It’s spring, and that means there are a lot of new moms in New York City—moms with wings! Baby birds are hatching all around us, learning how to make it in the city! So we’re celebrating moms with and without feathers this Mother’s Day weekend with our fifth annual Meet the Fledglings program with the Wild Bird Fund.
In honor of our exhibition Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife, the Wild Bird Fund will bring baby birds to the Museum! Families can feed and touch them after learning all about bird wildlife in the city, and how the Wild Bird Fund cares for it. In anticipation of this program, we thought we’d explore a few of John James Audubon’s famous watercolors featuring mom and baby birds that he created for his epic work, The Birds of America. New-York Historical acquired all his original watercolors in 1863 from his widow, and we regularly feature them in exhibitions and in our Audubon’s Birds of America Focus Gallery. Check out our favorite feathered families below!
Early in his career, Audubon drew and painted this lively image of a wild turkey hen and her nine “poults” (baby turkeys), walking through a forest. He wrote that the hen is “leading her young progeny, with measured step and watchful eye, through the intricacies of the forest. The chickens still covered with down, are running among her feet in pursuit of insects. One is picking its sprouting plumelets, while another is ridding itself of a tick which has fastened upon its little wing.” Audubon created this image while traveling down the Mississippi River from Cincinnati in 1820. Can you spot the poult picking its plumelets or the one nibbling a tick?
Forget the old lady that lived in a shoe. How about the House Wren who lived in a hat? Audubon claimed to have seen House Wrens nesting in one before, noting “…look at the little creatures anxiously peeping out or hanging to the side of the hat, to meet their mother…” In 1812, Audubon painted the male House Wren from a live model: the bird nested around Audubon’s Pennsylvania home and had come to trust him enough to go inside the house. Eventually, Audubon captured him in his hand, drew him, and then released him. The bird never flew inside the house again! The male that Audubon drew sits atop the nest here, while the female feeds her young a delicious spider.
Audubon travelled through much of the United States painting birds. These American Robin specimens were found in Great Egg Harbor, New Jersey. Robins are very common on the east coast, so you have probably seen them many times! In this painting, two adult robins feed five fledglings. The male leans over the nest to give his brood a worm or caterpillar, while the female perches above, about to give a tasty treat to one of her young. It’s great to see two parents working together! Audubon wrote of the American Robin: “The young are fed with anxious care by their tender parents…The young, before they are fully fledged, often leave the nest to meet their parents, when coming home with a supply of food.”
Finally, check out this detail of Aududon’s drawing of Anna’s Hummingbird. It’s not a hummingbird owned by Anna—that’s the name of the species! Audubon never travelled all the way to California to see these birds in the wild, so he bought these specimens in London. A man named Thomas Nuttall gave him a nest he found in the Rocky Mountains, and Audubon painted this nest to look like that one. You can’t see any young hummingbirds here. Why? Because the mom of this duo is incubating her eggs, sitting on them until they hatch. These incredible birds lay some of the smallest eggs of any bird species: only five-twelfths of an inch long—around the size of a jelly bean!
Audubon painted hundreds of birds, some of which you can see at the Museum in the Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife exhibition and the Audubon’s Birds of America Focus Gallery. We hope you’ll join us on May 11 to celebrate moms, both feathered and not!
Written by Rachel Walman
Source: Olson, Roberta J.M. Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for The Birds of America. New York: New-York Historical Society. New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2012.