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The Birds That Audubon Missed

Discovery and Desire in the American Wilderness


About The Book

Renowned naturalist Kenn Kaufman examines the scientific discoveries of John James Audubon and his artistic and ornithologist peers to show how what they saw (and what they missed) reflects how we perceive and understand the natural world.

Raging ambition. Towering egos. Competition under a veneer of courtesy. Heroic effort combined with plagiarism, theft, exaggeration, and fraud. This was the state of bird study in eastern North America during the early 1800s, as a handful of intrepid men raced to find the last few birds that were still unknown to science.

The most famous name in the bird world was John James Audubon, who painted spectacular portraits of birds. But although his images were beautiful, creating great art was not his main goal. Instead, he aimed to illustrate (and write about) as many different species as possible, obsessed with trying to outdo his rival, Alexander Wilson. George Ord, a fan and protégé of Wilson, held a bitter grudge against Audubon for years, claiming he had faked much of his information and his scientific claims. A few of Audubon’s birds were pure fiction, and some of his writing was invented or plagiarized. Other naturalists of the era, including Charles Bonaparte (nephew of Napoleon), John Townsend, and Thomas Nuttall, also became entangled in the scientific derby, as they stumbled toward an understanding of the natural world—an endeavor that continues to this day.

Despite this intense competition, a few species—including some surprisingly common songbirds, hawks, sandpipers, and more—managed to evade discovery for years. Here, renowned bird expert and artist Kenn Kaufman explores this period in history from a new angle, by considering the birds these people discovered and, especially, the ones they missed. Kaufman has created portraits of the birds that Audubon never saw, attempting to paint them in that artist’s own stunning style, as a way of examining the history of natural sciences and nature art. He shows how our understanding of birds continues to gain clarity, even as some mysteries persist from Audubon’s time until ours.

About The Author

Kimberly Kaufman

An avid naturalist since the age of six, Kenn Kaufman burst onto the national birding scene as a teenager in the 1970s, hitchhiking all over North America in pursuit of all the bird species he could find—an adventure chronicled in his cult-classic book Kingbird Highway. After several years as a professional tour leader, taking birding groups to all seven continents, he transitioned to a career as a writer, illustrator, and editor. He is among the youngest persons ever to receive the highest honor of the American Birding Association—and the only person to receive it twice. He has authored or coauthored thirteen books about birds and nature, including his own series of Kaufman Field Guides. Since the 1980s, he has been an editor and consultant on birds for the National Audubon Society, and he’s been a Fellow of the American Ornithological Society since 2013. Kenn lives in Oak Harbor, Ohio, with his wife, Kimberly Kaufman, who is also a dedicated naturalist and the director of a local bird observatory.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster (May 7, 2024)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668007594

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Raves and Reviews

“A must-read for birders curious about so much that lies hidden behind the names in our pastime . . . The Birds That Audubon Missed isn’t a dry history; it’s as alive as the birds it describes, thanks to the personal aspect Kaufman weaves into the narrative. . . . The era of great discovery never ends if all discovery is personal. One’s own revelatory experiences in the natural world are what truly matter.” Christian Cooper, Washington Post

“Kaufman delves into the motivations, achievements, and rivalries of early American ornithologists and explores the challenges they faced in identifying and describing North American bird life. Interwoven with Kaufman’s musings on conservation, technology, and the meaning of discovery, it is at heart a reflection of the author’s deep sense of connection to the natural world, especially to birds, and of his enthusiasm for helping others find that connection for themselves. . . . The Birds That Audubon Missed is ultimately a celebration of a more personal sense of discovery, less tied to who saw what first and more to do with what new experiences do for our sense of wonder at the world around us.” The New York Times

“An exciting period . . . Kaufman’s blend of history, science, art, biography, and memoir will intrigue birders and readers fascinated by the larger context. . . . A lively narrative.” Booklist (starred review)

“Kaufman is a graceful writer, his commitment to his subject shines through, and the beautiful illustrations make this book a bird lovers’ delight. A deeply satisfying read.” Kirkus Reviews

“Splendid . . . A high-flying study of Audubon’s scientific contributions and major missteps . . . The discerning attention Kaufman pays to overlooked corners of his subject’s biography reveals Audubon’s fabulist streak (he ginned up funds for his first book by inventing an eagle with a rumored 10-foot wingspan) and ethical lapses (he once passed off a hawk specimen from a fellow Academy of Natural Sciences member as his own). Kaufman includes his own illustrations of the birds discussed, gamely mimicking Audubon’s style while bringing a sensibility distinctly his own.” Publishers Weekly

“With expertise, empathy, and thoughtful commentary Kenn Kaufman takes a fresh look at the early days of American ornithology, relating it to the common experiences of modern birders, and the history comes alive as never before. It’s a great concept, and makes this a unique and fascinating book.” David Allen Sibley, author of The Sibley Guide to Birds

“The thrill of discovery is a gift that comes to anyone who takes the time to watch wild birds. The history of bird study has been animated by the desire for such discovery, and The Birds That Audubon Missed shows how the adventures of pioneer ornithologists are reflected in our own times.” —Amy Tan, author of The Backyard Bird Chronicles and The Joy Luck Club

“I highly recommend The Birds That Audubon Missed. . . . Its unique blend of ornithological history and biography, analytic critique and personal memoir, is written in an engaging style that entertains, enlightens, and educates.” —Donna Schulman, 10,000 Birds

“Kenn Kaufman has always been a graceful guide to the world of birds and birding, but here he shines an especially timely and illuminating light on the period of most fevered ornithological discovery, at least by American science, by focusing on the species that the most famous bird artist of all time never saw. The Birds That Audubon Missed is a fascinating, blunt, warts-and-all grappling with the legacy of those discoveries, and the sometimes badly flawed naturalists and explorers who made them (or made them up).” —Scott Weidensaul, author of A World on the Wing

The Birds That Audubon Missed is a clear-eyed and surprisingly exciting portrait of a time and place that have long ago disappeared, and an important and timely book as well. I can’t recommend it highly enough.” Laura Erickson, For the Birds

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