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Audubon’s Birds of America, Part 3: The Trumpeter Swan

 

Trumpeter Swan, Cygnus buccinator, from Audubon’s Birds of America

In the final installation of this week’s theme (dare we say this week’s blog’s swan song?) in celebration of Abbeville Press’ reissue of the stunning Baby Elephant Folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America, we’re taking a closer look at the Trumpeter Swan. The swan has a long history in literature, with roots going back to Greek mythology, where we find the story of Leda and the Swan, in which Zeus takes on his notorious guise as swan to seduce (or, depending on who’s telling the story, to rape) the young nymph Leda. This subject has been recounted often (and by often, we mean basically ad infinitum) in art—in paintings, sculpture, music, dance, and in poetry—and one of the most notable versions is W.B. Yeats’ poem, “Leda and the Swan.” In Yeats’ version of the tale, he foresees the tragic consequences of the scene, and we witness the fall of Troy:

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
——————————–Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Why the fall of Troy? Because Leda subsequently gives birth to Helen (yes, that Helen, Helen of Troy, whom we commonly know to have had the face that launched a thousand ships). The force and the violence, not to mention the indifferent beak, of the swan Yeats depicts is a far cry from the swan of popular culture that we’ve come to recognize as a symbol of love and fidelity.

Audubon places his Trumpeter Swan in repose on a lake, and the only apparent threat he presents is directed at an unsuspecting butterfly. But in his writings, Audubon acknowledges the muscular power of the swan, and he reports:

When wounded in the wing alone, a large Swan will readily beat off a dog, and is more than a match for a man in four feet water, a stroke of the wing having broken an arm, and the powerful feet almost obliterating the face of a good-sized duck-shooter.

Perhaps we should take this as a warning, as even well-intentioned wildlife appreciators (such as the young bride in this video) might be subjected to a swan’s unexpected aggression.

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Click here to learn more about Audubon’s Birds of America, published by Abbeville press.

Audubon’s Birds of America, Part 2: The Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey [Great American Cock], Meleagris gallopavo, from Audubon’s Birds of America

Turkeys sure can strut. In fact, the turkey’s signature move has inspired not only its own dance, but its own dance convention. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was really talking turkey when he described how “in his feathered seraglio, Strutted the lordly turkey.” Even the OED confirms it: “walk turkey” means to strut or swagger.

Audubon was an admirer of the wild turkey, and he wrote at length in his Ornithological Biography on their courting practices. Needless to say, he didn’t miss the opportunity to detail their singular strut, and how (along with many an extravagant leap and several purrs on the part of the females) the male turkeys will “strut pompously about, stopping now and then to listen and look…moving with as much celerity as their ideas of ceremony seem to admit.”

Audubon’s Wild Turkey is no exception. Despite his show of practiced nonchalance, the quick glance over his shoulder to see who’s checking him out gives him away: this turkey’s just about hopping on his toes to get down and strut his stuff with the ladies. Just look at him with those pink legs, not to mention his tuck of scarlet under-plumage, ready to boogie! And though he’s yet to raise his tail feathers (he might be saving his strength for one of his irresistible “pulmonic puffs”), his charmingly pompous demeanor is unmistakable.

So, we might ask, what did Audubon do differently from his contemporaries and predecessors, to show off his birds as if in their natural state? In their introduction to Abbeville’s newly rereleased Audubon’s Birds of America, editors Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia Marie Peterson tell the story of the young Audubon’s frustrations using a wooden model and his discovery of a new method:

It was then that he conceived the procedure he was to follow for many years. He wrote: “One morning I leapt out of bed . . . went to the river, took a bath and returning to town inquired for wire of different sizes, bought some and was soon again at Mill Grove. I shot the first Kingfisher I met, pierced the body with wire, fixed it to the board, another wire held the head, smaller ones fixed the feet. . . . There stood before me the real Kingfisher. I outlined the bird, colored it. This was my first drawing actually from nature.”

In addition to using fresh birds as models, Audubon insisted on reproducing his birds fully life-sized on the page, which is why the original engravings were printed as a Double Elephant Folio. Even on such wonderfully spacious sheets, which measure about 26 x 39 inches, the Wild Turkey wouldn’t quite fit, which may explain his striking backward glance.

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Click here to learn more about Audubon’s Birds of America, published by Abbeville press.