“very fat and delicate eating” (thrush)

“extremely Fishy rancid and fat” (grebe)

“The flesh of the Purple Grakle is little better than that of the Crow, being dry and ill-flavoured,” he wrote, even though it is often used “with the addition of one or two Golden-winged Woodpeckers or Redwings, to make what is here called pot pie, even amidst a profusion of so many better things.” He went on: “The eggs, on the contrary, are very delicate, and I am astonished that those who are so anxious for the destruction of these birds do not gratify their wishes by eating them while yet in embro in the egg”

“Although usually fat, they are very tough and oily, and therefore not fit for food” (wood ibis)

“Its flesh is rank, fishy, and nauseous, and therefore quite unfit for food, unless in cases of extreme necessitv.” (white pelican)

Yep- those are Audubon’s tasting notes from “Birds of America.” Everybody knows about John James Audubon’s bird pictures, but his corresponding books (based on the detailed journals he kept) are filled with details about their habitats, behaviors, uses by Native Americans, and the best part… how they tasted!

I’ve always loved Audubon’s artwork. In fact these prints are one of the few things that have followed me around since childhood.

But, it was only recently that I learned about Audubon eating his specimens, and discovered that his only remaining home in the US is just outside Philadelphia. It was here in 1803, that 17 year old Jean Jacque (later Americanized to John James) lived after sneaking out of France with a fake passport in an effort to dodge Napoleon’s draft. Born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1785, the illegitimate son of a French ship captain/slave trader (who commanded a French ship at the Battle of Yorktown), Jean spent his childhood in France, emigrating after the death of his mother and his father’s concern for his safety during the slave revolts of the Haitian Revolution. He was formally adopted, and grew up in his father’s house, along with a light-skinned, illegitimate half-sister (born to his father’s slave). A dark-skinned illegitimate half-sister was left behind in Haiti.

Mill Grove, owned by his father as an investment property, was where his interest in birds and taxidermy was peaked, possibly after exposure to Charles Wilson Peale’s Philadelphia museum.

At Mill Grove, Audubon, a self-taught artist and scientist, studied migrating birds, tying silver thread to their legs – the first recorded instance of bird banding. It was also here that he met a neighbor, Lucy Bakewell, who would become his wife. Today, the estate is run as a museum and bird sanctuary. Half of the museum is devoted to birds:

The other half is devoted to Audubon, with exhibits on the print making process:

an illustration showing how ground-breaking Audubon’s work was:

and a look at how he posed his specimens to appear lifelike:

One of the rare oil paintings that Audubon made to raise funds for his “Birds of America” project is on view, as are examples of his very early illustrations:

Plus, there are lots and lots and lots of prints, including a rare double elephant folio and prints from Audubon’s mammal book:

The c. 1762 house where Audubon lived is open for daily tours. In addition to more examples of Audubon’s work:

It also contains a reproduction of Audubon’s bedroom, filled with natural history specimens:

this fantastic Victorian taxidermied Passenger Pigeon display and an egg collection:

and information about the family who lived on the estate and eventually donated it. The Wetherill’s made their money as paint manufacturers (now Sherwin Williams), who bought the property to mine lead used in the paint. They were fascinated by the history of the house- even going so far as to have special Audubon china made.

The house is covered with Audubon-themed murals by Philadelphia artists, George Harding and John Hanlen (both PAFA graduates), commissioned in 1954 when the home was turned into a museum:

Audubon only lived at Mill Grove for 2 years, before heading west to Kentucky and developing his “American frontiersman” persona. Here he began work on “Birds of America,” his project to paint every native, North American bird. In the quest, he discovered 20+ new species, although 5 species (the Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon, Labrador duck, great auk and pinnated grouse) are now extinct and one, the Eskimo curlew, hasn’t had a confirmed sighting since 1963.

There are lots of trails within the 200 acre preserve, and the Schuykill River Trail that starts in Philly ends at the Audubon Trail.


To see a rare double elephant folio closer to Philly, visit the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania. The page is changed on the second Wednesday of every month. https://www.library.upenn.edu/about/exhibits-events/audubons-birds-america

Seeing Audubon’s original watercolor models for the 435 plates of The Birds of America requires a trip to the NY Historical Society. In 1863, the society purchased 434 of the watercolors from Audubon’s wife. The final model was donated in 1966. Today, the highlight of a tiny Audubon themed gallery is a display of one of these watercolors along with the corresponding page from the double elephant folio.

Two other original watercolors: