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‘The Birds That Audubon Missed’ Provides New Insights Into the Age of Avian Discovery in America

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In 1827, when John James Audubon began publishing Birds of America, his four-volume set of iconic bird illustrations, he gained instant celebrity and solidified himself as one of the most important naturalists of his time. Since then, his legacy has loomed large over the world of ornithology, and his paintings—life-size watercolors painted in exquisite detail—have been considered the standard against which all other bird art is compared. But in recent decades,  Audubon’s work and life have come under increasing scrutiny: the man himself for being an enslaver and racist, and his scientific contributions for having inaccuracies and mistruths.  

Amid this wider reexamination we get The Birds That Audubon Missed, by Kenn Kaufman, a renowned bird expert, field editor for Audubon magazine, and an accomplished nature artist in his own right. By the title alone, one might fairly assume the book is the latest addition to a bevy of Audubon biographies, but Kaufman is quick to note that his ambitions were grander. “There have been many books about JJA,” he says. “I’m proud to assert that this is something different.” 

While Audubon remains central to much of the narrative, Kaufman covers a whole cast of characters as he recounts and analyzes the earliest days of American ornithology through new research and with a modern lens. The occasional digression aside, the book is a lively, sweeping history of this era and the intersecting paths and work of men like Audubon, his rival Alexander Wilson, John Townsend, Charles Bonaparte, and more, all of who were competing to document and describe the country’s flora and fauna. By exploring the birds these early naturalists missed—as well as the species they successfully identified—Kaufman shows how scientific progress is not always linear, often messy, and never complete. 

More than a historical deep dive, Kaufman’s latest book is also something of a memoir, as his own experiences and work are tightly interwoven with the more recent history of ornithology and birding. Additionally, the book is a journal of sorts, where Kaufman details his attempts to create Audubon-like paintings of the roughly 15 birds he deduces JJA should have seen or described as new in Birds of America and its companion tome, Ornithological Biography. All together, this might sound like the makings of a hodgepodge, but not in Kaufman’s capable hands. Even a reader new to this topic will leave both more informed and more curious about the natural world around them. 

Having worked closely with Kaufman as one of his Audubon editors for many years, I had been looking forward to this book since he first shared its existence a few years ago.  I recently had the chance to chat with him about all that went into the project, what new insights it delivers, and what he hopes readers take away. Below are some highlights from our conversation.  

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The following has been edited for length and clarity. 

Audubon: You’ve said this book was the hardest one you’ve written. I can imagine. It’s very different from your other books and not what I expected with everything it covers. Could you talk a bit about how the idea for this book took shape? 

KK: I’ve always been interested in history, but what really launched this idea was reviewing the gallery of Audubon’s bird portraits for the [then-new] National Audubon website, which I guess was 10 years ago now, and noting the common birds that were not included there and saying to myself, How could that have happened? How could Audubon and his predecessors like Alexander Wilson, how could they have missed these birds? And my first idea for the book was just to do a series of chapters about each of these birds. But it shortly became clear that, once I was reading the accounts written by all these early naturalists, there was so much there. It was such a rich trove of detail that people don’t read that I thought there’s a bigger story here.

Audubon: Much of the book is about John James Audubon, but to fully explore this time period, you also delve deep into the lives and work of many of his contemporaries. In doing so, you appear to arrive at many new insights. Do you feel this book is an important addition to the history of ornithology in North America? 

KK: I feel like it brings a perspective that hasn’t really been out there before. Back in the early 1800s, when these publications were first coming out, no one knew enough about the birds to really judge the accuracy of what they were reading. And today, birders and ornithologists have heard of all these early characters, but hardly anyone actually goes back and reads what they wrote. I don’t think one birder or ornithologist in a thousand has actually read all of Wilson’s American Ornithology, and very few have read all of Audubon’s Ornithological Biography or the Manual of the Ornithology of United States and Canada by Thomas Nuttall.

If you read them now with the benefit of everything that we know about birdlife, from all the research by so many people over the last 200 years, there are a lot of things there that you start to realize. Okay, that isn’t true, but how did that writer get to that point? And after a while you start to figure out, okay, well, that could easily be an honest mistake. Or, this appears to be something that was completely made up. Thomas Nuttall over and over just paraphrases from Wilson. He’ll put in slightly different words, but the paragraphs are just like following right along behind Wilson and copying what he said. And Bonaparte, even though he only spent a short time in America before going back to Europe, he figured out a lot of things that no one else had about what birds were related. So actually going back and reading their accounts in the light of modern knowledge really opens them up. I think that will be new for almost all readers.

Audubon: When you think of missed birds, you assume they were species Audubon and others didn’t see or find. That was the case in some instances, but other times they didn’t have enough information to make an ID. Or maybe a group of birds—say, the thrushes—looked too similar to tell apart. And then, as you mentioned, the information that was available might have been wrong or even made up. Considering all that, it’s pretty impressive that they accomplished what they did. Did you find yourself thinking that? 

KK:  In some cases, I was just really impressed at how much they were able to deduce with a very limited amount of information. There’s such a randomness to it. Audubon happened to discover the bird that we now call Henslow’s Sparrow—just happened to see it migrating and get the specimen. And that’s a bird that could have gone overlooked for much longer because it’s so inconspicuous. But nobody caught up with Kirtland’s Warbler. 

The biologists from Europe had been so confused about the shorebirds, and there are quite a few sandpipers and plovers that are shared between North America and Europe. And Wilson made some major strides toward figuring them out. Audubon did, too. And in a number of cases, Audubon was able to correct mistakes that other people had made about these shorebirds, which is impressive.

One of the things that struck me is that the things that were confusing about shorebirds for those early naturalists are exactly the same things that make shorebirds confusing for birders today. We’re still being fooled by the same things, but at least there’s historical precedent for it.

Audubon: Completely. I mentioned the thrushes earlier because it’s the same situation. We can barely tell them apart now—how were they supposed to back then? As I was reading this book, it reminded me of watching an old movie where the entire plot line would be moot if they had a smartphone. What if they’d only had eBird or the ability to email rather than shipping notes across the ocean? Or just a decent pair of binoculars? But we have all that now, and we still have issues with certain species and families. 

KK: Exactly. The lack of smartphones, the lack of binoculars was really a big deal when it came to warblers. I mean, people still get confused by warblers, but just imagine being out there with no binoculars and there’s these little things up in the treetops. Of course, if you’re one of those early ornithologists, you can shoot some of them, but how do you decide which ones? Or recognize what you’ve got if there’s anything left after you shoot it? 

Audubon: It also seems like another big driver of confusion was a nascent understanding of things like migration, plumage morphs, and regional variations. These could send people down the completely wrong path and allow mistakes to persist, especially if they were repeated. I found that fascinating—how long some birds remained a point of confusion. 

The Gray-cheeked Thrush was another species Audubon and his peers missed. Illustration: Kenn Kaufman

KK: Absolutely. The thrushes were still being debated into the 1870s. Bicknell’s Thrush wasn’t split out until more than a century later, and we’re still debating whether it’s really a “good” species. So yeah, some of those confusions have persisted. 

Audubon: Throughout the book you make a point of noting that, when you use the word discovery, it is in the sense of these species first being described to science, not in the sense of these early naturalists being the first to ever see these species. The first chapter, titled “The Undescribed World,” also talks a bit about the names Indigenous people had for many bird species. Was getting this idea across important to you? 

KK: It was important to me. And when you talk about Indigenous knowledge, it’s important not to  lump all these different cultures together. Certainly different peoples had different approaches, and some had a really robust taxonomy and had names for everything. And with others it was much more general. But I wanted to emphasize their knowledge for a couple of reasons. One was just to pay respect to the peoples who already knew these birds. The other was to say, in a more subtle way, that these discoveries were mostly rediscoveries. And that kind of thing continues into the present. 

Only about 40 years ago we decided that the Clark’s Grebe is a different species from the Western Grebe, but it had been described back in the 1850s and then just sort of forgotten. So that was like a rediscovery. When Wilson and others were wandering around eastern North America, they were discovering birds that were already known to earlier cultures. It was all rediscovery. And that ties into my sense that personal discovery is really important—that when we go out and see something or learn something for the first time, that’s a discovery that is important to us. That’s part of what makes life really fascinating and wondrous and worth living—the fact that we can always go out and discover something that we didn’t know, and it may not be new to science. I don’t want people to ever discount the value of their own personal discovery. 

I don’t want people to ever discount the value of their own personal discovery. 

Audubon: That’s interesting. Related to that discovery idea, there’s no question that many of these men made incredibly important contributions to ornithology and our understanding of the natural world, but you also acknowledge many of what we now recognize to be personal moral failings and faults, as well as scientific malpractice such as credit stealing or, in the case of Audubon’s Bird of Washington, complete fabrication. Did you grapple with those tensions?  

KK: Some more than others crossed the line ethically in terms of grabbing credit for something. But I tried to be sympathetic to all these characters throughout. They did things that were not admirable, and I don’t think we should just completely let them off the hook for that and say, “Oh that person was a great hero, so we can ignore these other things.” But I was just trying to see them in a three-dimensional way and acknowledge the things they accomplished without overlooking their failings. I don’t know if I succeeded in really doing that, but that’s what I was trying for. 

Audubon: I wanted to talk for a minute about Audubon’s trip to Texas, when he took a government cutter with a few of his colleagues and other naturalists to Galveston and Houston. It’s incredible to think how close he was to a bounty of new birds—all those southern Texas specialties among them—but came away with nothing! Were you already aware that he got that close before your research, or were you kind of gobsmacked by that? 

KK: I guess I’d seen him refer to things he’d seen in Texas, but until I was really reading in detail, I hadn’t thought about his 1837 trip to the Houston area. One thing that I really enjoyed was relating these travels to what was going on in U.S. history. Texas had just become independent from Spain—it was now the Republic of Texas—but it was sort of allied with the United States. So Audubon’s like, hey, this is fair game. 

But reading about it, they were on the upper Texas coast in late April. As you know, birders from all over North America go there now because the migration is so incredible, then they’ll go down the coast to the valley and see all these tropical birds. But Audubon goes west to the Houston area. He spent a lot of time in southern Louisiana in earlier years, so he goes over that way and says, Well, the birds over here are pretty much the same as the ones in Louisiana.

He actually could have discovered a number of new species at that point. In fact, we know that they found the nest of a Mottled Duck, but it wasn’t described as a separate species from the American Black Duck until years later. And they probably saw Snowy Plovers. They probably saw White-faced Ibises. There were probably undescribed thrushes and flycatchers and things in the woods around them when they got on shore. But he and his companions just overlooked all those things, and they didn’t make any attempt to go down the coast. Another 200 miles and they would have been into all kinds of birds that would have been new for his publications. 

Audubon: Can you imagine an Audubon Green Jay? 

KK: Oh, wow, that that would be, that would be something to see. He put so much animation, so much life into, like, his Blue Jays. So just imagine Audubon doing the Green Jay. 

Audubon: That’s actually a perfect segue. I really enjoyed reading about your project to use the same tools and even paper to create Audubon-style paintings of the birds that he had missed. Can you talk a bit about that endeavor and why you decided to interweave small interludes describing your progress, which you title “Channeling the Illustrator”?  

KK:  Well, I didn’t want to make it a big focus of the book because my attempts at emulating Audubon’s artwork were not very successful. I went ahead and put most of them in the book anyway and just say, Okay, well, here they are. But it became clear that I could not match the kind of thing that Audubon did; I could not equal his artwork. Which is not surprising considering he’s, like, the most famous bird artist in history. But I made a serious attempt and truly came up short. I could make the excuse that I don’t really like working in watercolor and most of my bird paintings recently had been in oils, and I like a different approach with more light and shadow, but those are just excuses. The fact is my best attempts at Audubon paintings were almost up to the level of his worst. But trying to do it was quite educational. It made me really think about his approach and really study his artwork, and for that reason, it was valuable. 

Audubon: You ended up painting 11 of the 15 or so birds you think Audubon should have seen. What part did you find the most challenging about the process, and were there any portraits you at least felt came close?  

KK: I struggled with the plants. I’ve done a lot of bird painting over the years, so most of my struggle was with the plants in the pictures. I think the least successful one was the Thick-billed Longspur. I did that over like three times and then we were right up against the deadline, so I gave up. But the birds are not active or animated, the plants don’t look all that great. I think the Philadelphia Vireo was probably the one that came closest to matching Audubon’s style, but not as good, not up to his level of quality.

ADC:  In the book, you say that at one point you considered ditching the watercolors and using your computer and software to complete the portraits, and I just want to say that I appreciate your restraint. 

KK: When I was talking about changing techniques, I actually considered opening up one of these new AI programs and just typing in “John James Audubon painting a Gray-cheeked Thrush” to see what would come up. But I decided against it. I thought that’s getting a bit too far from the theme here. 

The Snail Kite was one of several Florida specialties Audubon did not depict. Illustration: Kenn Kaufman

Audubon: Yeah, but that is funny. The Thick-billed Longspur reference makes me think of a pretty big theme throughout the book, which is bird names. You talk about the Thick-billed Longspur name change and the more recent movement to rename all birds with eponymous names, and a lot of this book explores how many birds got their names, the confusion those names often caused, and the fact that many species had different names. It simultaneously makes current bird names feel historically important and also completely arbitrary. Was that something that really stood out to you, especially given the AOS’s announcement that it plans to rename all bird names

KK: I thought about the names a lot. I hadn’t been aware of how many different names had been applied to some birds. The bird we now call Smith’s Longspur at one point was called Painted Bunting, which of course now is a very different bird. And in some cases you could find five or six or seven names applied to a bird even when they realized it was all the same species. And then you’ve got the Red Knot being described to science eight times under different names. So just the variability in names over the years really struck me. Names are fickle. I personally think standardization is good and at any given time, I’m going to use the English names that are recommended by the American Ornithological Society.

Audubon: You have some really descriptive paragraphs talking about the sheer abundance of birds that existed back then. Though we don’t have exact numbers, clearly we had a lot more birds. Similar to the pangs of jealousy you describe at the beginning of the book when you imagine what it must have been like to have so many new birds to find and describe, did you get a similar feeling thinking about never being able to see such abundance for yourself? 

The dynamic nature of birdlife is one of the things that makes it endlessly fascinating.

KK: I’ve wondered about that. From the time I was a kid, I somehow got the impression that there had been abundant wildlife that was no longer around—reading about Passenger Pigeons when I was a teenager and having these dreams of being able to go back 200 years, 300 years and just seeing this massive abundance of wildlife. And yeah, it brings up these pangs of loss, but also a sense of … It’s a diminished thing, but what we’ve got still is wonderful, and so it’s important to be working to preserve the abundance that we do have.

Audubon: Agreed. Along with abundance, you also devote a chapter to range expansion, which dovetails with this idea that you were talking about earlier—that discovery is never done. By tracking the expansion of the Limpkin, you show how our understanding of birds and natural history is fluid and changing, whether it’s from human influences like climate change or natural habitat shifts. That everything is in flux all the time is a big takeaway from this book, and it’s also exciting. 

KK: It is, it is. I think for a lot of us, we get into birding and we sort of figure that the distribution of birds at that time is the way it is, and if things change, that’s weird. But bird distribution is constantly changing. The rate of change may be accelerating now, but there are always these shifts going on. I especially talk about that in Florida, where it is such a dynamic situation and the birdlife is really changing a lot all of the time. But it happens elsewhere, and that’s part of the reason why it’s always exciting—you don’t know.

Five years ago, I would not have predicted that I would be able to see a Limpkin within bicycling distance of my house in Ohio. They’ve never been recorded anywhere near there. But the dynamic nature of birdlife is one of the things that makes it endlessly fascinating. And any day we can get out and look around, we may just discover something really amazing. I think that ties us to the tradition of these early explorers that I wrote about. Just go out, this morning,  you may find something new. And I love that.

The Birds That Audubon Missed, by Kenn Kaufman, 400 pages, $32.50, available here from Simon & Schuster.

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