Closer Readings Commentary

National Zoo and Aquarium Month: Preserving America’s Wildlife

"On the 27th of May 1832, while sailing from Indian Key,... I for the first time saw a flock of flamingos …" -John James Audubon

June is National Zoo and Aquarium month, a good time to explore your local zoo and aquarium as well as the websites of America’s great zoos and aquariums. Many of them have excellent educational resources — photographs, videos, facts, lesson plans, activities, and sound so real your dog will growl. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums provides a collection of links to their accredited zoos and aquariums.

This month EDSITEment features art and artists who have drawn attention to the need for protecting America’s vanishing wilderness and wildlife.

James Audubon

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was not the first person to attempt to paint and describe all the birds of America (Alexander Wilson has that distinction), but for half a century he was the young republic’s dominant wildlife artist. His seminal Birds of America, a collection of 435 life-size prints, quickly eclipsed Wilson’s work and is still a standard against which modern and contemporary bird artists such as Roger Tory Peterson and David Sibley are measured.

Someone might ask what the relationship is between Audubon and the organization that bears his name. Although Audubon had no role in the founding of the organization, there is a connection: George Bird Grinnell, a passionate naturalist and one of the founders of the early Audubon Society in the late 1800s, was tutored by Lucy Audubon, John James’s widow. Knowing Audubon’s reputation, Grinnell chose his name as the inspiration for the organization’s earliest work to protect birds and their habitats. Today, the name Audubon remains synonymous with birds and bird conservation the world over. 

The Audubon Society is not, however, the only thing named for the famous naturalist.  In New Orleans, Audubon Nature Institute is a family of ten museums and parks dedicated to nature.  Among them, Audubon Park, Audubon Zoo, and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas are also named for him.  Audubon painted many of his famed "Birds of America" in Louisiana available from the image gallery in KnowLA, the digital encyclopedia of Lousiana, by NEH affiliate Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.  Read about Audubon the Writer to see how his journals and essays reflect the vision of his art.  Learn more about this connection with his adopted state in the video, John James Audubon: The Birds of America.

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Audubon in Historical Context

Audubon lived in a time of geographic expansion, technological transformation and social reform. Americans were becoming aware of themselves as a distinct nation with seemingly limitless potential but also one that needed to consciously develop a common national culture and ethos. While Audubon was traveling west and sketching birds and animals, Noah Webster was codifying our native tongue in his American Dictionary of the English Language. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” to memorialize the now departed heroic generation and the nation’s revolutionary past. For more on this theme, see Picturing America Resource on Grant Wood's 1931 painting and EDSITEment lesson, Midnight Ride of Paul Revere-Fact, Fiction and Artistic License.

Students can access additional historical information about the life and career of John James Audubon through NEH-funded Chronicling America, which contains newspaper articles and primary source images ranging from 1836 to 1922.

Hudson River School

In the field of visual culture, the artists of the Hudson River School such as Thomas Cole and later Albert Bierstadt created a uniquely national form of painting celebrating the spectacular natural landscapes. A philosophical movement called Transcendentalism became a significant cultural force. One of its major spokesmen, Henry David Thoreau, wrote about the meaning of his deep love of nature. In an address to the Concord (Massachusetts) Lyceum, Thoreau declared: "in Wildness is the preservation of the World." Americans in this period came to appreciate nature as an economic, aesthetic, and spiritual resource and in the process lay the foundations for the conservation movements of the later 19th and 20th centuries.

American Flamingo by John James Audubon and Robert Havell

When John James Audubon painted American Flamingo in 1838, wild flamingos still nested in Florida’s shallow waters. At the beginning of the 20th century there were about fifty breeding colonies of wild flamingos. Now only four main breeding colonies of American flamingos survive in the wild and they are in the Caribbean. Today, most American flamingos in the United States live in zoos or on nature preserves.

Audubon’s goal was to paint and describe every species of bird known in the United States, an ambitious project as new species were constantly being discovered in the early 1800’s. Usually he observed and sketched a bird in the wild, noting how it moved, what it ate, and where it lived. Then he killed it with fine shot. Before the bird stiffened, he threaded wires through its body so he could pose it naturally. In his studio he painted watercolors of birds in their natural habitats. This practice was revolutionary since 19th century scientific illustrations usually showed stiff, dead birds with no background.

Because Audubon painted the birds almost life size, he drew the American flamingo bent over so that the whole body would fit into the approximately 3’ x 2’ format of the print portfolio.


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Audubon received little or no support from the American scientific community for his work and traveled abroad to find someone to help him publish his studies of North American birds. To effectively distribute his images, it was necessary to reproduce the watercolors by means of the medium of printmaking. Audubon found supporters of his work in England as well as the master engraver, the Havells of London. Robert Havell, Jr., was the main engraver for all but 10 of the 435 prints in Audubon's Birds of America. He copied Audubon’s paintings onto copper engraving plates and incised lines into the metal plate with a cutting tool or burin. Then he rolled black ink onto the plate and wiped it off to leave ink in the recessed lines. Damp paper was placed over the inked plate and passed through a press to transfer ink to the paper. Then each plate was hand colored. See the National Gallery Art’s Colorful Impressions of for more details about engraving processes.


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Look and Think

Have your students view the short video on Audubon's engraving at NEH-funded Picturing America on Screen. To encourage students to carefully observe, analyze, infer, and then discuss Audubon and Havell’s print, either ask the Teaching Activities questions in the Picturing America Educator Resource Book, 6A, or download and print the Look and Think Worksheet for students to complete. Answers to these questions are attached. Use the students’ answers to structure a class discussion about the print, flamingos, and their preservation.

Audubon emphasized his main subject by making it bright colored, large, and set against a light background. Notice the shape of the spaces between the bird’s legs and neck and the distant flock of flamingos within these spaces. Audubon carefully observed and drew textures in the feathers and legs.

Light, uncolored sketches of the bird’s feet and mandible (beak) are at the top of the print and identified near the bottom of the print. Audubon drew the inside of the mandible that strains water to trap food. The bird can actually twist its head backwards. You may also wish to show students a video of a flamingo from a zoo website.


Design a Bird Stamp

The U.S. Postal Service issued stamps featuring Audubon’s birds in 1998 and 2002. Each year new stamps showing American ducks are issued as part of the National Fish and Wildlife's Junior Duck Stamp Conservation and Design Program national art contest for students grades K-12. After viewing these and other stamps featuring birds in the National Postal Museum's Arago database, students may design their own bird stamps. Have them select and research their state bird from State Symbols USA. The Zoological Society of London also has an excellent list of endangered birds for their stamp. Students may plan their stamps by completing the attached worksheet, “Design a Local Bird Stamp” Then use paint, markers, or colored pencils to create a larger stamp design. Display the students’ stamp designs in a public location with information about the birds that they illustrated. A reproducible checklist to aid in evaluating the students’ stamp projects is attached.


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Teacher and Student Resources


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Featured Lessons

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