Quiz

Take the John James Audubon ‘Birds of America’ Quiz

We've chosen excerpts from 15 of JJA's original writings. Can you guess which bird he was describing?

John James Audubon was many things. He was, of course, a talented artist, an observant naturalist, and above all, a pioneering ornithologist. He could also be dramatic, purple with his prose, and prone to fits of exaggeration. All of these qualities combined make reading through the original text of his Birds of America folio that rocketed him to fame in the early 19th century a simultaneously illuminating and entertaining foray. Times were also different back then, and some of JJA's tactics would not be approved of today. For instance, he often measured the skittishness or intelligence of a bird by whether he could get close enough to shoot it for further study. He also would eat his specimens and describe their taste. Like I said, a different time. 

Recently, as I was reading his description of a Brown Thrasher, which he named Ferruginous Thrush, I thought it might be fun to put together an ID quiz based on JJA's original writings. So I did. Below you'll find 15 excerpts lifted directly from his original text. They vary in terms of difficulty, but within each one is at least one good clue that should help you identify the species. For the answers, scroll down to the bottom.  Some of these entries are tough, so even if you get half right, to borrow a phrase from Audubon's time, you've taken the egg. And if you wish to read through all of the Birds of America entries yourself, you can do that here, along with downloading high-resolution images of his original watercolor illustrations.

BIRD DESCRIPTIONS

1.) "The song of the _______  _______, although composed of but few notes, is so powerful, distinct, clear, and mellow, that it is impossible for any person to hear it without being struck by the effect which it produces on the mind. I do not know to what instrumental sounds I can compare these notes, for I really know none so melodious and harmonical. They gradually rise in strength, and then fall in gentle cadences, becoming at length so low as to be scarcely audible; like the emotions of the lover, who at one moment exults in the hope of possessing the object of his affections, and the next pauses in suspense, doubtful of the result of all his efforts to please."

2.) "It is usually seen on the largest trees of our woods. It has a few notes, consisting of a series of rapidly enunciated tweets, the last greatly prolonged. It climbs and creeps along the trunks, the branches, and even the twigs of the trees, without intermission, and so seldom perches, that I do not remember ever having seen it in such a position. It lives principally on small ants and their larvae, which it secures as it ascends or descends in a spiral direction, sidewise, with the head either uppermost or beneath. It keeps its feet close together, and moves by successive short hops with a rapidity equalling even that of the Brown Creeper."

3.) "Their crest is now erected, their wings are seen constantly moving, and so eagerly do they grasp at the berries that they suffer many of them to fall. Every flock passing within hearing is invited to join in the feast, and in a few hours the tree is entirely stripped of its fruit. In this manner they search the whole of the forests, and towards winter are even satisfied with the berries of the dog-wood. As the cherries and mulberries ripen in the Middle Districts, the _______  _______ pays them frequent visits, and when these are out of season, the blackberries and huckleberries have their turn."

4.) "After many wide circlings, the flock has risen high in the thin air, and an hour or more is spent in teaching the young the order in which they are to move. But now, the host has been marshalled, and off it starts, shewing, as it proceeds, at one time an extended front, at another a single lengthened file, and now arraying itself in an angular form. The old males advance in front, the females follow, the young come in succession according to their strength, the weakest forming the rear. Should one feel fatigued, his position is changed in the ranks, and he assumes a place in the wake of another, who cleaves the air before him; perhaps the parent bird flies for awhile by his side to encourage him." 

5.) "It does not confine itself to these kinds of food, but greedily devours young pigs, lambs, fawns, poultry, and the putrid flesh of carcasses of every description, driving off the Vultures and Carrion Crows, or the dogs, and keeping a whole party at defiance until it is satiated. It frequently gives chase to the Vultures, and forces them to disgorge the contents of their stomachs, when it alights and devours the filthy mass."

6.) "Louisiana seems in fact better suited to its habits than any other state, on account of its numerous lakes, creeks and lagoons, over-shadowed by large trees, which are favourite places of resort for this species. It is fond of flying over the waters of these creeks and lagoons, and is seldom seen in the interior of the woods. Its flight is rapid, and more steady than is usual in birds of its genus; and as it moves along, the brightness of its colours attracts the eye. On alighting, it moves rapidly along the twigs, partly sidewise, frequently turning about and extending its neck to look under the leaves, from which it picks various kinds of insects. It often perches upon the rank grasses and water plants, in quest of minute molluscous animals which creep upon them, and which, together with small land snails, I have found in its stomach."

7.) "At this season, its curious spiral gyrations, while ascending or descending along a space of fifty or more yards of height, in the manner described in the article on the Snipe, when it utters a note different from the cry of that bird, and somewhat resembling the word kwauk, are performed every evening and morning for nearly a fortnight. While on the ground, at this season as well as in autumn, the male not unfrequently repeats this sound, as if he were calling to others in his neighbourhood, and on hearing it answered, immediately flies to meet the other bird, which in the same manner advances toward him."

8.) "While watching the movements of the _______  _______ as it was searching for food, sometimes a full hour before it was dark, I have seen it pass its lower mandible at an angle of about 45 degrees into the water, whilst its moveable upper mandible was elevated a little above the surface. In this manner, with wings raised and extended, it ploughed as it were, the element in which its quarry lay to the extent of several yards at a time, rising and falling alternately, and that as frequently as it thought it necessary for securing its food when in sight of it; for I am certain that these birds never immerse their lower mandible until they have observed the object of their pursuit, for which reason their eyes are constantly directed downwards like those of Terns and Gannets."

9.) "Their ordinary manner of proceeding, either when single or in flocks, is by easy flappings and sailings alternating at distances of from twenty to thirty yards, when they glide along with great speed. They move in an undulated line, passing at one time high, at another low, over the water or land, for they do not deviate from their course on coming upon a key or a point of land. When the waves run high, you may see them 'troughing,' as the sailors say, or directing their course along the hollows. While on wing they draw in their head between their shoulders, stretch out their broad webbed feet to their whole extent, and proceed in perfect silence."

10.) "They are extremely fond of crickets and grasshoppers, as well as other kinds of insects, and they feed on the flesh of birds whenever they can procure it. The individuals which I have kept in cages, appeared well pleased with pieces of fresh beef, but they generally remained dull and sullen until they died. As it was only during winter that I had them in confinement, when no coleopterous insects could be procured, I had no opportunity of observing if, like Hawks, they have the power of throwing up hard particles of the food which they swallow, although I should suppose this to be the case. Their propensity to impale insects and small birds on the sharp points of twigs and on thorns, which they so frequently do at all seasons of the year, is quite a mystery to me, as I cannot conceive what its object may be."

11.) "It is at all times a shy bird, so that one can seldom approach it, unless under cover of a tree, or when he happens accidentally to surprise it while engaged in its daily avocations. When seen in a large field newly brought into tillage, and yet covered with girdled trees, it removes from one to another, cackling out its laughter-like notes, as if it found delight in leading you a wild-goose chase in pursuit of it. When followed it always alights on the tallest branches or trunks of trees, removes to the side farthest off, from which it every moment peeps, as it watches your progress in silence; and so well does it seem to know the distance at which a shot can reach it, that it seldom permits so near an approach."

12.) "The _______ _______ is one of those birds that are found capable of subsisting in cold as well as in warm climates. It occurs as far north as the Canadas, where it makes occasional attacks upon the corn cribs of the farmers, and it is found in the most southern portions of the United States, where it abounds during the winter. Every where it manifests the same mischievous disposition. It imitates the cry of the Sparrow Hawk so perfectly, that the little birds in the neighbourhood hurry into the thick coverts, to avoid what they believe to be the attack of that marauder."

13.) "The prairies, the fields, the orchards and gardens, nay, the deepest shades of the forests, are all visited in their turn, and everywhere the little bird meets with pleasure and with food. Its gorgeous throat in beauty and brilliancy baffles all competition. Now it glows with a fiery hue, and again it is changed to the deepest velvety black. The upper parts of its delicate body are of resplendent changing green; and it throws itself through the air with a swiftness and vivacity hardly conceivable. It moves from one flower to another like a gleam of light, upwards, downwards, to the right, and to the left. In this manner, it searches the extreme northern portions of our country, following with great precaution the advances of the season, and retreats with equal care at the approach of autumn."

14.) "Although a lively bird, its actions are less animated, and it exhibits less petulance and restlessness than the other species. It moves alertly, however, when searching for food, climbing or retrograding downwards or sidewise, with cheerfulness and a degree of liveliness, which distinguish it at once from other birds. Now and then it has a quaint look, if I may so speak, while watching the observer, clinging to the bark head downward, and perhaps only a few feet distant from him whom it well knows to be its enemy, or at least not its friend, for many farmers, not distinguishing between it and the Sap-sucker, (Picus pubescens,) shoot at it, as if assured that they are doing a commendable action."

15.) "They are not the soft sounds of the flute or of the hautboy that I hear, but the sweeter notes of Nature's own music. The mellowness of the song, the varied modulations and gradations, the extent of its compass, the great brilliancy of execution, are unrivalled. There is probably no bird in the world that possesses all the musical qualifications of this king of song, who has derived all from Nature's self. Yes, reader, all!" 

BONUS: 

"The plumage of the young birds of this species, when they leave the nest, resembles that of the female parent, although rather less decided in point of colouring, and both males and females retain this colour until the approach of the following spring, when the former exhibit a portion of black on the chin, the females never altering. In birds kept in cages, this portion of black remains without farther augmentation for two years; but in those which are at liberty, a curious mixture of dull orange or deep chestnut peeps out through a considerable increase of black-coloured feathers over the body and wings, intermixed with the yellowish-green hue which the bird had when it left the nest. The third spring brings him nearer towards perfection, as at that time the deep chestnut colour has taken possession of the lower parts, the black has deepened on the upper parts, and over the whole head, as well as on the whigs and tail-feathers. Yet the garb with which it is ultimately to be covered requires another return of spring before it is completed, after which it remains as exhibited in the adult male, represented in the plate."

ANSWERS 

1.) Wood Thrush 

Download the original plate and read John James Audubon full description of the Wood Thrush here. 

Learn more about this species in our online bird guide here

 2.) Black & White Creeper, or Black-and-white Warbler 

Download the original plate and read John James Audubon full description of the Black & White Creeper here

Learn more about finding this species in our bird guide here

3.) Cedar Bird (Now: Cedar Waxwing) 

Download the original plate and read John James Audubon full description of the Cedar Bird here. 

Learn more about finding this species in our bird guide here

4.) Canada Goose 

Download the original plate and read John James Audubon full description of the Canada Goose here

Learn more about finding this species in our bird guide here

5.) White-headed Eagle (Now: Bald Eagle) 

Download the original plate and read John James Audubon full description of the White-headed Eagle here. 

Learn more about finding this species in our bird guide here

6.) Prothonotary Warbler 

Download the original plate and read John James Audubon full description of the Prothonotary Warbler here

Learn more about finding this species in our bird guide here

7.) American Woodcock 

Download the original plate and read John James Audubon full description of the American Woodcock here

Learn more about finding this species in our bird guide here

8.) Black Skimmer, or Shearwater

Download the original plate and read John James Audubon full description of the Black Skimmer here

Learn more about finding this species in our bird guide here

9.) Brown Pelicans 

Download the original plate and read John James Audubon full description of the Brown Pelican here

Learn more about finding this species in our bird guide here

10.) Great cinerous Shrike, or Butcher Bird (Northern Shrike) 

Download the original plate and read John James Audubon full description of the Great cinerous Shrike here. 

Learn more about finding this species in our bird guide here

11.) Pileated Woodpecker 

Download the original plate and read John James Audubon full description of the Pileated Woodpecker here

Learn more about finding this species in our bird guide here

12.) Blue Jay 

Download the original plate and read John James Audubon full description of the Wood Blue Jay here

Learn more about finding this species in our bird guide here. 

13.) Ruby-throated Humming Bird (Now: Ruby-throated Hummingbird) 

Download the original plate and read John James Audubon full description of the Ruby-throated Humming Bird here

Learn more about finding this species in our bird guide here

14.) White-breasted Black-capped Nuthatch (Now: White-breasted Nuthatch) 

Download the original plate and read John James Audubon full description of the White-breasted Black-capped Nuthatch here

Learn more about finding this species in our bird guide here

15.) Mocking Bird (Now: Northern Mockingbird)

Download the original plate and read John James Audubon full description of the Mocking Bird here

Learn more about finding this species in our bird guide here. 

BONUS: 

Orchard Oriole  

Download the original plate and read John James Audubon full description of the Orchard Oriole here

Learn more about finding this species in our bird guide here

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