by Wellfleet Press (1989) simply titled Audubon’s Mammals, and subtitled “The Quadrupeds of North America.”
I sometimes open my copy at random and read a few pages. It might be the humorous story about the drunken sailor attacking a polar bear, armed only with a harpoon. Or it might be the first scientific description of the black-footed ferret, which they only saw as a poorly stuffed skin that someone gave them, but they recognized it as a rare creature, as a close cousin to the European ferret, painted it quite lifelike and guessed rather closely regarding its limited geographic range. Their only major miss here was not knowing about its close ties to prairie dog towns.
I also love their honesty. When working with poorly known and poorly sampled species, they state their reasons for their best interpretations, and why they respectfully disagree with earlier authors.
This work today is an invaluable resource for conservationists trying to restore mammals to their original range. For example, there has been decades of effort to allow the jaguar to return north of the Mexican border, opposed by some who claim it never was there. But Audubon is very specific about the Texas jaguars, naming the people they interviewed and locations where this species was hunted.