Tanagra rubra: The Scarlet Tanager
You have now before you representations of one of the most richly coloured of our birds, and one whose history is in some degree peculiar.
On a fine spring afternoon in 1824, the daily coach from Pittsburgh swayed down the turnpike toward Philadelphia, the team moving easily on the smooth, macadamized lane. The road ran beneath forested hillsides, dropping steadily as it came alongside the Schuylkill River near the city. The woods were green and alive with birds, which flushed at the oncoming hoofbeats and sped off through tunnels of sunlight and shadow. From far away came the bleat of geese flying in wedges high above the horizon, and closer by was the hissing of cupped wings as flocks of ducks coasted in to land on the river. Peering out from the carriage, John James Audubon watched the birds intently, though his thoughts traveled on to the days ahead in the city. Unlike the birds, which came back every year, Audubon had been away a long time. The stage rumbled over a wooden bridge and rolled through the city, halting near the Delaware waterfront and its bustling taverns and inns. Audubon climbed down and swept a hand through the mane of hair that hung past his shoulders. He was an imposing figure, rangy and athletic, and, according to many women who knew him, dashingly handsome. Dressed in buckskin pantaloons and a dirty greatcoat, Audubon blinked at the city’s broad, cobbled streets and immaculate plank sidewalks. It was the fifth of April—his wedding anniversary. Audubon was just shy of thirty-nine years old. Streetlamps were being lighted. A waxing moon hung low in the western sky. Audubon had lived beneath that sky for seventeen years, moving from place to place, acquiring a family while making and losing a fortune in a string of business failures. The carefree life he’d known as a young man on his father’s estate outside of Philadelphia was a distant memory. Partnerships in enterprises from Kentucky to New Orleans had gone to dust, several in ugly confrontations. In one dispute, Audubon had lost several thousand dollars he could ill afford when the owner of a steamboat Audubon held as collateral made off with the vessel in Henderson, Kentucky, taking it down the Ohio River, then the Mississippi, all the way to New Orleans. Enraged, Audubon chased the man to Louisiana and back. He got neither the boat nor his money. On returning to Henderson the man threatened Audubon’s life—but bided his time. He finally took Audubon by surprise one morning, clubbing him over the head in the middle of a city street. Audubon, who’d recently injured his right arm and had it in a sling, appeared defenseless. But as blood poured down his face, Audubon used his good hand to draw a dagger from his belt and stab his attacker in the chest. A mob that included many of Audubon’s creditors later had to be dispersed from in front of his house. But while the man’s wound was grave, he recovered. Charges against Audubon were later dismissed on grounds of self-defense. Shortly afterward Audubon was insolvent and was forced into bankruptcy after being arrested and briefly jailed in Louisville over outstanding debts.
So it had gone, from one river town to another, always heading downstream, always riding a little lower in life. Moving west and south through Kentucky, then down to Mississippi and Louisiana, Audubon had tried his hand at shopkeeping, lumber milling, real estate development, and teaching. He’d worked as a dance instructor, fiddler, and taxidermist. He’d taught fencing and art, drawn portraits, sold landscape paintings and urban sketches on the street. Lucy, his wife, found occasional work as a governess. But the one thing that held Audubon’s interest—and the thing he was best at—was hunting and studying birds.
Keen-eyed, and with a tolerance for the rigors of the outdoors, Audubon had wandered widely across the American frontier, honing his woodcraft. He disappeared into the wilderness often, turning up days or weeks or even months later, laden with trophies: animals of every kind—most dead, sometimes a few still living—plus eggs, nests, plants, and a myriad of brilliantly hued skins of birds both known and unknown to science. And there were his paintings. Audubon had begun drawing birds as a child. He had talent, but more important, he had a rare feeling for his subjects. He was as interested in how birds lived as he was in their appearance. Over time, as he refined his technique, Audubon’s paintings had begun to merge the beauty of the birds with their wildness in a way no previous naturalist had managed. As his fortunes dwindled, Audubon’s collection of paintings grew thick. By 1823, Audubon felt his time and his prospects running out. He and Lucy were living near New Orleans with their two nearly adolescent sons. Two daughters had died in infancy. Despite his frequent absences, Audubon was devoted to his family and weary of their precarious circumstances. At the urging of friends who admired his paintings but were doubtful of their value on the frontier, where anyone curious about birds and nature had only to look around, Audubon came East in search of an agent or publisher. He may have envisioned some kind of book—illustrated volumes on natural history were popular, though shockingly expensive—or, more likely, he thought only of finding someone who might tell him how to sell his work. He left New Orleans that fall, taking along his elder son, Victor, who was fourteen. Initially they rode comfortably up the Mississippi aboard the steamship Magnet, turning east into the Ohio River on October 15—where unexpected low water prevented further progress by boat. Audubon, impatient to proceed, arranged to have his belongings forwarded and set off with Victor toward Louisville on foot, accompanied by two other passengers. One of them, a big man named Rose, warned Audubon that he was in a great hurry and would not wait for a young boy unable to keep up.
Audubon worried about Victor as well. He knew this stretch of low, swampy country, having walked through it some years previously when ice had forced him from the river. At another time he had hiked along the Ohio farther ahead, after lightning killed a horse literally from underneath him. Beyond the river confluence stretched an endless wood, both pretty and daunting. The land was sparsely settled, with few roads. Narrow trails, which had to be walked single file, sometimes petered out in thickets or vanished in burned-out forests snarled with deadfall. The distance upriver to Henderson, Kentucky, where Audubon hoped to find transportation, was more than two hundred miles.
In the end, it was Audubon and Victor who outpaced the other travelers, and later Audubon would recall the episode as a happy adventure, though it was, he admitted, “a tough walk for a youth.” Victor at times appeared near exhaustion. On one occasion he grew faint and collapsed sobbing—only to be roused by a smiling Audubon who pointed out a large turkey strutting through the woods close by. Somehow, Victor woke restored each morning. He was a pleasant, intelligent boy, with his father’s high forehead and large eyes, and, evidently, some of his sturdy constitution.
Audubon, as usual, strode over even the most difficult terrain without complaint, repeatedly leading the party out of trouble, encouraging everyone on, breaking trail or slogging ahead through the rocky shallows when they were forced down to the river’s edge. He caught fish to eat and kept a watchful eye on their bearings. Well versed in the customs of backcountry travel, Audubon unerringly found houses where the group could put up at night. His powers of observation operated continually, and he found their various hosts as interesting and as colorful as the many birds in the area. They met a man who kept a large black wolf that was “tame and gentle.” At another place where they stopped, Audubon was disgusted by the man of the house, who was lazy. The man’s industrious wife was uncommonly attractive and seemed slightly out of place. She had delicate hands, lovely blue eyes, and a manner that suggested “her right to belong to a much higher class.” The memory of the morning feast she served the travelers—ground corn, freshly killed chicken, and coffee—remained with Audubon. It was, he said, the best breakfast he had ever eaten. Upon leaving, he gave a dollar to one of the children and said a tender goodbye to the woman as she nursed a baby. The husband, Audubon noticed, stood by sullenly, smoking his pipe.
After three days’ walking, the group topped a hill early in the morning and saw a vast forest spread out before them. The rising sun lit the frost on the trees. Mile by mile, Audubon coaxed the party onward while thinking to himself that this must be among the most beautiful places on earth. The season was turning. They found ripe peaches in an orchard and saw wood ducks fattening themselves on the acorns collecting in the river bottoms. At the end of an arduous day, Audubon took Victor for a swim in the wide Ohio. As the sun went down, they lazed in the glassy current and watched as robins flying south filled the sky overhead.
They had marched six days, the fifth in a driving rain, when they came at last to a decent road, where the others in the group decided they must slow down. Two hours after reluctantly leaving the rest of the party behind, Audubon and his son reached the Green River ferry, just above Henderson, where they hired a wagon to take them on to Louisville. On the crossing, they dangled their feet in the cool water as the river slipped quietly by on its way into the heart of the untamed country.
Audubon and Victor stopped a few days later at Shippingport, a trading community on the south bank of the Ohio, just below the falls at Louisville. Audubon had barely enough money remaining—$13—to rent a room. They called on old friends, and as Audubon and Lucy had hoped, Victor was placed as an apprentice in their family’s counting house. Audubon spent the winter saving for the remainder of his trip. He occupied himself dodging old creditors and painting portraits, signs, and even murals on the interiors of steamboats. In March he had booked passage for Pittsburgh. He brought with him only a few possessions, including a kit of watercolors and an unusually handsome double shotgun with fine engravings on its breech. Firmly clutched under one arm was an oversized portfolio tied with string.
In Philadelphia Audubon found lodging in one of the inns on tavern row. The noise and activity was disorienting. Rooms were cramped but cheap—$10 a week, which included two heavy meals a day featuring slabs of meat, eggs, fowl, and cheese, accompanied in the evenings by wine and ale. In his small room with its rough bed and whitewashed walls echoing with the woozy laughter of taverngoers until late at night, Audubon made his plans. Within a few days he had bought a suit of clothes, and readied himself for introductions to some of the city’s influential citizens. He decided against cutting his hair or even buttoning his shirt collar. He hoped his rough style marked him as a true backwoodsman—an image Audubon was convinced would lend credibility to his claim as a naturalist. He also felt his curling locks recalled the city’s foremost figure, Benjamin Franklin, in an appealing way. Audubon called first on Dr. James Mease. Mease was a prominent physician and part of Philadelphia’s growing community of intellectuals, many of them doctors, who had developed an interest in their young nation’s natural history. And Mease was an acquaintance. He’d known Audubon as an adventurous, undisciplined teenager who once lived close to his friends the Bakewells, in the country outside Philadelphia near Valley Forge. The Audubon who appeared at Mease’s doorstep in a prosperous section of Chestnut Street had changed considerably. He was now a middle-aged man, rough-looking and obviously nervous. His English—muddled when Mease had known him as a recent immigrant from Europe—was improved, despite a still noticeable French accent. Mease, taken aback at seeing Audubon after such a long absence, was even more surprised when Audubon came inside, loosened his inexpensive new coat, and untied his portfolio. Awed by Audubon’s paintings, Mease suggested they get the opinion of a knowledgeable ornithologist. And he had one in mind—a young visitor to the city named Charles-Lucien Bonaparte, who was himself engaged in the study of American birds. Only twenty-one years old, Bonaparte was already an accomplished naturalist. Aboard ship to the New World—a trip that lasted fifty-one nervous days, during which the ship encountered several terrible storms en route from Plymouth to New York—Bonaparte had collected an assortment of fishes and turtles, and had shot and studied many birds, including several unknown species of petrels. Upon landing in America, Bonaparte was immediately smitten with the young republic, which he declared “the most perfect of all those that have ever existed, without excepting those of Athens, Sparta, and Rome.” He set about investigating the many strange animals new to his experience. Like all European newcomers, he was fascinated by the American rattlesnake. He was at the same time naïve about certain New World fauna, like the small black-and-white quadruped he encountered one day while out riding. Dismounting, Bonaparte chased the animal hoping to catch and examine it. He got close enough to the skunk to learn what it was. Bonaparte had been welcomed into Philadelphia’s scientific and social circles after arriving there in the fall of 1823, about the same time that Audubon had left New Orleans. At first, he stayed at Point Breeze, his relatives’ New Jersey estate on the Delaware River, about twenty-five miles north of Philadelphia. That winter Bonaparte and his pregnant wife moved to the city not far from Dr. Mease and Bonaparte began corresponding with the Academy of Natural Sciences. The academy, formed only eleven years earlier by a handful of amateur naturalists who met weekly above an apothecary, had become one of the country’s leading learned institutions. Its monthly Journal, first published in 1817, was an important scholarly publication. In 1819, four members of the academy had been chosen for Stephen Harriman Long’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains—the first scientists to accompany such a government-sponsored endeavor. Meetings now took place every Saturday evening in the academy’s own building, which also housed a large library, as well as an overflowing collection of natural specimens. In January 1824, Bonaparte submitted a paper on his new petrels to the academy, where it was read to the members and later accepted for publication. On February 24, while Audubon was shivering on the docks and saving his pennies in Shippingport, the academy elected Bonaparte as a member. He was received warmly a week later at his first meeting. Bonaparte’s new colleagues doubtless respected his ornithological work, but they were probably influenced by his glamorous connection with Europe as well. Born in France and raised in Italy, Bonaparte had wealth and a title of sorts. He was the prince of Musignano, which was neither a country nor even a locality, but merely his father’s house on a hill overlooking the Italian town of Canino, not far ...