Avid Birders Make Annual Pilgrimage to See Treasured ‘Birds of America’
USC Dornsife professors Dave Bottjer (earth sciences) and Sarah Bottjer (neurobiology) make a special visit every year to the USC Libraries to view one of the crown jewels of the collections: John James Audubon’s Birds of America.
Published between 1827–1838, the four volumes contain life-sized prints of all the known birds in the country, including images of six now extinct. Each plate was printed in black ink from a copper engraving and then colored by hand. Housed in a vault in Doheny Memorial Library, the volumes are commonly referred to as “The Double Elephant Folio of The Birds of America.” The term “Double Elephant” indicates the large size of the paper, which measures 26 by 39 inches. The Allan Hancock Foundation acquired The Birds of America on behalf of USC as part of the purchase in 1947 of the Boston Society of Natural History’s library.
Audubon undertook his massive project in 1820, making observations while traveling down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. He painted from life and from specimens posed with the assistance of wire and thread. The 433 images he created captured not only the birds’ physical appearances but their diets and habitats as well. American printers balked at Audubon’s insistence on reproducing the birds at life size, forcing him to travel to the United Kingdom to find printers with the technical sophistication to match his vision.
Audubon initially worked with the Scottish engraver William H. Lizars, but Lizars’ colorists went on strike after only ten plates had been completed. Audubon then found the London-based father-and-son team of Robert Havell, Jr. and Sr., who completed the engravings in 1838. Audubon intended for the Double Elephant Folio to be a parlor book, displayed and perused during social gatherings. Due to its great expense, only 175 to 200 complete sets of Birds of America were ever produced. The work is highly coveted by collectors, and new records are regularly set when one comes up for sale.
Avid birders, the Bottjers spent their most recent visit examining the color plates while sharing some of their field observations of the featured birds. “USC is one of the few institutions of higher learning that has a full set of Birds of America,” says Sarah, “Audubon’s masterpiece of artistic and scientific illustration. As Audubon enthusiasts, we are thrilled to have the opportunity to visit annually with Rare Books Librarian Melinda Hayes and go through one of the four volumes page by page.”
Professional bird aficionados are not the only visitors who have recently had the opportunity to take a closer look at these exceptional depictions of American wildlife. Over the summer, one of the volumes has been on display during orientation tours of Special Collections, allowing new USC students and families to interact with one of the most beautiful objects on campus.