Originally published August 19, 2010
The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon, by Jacqueline Davies, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Most of us know the name of John James Audubon, the most famous painter of birds, who was born in Haiti, raised in France, but spent a great portion of his life tramping through the wilds of North America observing birds and capturing them on canvas. His large, life-size works hang in museums around the world.
Apparently Audubon captures the fancy of biographers, as I have seen quite a lot of biographies for children about his work as a painter. The Boy Who Drew Birds, focuses not on his painting, however, but on his groundbreaking work in bird-banding.
Audubon conducted the first-ever bird banding on this continent when he banded the Pewee Flycatcher, now called Eastern Phoebe, in the Pennsylvania woods near his home, then waited through the winter, until he triumphantly found the banded birds the following spring in the same location.
These experiments were done at a time when scientists were baffled by the disappearance and reappearance of songbirds seasonally. They simply did not believe it was possible for such tiny creatures to migrate, and resorted to wild theories such as Aristotle’s notion that birds gathered together in great tangled masses and froze themselves under water for the winter, to thaw and fly again the following spring. Audubon helped prove that these pint-sized marvels do in fact migrate, and in many cases return to the very same nest year after year, with their offspring nesting nearby.
This is a well-written account of this facet of Audubon’s work. It reads like a story; it is crammed with fascinating, colorful, descriptive details; yet it is very personal, with Audubon’s wondering thoughts leading the way throughout the book. The illustrations are beautiful and highly-varied. Pages of mixed media collage, depicting Audubon’s nature collections for example, are interspersed with watercolor paintings or a sketch from a nature notebook. Each page is quite different from the one before, making it a delight just to turn the page and see what’s next!