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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.


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