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Avian extravaganza: Museum displays iconic Audubon prints, stuffed birds

Thursday, March 1, 2012
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John James Audubon (Image courtesy of the Museum of Science, Boston)
John James Audubon (Image courtesy of the Museum of Science, Boston)

Everybody knows the American crow. It’s a common bird, a backyard mischief-maker cloaked in black.

But when you go to the Berkshire Museum and gaze upon John James Audubon’s image of the lowly crow, corvus americanus perches with authority among the beautiful palmlike blades of a black walnut tree, laden with fleshy yellow fruits. The roadside scamp becomes a gentleman, an upperclass avian.

“American Crow” is one of 34 glorious, original, hand-colored prints of Audubon’s birds holding court this winter and spring in “Taking Flight: Audubon and the World of Birds.” While these prints are impressive enough, there is much more. We learn about Audubon’s life and the science of birds. There are interactive bird activities for the kiddies. And the museum spreads its own wings, uncovering more than 100 taxidermied birds from its collection.

‘Taking Flight: Audubon and the World of Birds’

WHERE: Berkshire Museum, 39 South St., Route 7, Pittsfield, Mass.

WHEN: Through June 17. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

HOW MUCH: $13; $6 for children, free for ages 3 and under.

MORE INFO: 413-443-7171, www.berkshiremuseum.org

“You are able to see them together, specimen and print,” said director of communications Lesley Ann Beck. “ ‘Taking Flight’ reflects the mission of the museum as a great confluence of science, history and art.”

Created by the Berkshire Museum with the hope of traveling the show to other venues, the exhibit spans three large galleries.

Audubon’s life is a story in itself, an adventure tale set in the early 1800s.

More about birds

-- Bird banding demonstration, 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, at Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Lenox. $4 adult, $3 children. Not recommended for children under 3.

-- “Morgan Bulkeley: Bird Story,” through Sunday, 15 witty, bird-inspired paintings by Berkshire native Morgan Bulkeley in Ellen Crane Memorial Room. Free.

-- “An Adventurous Artist’s Life”, 7 p.m. March 16, Amy Montague, director of the Mass Audubon Visual Arts Center will give a lecture about Audubon’s life, emphasizing his ties to Massachussetts. Free.

Born in 1785 in what is now Haiti, he was the son of a French merchant and his mistress, a young Creole chambermaid. Audubon was raised in France, and in 1803, to avoid conscription in the Napoleonic Wars, he was sent to America at age 18 with a false passport.

Audubon was enchanted by the wildlife of the New World, and at age 35 he embarked on his ambitious mission to illustrate every bird in North America in its natural habitat.

As an artist and naturalist, Audubon changed how people looked at birds, said Maria Mingalone, director of interpretation and curator of “Taking Flight.”

“He was a boundary breaker,” she said, “one of those people who live uncomfortable lives and give so much of themselves.”

From 1827 to 1839, Audubon’s “The Birds of America,” a book of 435 color plates, each about 291⁄2 by 391⁄2 inches, was printed in London by Robert Havell Sr. and Robert Havell Jr.

Today, with only 119 known copies still in existence, it’s one of the most valuable books in the world. In 2010, a copy was auctioned at Sotheby’s for $11.5 million, a record price for a single book.

Traveling for 20 years from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, Audubon identified 25 new species and 12 new subspecies. In 1905, following protests over the killing of birds to make fashionable feathered hats for women, the National Audubon Society was founded in his honor to preserve bird species and natural ecosystems.

The second room of “Taking Flight” is a bird lover’s paradise. “Birds of America” prints, hung salon-style on the walls, surround a 20-foot-long, tablelike pedestal where 30 bird specimens, some more than 100 years old, are posed unencumbered by glass cases.

A golden eagle is posted regally in the center; a wild turkey, its feathers fanned out, marks one end, while a loon, standing tall, marks the other. Nestled between are scores of other birds, including a scarlet ibis, bright tangerine with a long curved yellow beak, and a plover that’s small enough to fit in a child’s hand.

Audubon’s life-size bird images are captivating, with exquisite details of not only the birds but grasses, nests, trees, ponds, ocean and flowers.

A Red-tailed Hawk clutches a hare in his talons, a White Heron flaunts lacy tail feathers, a Great American Hen towers over her chicks as they flit through a field.

“Audubon was so careful in how he reproduced these birds,” said Beck.

Grim truth

In this section we also learn “the grim truth,” that Audubon killed birds, often 100 in a day, as part of his mission to learn about and document them.

He would observe the bird’s habits, shoot the bird and hold it in position with wire and thread. He would draw quickly, paint it with watercolors, then send the image to London, where an engraver would make a plate from his image. Using the plates, pages were printed in black and white, and then a staff of artists would add the watercolors.

Among the artifacts and documents in “Taking Flight” is an engraved copper plate of Audubon’s Brant Goose from 1837, borrowed from the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

“Having that plate is a very big deal,” said Mingalone, because most of his copper plates were scrapped and melted down.

The third gallery is all about the science of birds. There’s a collection of more than 100 eggs, from a songbird specimen the size of a jellybean to a giant ostrich egg. And we learn amazing facts about our feathered friends, such as that an albatross can sleep while it flies.

Children can build a bowerbird’s nest or pretend they are an owl flying in the dark hunting prey or compare the span of their arms to the wingspans of different birds.

The exhibit concludes with sobering information about the loss of species.

Six birds that were depicted in “Birds of America” are now extinct.

Before the 1500s, the natural rate of extinction for birds was one species a century. Since the 16th century, that rate has been one species a year.

Audubon himself expired at age 71 in 1851 in his New York City home and was buried in Manhattan’s Trinity Cemetery. In 1892, a 25-foot-tall monument was erected over his grave.

 
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