For this column, Iím going to write about all of the birds Iíve seen lately. Thereís been the--uh--and the--um. . .
OK, I confess. I havenít gone birding in a long time. But itís not my fault. Since December 26, we have had in my area: a 26Ē blizzard (most of which is still not melted); a small snowstorm of a couple of inches; an ice storm; a mid-size snowstorm of maybe 6-8Ē; Another relatively small storm of maybe 3Ē or so. And now, last night, blizzard #2 of 16Ē.
This morning some House Sparrows came to the fire escape to eat coffee cake. They are the first birds Iíve seen in weeks. Even the pigeons are hiding or frozen to death.
So what can a birder do in this weather? There is only one thing: watch television. Several years ago, finding a good documentary about birds or any other animal wasnít too hard. Today even Animal Planet dedicates its programming to lurid reality shows about ghosts and escapes from death (which may or may not have anything to do with animals).
So I was delighted to find a rare, high-quality bird themed doc on a digital channel PBS-rerun station. I am not certain if it was ever shown on the main channel; I assume it must have been, although I had never seen it.
Entitled ďSummer of BirdsĒ it told the story of John James Audubonís stay in Louisiana in 1821, working as a tutor for a rich young Southern belle. Audubon was a rather handsome young man (or at least the actor who portrayed him in the reenactment is.) He was funny, charming and good at everything, including singing, dancing, storytelling and flute-playing.
Audubonís main talents, of course, were related to birding. He was an expert marksman who shot birds of many species and painted them in a new and exciting way. Before Audubon, bird paintings were static and formal. Audubon positioned them in a way in which they looked more alive, more interesting. Most of the birds he painted in his famous bird guide were originally painted this summer.
One reason why he is so beloved is that he painted birds that are no longer found in Louisiana (or anywhere else, for that matter.) The passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet and ivory-billed woodpecker are all gone (or probably gone; theyíre not too sure about the woodpecker.) His paintings ensure that these victims of habitat loss will not be forgotten.
Audubon left Louisiana after he had a fight with his employer over $20, which was no trivial sum back in those days. Although he left under unfortunate terms, his legacy lives on. Today, the plantation in which he lived is a historical site, and Louisiana is one of the top states for ornithological research. There are Audubon celebration days complete with period clothing, and a bridge spanning the Mississippi is named after him, as well as many local businesses
While this documentary is a little slow at times, with a lot of soft music and soft-spoken bird experts, it is still one of the best bird documentaries Iíve seen lately. I confess to knowing very little about Audubonís life before this show. In fact, I wasnít even sure of his first name. Now I am intrigued to learn even more.
The video is available from the web site of Louisiana Public Broadcasting. I watched the show on television and did not receive a free copy of the DVD.