John James Audubon was an ornithologist, painter, and naturalist. He was born in 1785 as an illegitimate child in what is now the nation of Haiti. He was raised in France by his stepmother. John, who at the time was called Jean Rabin, showed an interest in birds from an early age. At the age of twelve, however, Jean Rabin was sent to military school and gained experience on ships. Jean Rabin showed little interest or skill in military matters and endeavored to study birds.
In 1803, Audubon’s father arranged for him to travel to the United States to avoid being drafted in the Napoleonic Wars. Upon arrival, Jean Rabin changed his named to John James, learned English in a Quaker boarding home, and married his neighbor, Lucy Bakewell five years later. Audubon tended to a family farm near Philadelphia where he became the first person in North America to band birds. He learned that birds return to the same nesting place each year by tying yarn to the legs of an Eastern Phoebe. He also began to paint birds.
After business ventures failed, Audubon decided to pursue his love of painting birds. He traveled down the Mississippi River and shot birds so he could paint them. He used wires to prop them in natural positions to make the paintings as realistic as possible. Audubon apparently shot prodigious numbers of birds and angered contemporaries such as Alexander Wilson. Audubon had no success selling pictures in America but became an instant success in London, where the English saw him as the “American Woodsman.” Audubon raised enough money to publish his now legendary Birds of America in 1827. Audubon soon published more books and returned to America, where he bought an estate on the Hudson River. In 1842, Birds of America was published in the United States. He also had a home in Key West, Florida. The Audubon Society was dedicated and named in his honor in 1896.