John James Audubon is widely known for his historic work, Birds of America. However, subsequent to this work, Audubon set out to conduct the same definitive work on all of the mammals of North America.
This work, ostentatiously entitled "The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America", was conducted in the last years of Audubonís life, from 1842 through 1846. His compatriot in this collaboration was the Reverend John Bachman, a figure also known well to todayís birders. (The word "viviparous", meaning giving birth to live young, not eggs, was eventually dropped from the title by his son, J. W. Audubon.)
In 1831, Audubon met Reverend Bachman, a pastor of the Lutheran Church, in Charleston, South Carolina. A thorough scholar, Bachman was intellectually and emotionally involved with the study of natural history. Bachman was an amateur in natural history, but was accepted as a reputable colleague by naturalists in both America and England.† This is the same Bachman for which a number of bird species have been named.
Audubon set out on a steamboat trip up the Missouri River in 1843. The purpose of the trip was to gather material for the Quadrupeds (four-legged) work. Audubon, now 58 years old, was quite physically challenged by this trip, which would be his last field trip. Although the expedition fell disappointingly short of scientific data, Audubon finally was able to visit the American West.
Audubon and Bachman described, what to them were, 56 new species to science. Truly, Bachman had been working with mammals before Audubon started his efforts, and it is Bachman who is properly credited with a majority of the new species. Over time, many of those species have lost favor to only subspecies status. However, they are still credited with the first type descriptions of five species (armadillo, red wolf, eastern small-footed myotis, hairy-tailed mole, and the harvest mouse).
By 1846 Audubonís eyesight was deteriorating to the point that about half of the illustrations for the Quadrupeds was actually done by his son, John Woodhouse Audubon. Instead of the watercolors used in Birds of America, he used techniques of watercolor combined with pastels, pencil and oils in order to obtain the subtle colors and textures of the animals.
Originally published in three 28" x 22" Imperial Size volumes, the complete set cost $300 when released in 1846. Three years after Audubonís death in 1851, a quarto edition came out in 1854 (measuring 7" x 10 ľ") under John Woodhouse Audubon and the Rev. John Bachman, and published by Audubonís other son, Victor Gifford Audubon.
A reading of this publication is today noteworthy, not so much for itsí scientific content, but rather for a revealing look at the frontier lifestyle Audubon lived in during his adventures in pursuit of these mammals (certainly not unlike his birding expeditions). His are stories that reflect the state of the wilderness west of St. Louis during his time, and the rigorous onslaught of nature that so dominated both the lifestyles and ideologies of the mid-nineteenth century American. To read the antidotal stories of his contemporaries as they related their experiences to Audubon is to gage a frontier society that lived by their hunting abilities and whose next meal was determined by what he could next kill.
These, and many other ingredients flavor Audubonís work. Allow me to provide some excerpts from his entries that exhibit the range of content in this surprisingly engaging book.
Wood-Chuck. Maryland Marmot. Ground-Hog
Regarding a house-captive groundhog, as related by Daniel Wadsworth;
"During several nights it attempted to escape by gnawing the door and window-sills; gradually it became more quiet, and suffered itself to be approached by the inmates of the kitchen, these being the cook, a fine dog, and a cat; so that ere many months had elapsed, it would lie on the floor near the fire, in company with the dog, and would take food from the hand of the cook. I now began to take a particular interest in its welfare, and had a large box made for its use, and filled with hay, to which it became habituated, and always retired when inclined to repose. Winter coming on, the box was placed in a warm corner, and the Wood-Chuck went into it, arranged its bed with care, and became torpid. Some six weeks having passed without its appearing, or having received any food; I had it taken out of the box, and brought it into the parlour; - it was inanimate. I laid it close to the fire, and having ordered my dog to lie down by it, placed the Wood-Chuck in the dog's lap. In about half an hour, my pet slowly unrolled itself, raised it's nose from the carpet, looked around for a few minutes, and then slowly crawled away from the dog, moving about the room as if in search of its own bed. I took it up, and had it carried down stairs and placed again in its box, where it went to sleep, as soundly as ever, until spring made its appearance. The succeeding winter this animal evinced the same dispositions, and never appeared to suffer by its long sleep. An accident deprived me of my pet, for having been trodden on, it gradually became poor, refused food, and finally died extremely emaciated."
Regarding a particularly adept fox at losing the hounds at the top of a specific hill, the eminent lawyer, Benjamin Yancey concealed himself near the declivity in order to discover his mode of baffling the dogs;
"The animal was accordingly put up and chased, and at first led the hounds through many bayous and ponds in the woods, but at length came running over the brow of the hill along the path, stopped suddenly and spread himself out flat and motionless on the ground; the hounds came down the hill in pursuit at a dashing pace, and the whole pack passed and did not stop until they were at the bottom of the hill. As soon as the immediate danger was over, the Fox casting a furtive glance around him, stared up, and ran off at his greatest speed on his back track".
(In Audubon's account on red fox, a similar anecdotal story is presented with the red fox hiding over a bluff under some concealing branches until the hounds had passed, thus affording the red fox the opportunity to escape along it's former path.)
Known to us today as the Eastern cottontail, the following tells of how Audubon caught his samples:
"Whilst residing in the State of New-York many years ago, we were desirous of preserving a number of rabbits during the winter from the excessive cold and from the hands of the hunters, who killed so many that we feared the race would be nearly extirpated in our neighbourhood; our desiring being to set them at liberty in the spring. At this period we had in confinement several weasels of two species existing in that part of the country (long-tailed and short-tailed), in order to ascertain in what manner their change of colour from brown in summer to white in winter and vice versa, was effected.
We bethought ourselves of using one of each species of these weasels instead of a ferret, to aid in taking the rabbits we wanted, and having provided ourselves with a man and a dog to hunt the rabbits to their holes, we took the weasels in a small tin box with us, having first tied a small cord around their necks in such a manner as to prevent them from escaping, or remaining in the holes to eat the rabbits, whilst it could not slip and choke them.
We soon raced a rabbit to its hole, and our first experiment was made with the little brown weasel (short-tailed); it appeared to be frightened, and refused to enter the hole; the common species (long-tailed) although we had captured the individual but a few days before, entered readily; but having its jaws at liberty, it killed the rabbit. Relinquishing the weasel to our man, he afterwards filed its teeth down to prevent it from destroying the rabbits; and when thus rendered harmless, the ermine pursued the rabbits to the bottom of their holes, and terrified them so that they instantly fled to the entrance and were taken by hand. In this manner the man procured twelve rabbits alive in the course of one morning, and more than fifty in about three weeks, when we requested him to desist."
Audubon tells of a porcupine he kept for six months in Charleston, SC;
"It was occasionally let out of its cage to enjoy the benefit of a promenade in the garden. It had become very gentle, and evinced no spiteful propensities; when we called to it, holding in our hand a tempting sweet-potatoe or an apple, it would turn its head slowly toward us, and give us a mild and wistful look, and then with stately steps advance and take the fruit from our hand. It then assumed an upright position, and conveyed the potatoe or apple to its mouth with its paws. If it found the door of our study open it would march in, and gently approach us, rubbing its sides against our legs, and looking up at us as if supplicating for additional delicacies. We frequently plagued it in order to try its temper, but it never evinced any spirit of resentment by raising its bristles at us; but no sooner did a dog make his appearance than in a moment it was armed at all points in defence."
Numerous stories of buffalo hunts are offered. Recollections of their former range and abundance are melancholically produced. Audubon relates his experiences of seeing buffalo trying to cross frozen rivers, only to see them break through the ice and, in panic, desperately flail in the water before perishing. One account of Indians on board a steamship traveling up the Missouri River tells of the natives desire to eat the floating putrid carcasses of buffalo; a ritual to preserve their lives. Hunting techniques and uses of the buffalo by the native Indians are also detailed.
Perhaps the most interesting is an account of Robert Wickliffe of Kentucky, who provides Audubon his experience breeding buffalo with domestic cattle.
"The herd of buffalo I now possess have descended from one or two cows (female buffalo) that I purchased from a man who brought them from the country called the Upper Missouri; I have had them for about thirty years, but from giving them away and the occasional killing of them by mischievous person, as well as other causes, my whole stock at this time does not exceed ten or twelve. I have sometimes confined them in separate parks from other cattle, but generally they herd and feed with my stock of farm cattle. They graze in company with them as gently as the others. The buffalo cows, I think, go with young about the same time the common cow does, and produce once a year; none of mine have ever had more than one at a birth. The approach of the sexes is similar to that of the common bull and cow under similar circumstances at all times when the cow is in heat, a period which seems, as with the common cow, confined neither to day, nor night, nor any particular season, and the cows bring forth their young of course at different times and seasons of the year, the same as our domesticated cattle. I do not find my buffaloes more furious or wild than the common cattle of the same age that graze with them.
Although the buffalo, like the domestic cow, brings forth its young at different seasons of the year, this I attribute to the effect of domestication, as it is different with all animals in a state of nature. I have always heard their time for calving in our latitude was from March until July, and it is very obviously the season which nature assigns for the increase of both races, as most of my calves were from the buffaloes and common cows at this time. On getting possession of the tame buffalo, I endeavoured to cross them as much as I could with my common cows, to which experiment I found the tame or common bull (cow) unwilling to accede, and he was always shy of a buffalo cow, but the buffalo bull was willing to breed with the common cow.
The full blood is not as large as the improved stock, but as large as the ordinary cattle of the country. The crossed or half blood are larger than either the buffalo or common cow. The udder of bag of the buffalo is smaller that that of the common cow, but I have allowed the calves of both to run with their dams (mothers) upon the same pasture, and those of the buffalo were always the fattest; and old hunters have told me, that when a young buffalo calf is taken, it requires the milk of two common cows to raise it. The bag of udder of the half breed is larger than that of full blooded animals, and they would, I have no doubt, make good milkers.
The domesticated buffalo still retains the grunt of the wild animal, and is incapable of making any other noise.
The buffalo has a much deeper shoulder than the tame ox, but is lighter behind. He walks more actively than the latter, and I think has more strength than a common ox of the same weight. I have broke them to the yoke, and found them capable of making excellent oxen; and for drawing wagons, carts or other heavily laden vehicles on long journeys, they would, I think, be greatly preferable to the common ox.
The mixed breeds are of various colours; I have had them striped with black, on a gray ground like the zebra, some of them brindled red, some pure red with white faces, and others red without any marking of white.
I was informed that at the first settlement of the country, cows that were considered the best for milking were from the half blood, down to the quarter, and even eighth of the buffalo blood. But my experiments have not satisfied me that the half buffalo bull will produce again. That the half breed heifer will be productive from either race, as I have before stated, I have tested beyond the possibility of a doubt."
(More from Audubonís publication next month.† For my complete review, you may go to www.bobpickett.org and click on Appalachian Mammals.)