Audubon and his followers: rare birds of a feather

Those who track birds find a place in the limelight this year

This has been a big year for birds. The ivory-billed woodpecker made headlines this spring when it was proclaimed not to be extinct. Now challenges to its sightings are making headlines again. Given the hubbub, it probably should surprise no one that avian-themed books are turning up on summer reading lists.

In the case of at least two of the books, however, it's the human observers of the birds - rather than the winged creatures themselves - that take center stage.

"Under A Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America" by William Souder examines the life of Audubon, godfather of modern ornithology and a beacon for naturalists and artists of all stripes.

Jack-of-all-trades, dashing, handsome, quick-witted, Audubon was a larger-than-life figure - not unlike his fabled "double-elephant" portfolio drawings of birds (measuring a whopping 40" x 27") which he refused to recreate in miniature, even though their size rendered them initially unpublishable.

He saw his work as nothing less than a divine mission.

Tim Gallagher is Audubon's modern-day counterpart. An author and wildlife photographer who has devoted himself to wilderness explorations (Iceland, Greenland), he also became one of a pack of naturalists determined to catch a glimpse of this fabled ghost-bird, a quest he details in "The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker."

Gallagher admits from the start his own helpless attraction to "obsessive quests." His book fully conveys not only the problems involved in documenting the woodpecker's existence, but the task he and his team then faced as they tried to "reintroduce" an "extinct" species to a community of doubting ornithologists. (The book was written before the latest challenge from other experts.)

But Gallagher's real tale is the story of the hunters, a pack of frankly faceless lab ornithologists and dedicated weekend good ol' boys, rather than a story about their quarry. The newly rediscovered, near-mythical "woody" makes few and fleeting (indeed fugitive) cameo appearances, in blurry video and dubious verbal account.

As odd birds go, Gallagher's buddy and fellow tracker Bobby Ray Harrison is the one who steals the show with zany if zealous outback exploits.

The story of a big bird on the run becomes intertwined with that of Louisiana's Singer Tract, a huge swamp long since logged into matchsticks by a paper company. Within the tract, sightings of the bird are recorded and then subsequently denied and hushed up. The whole story culminates on Feb. 2, 2004, when author and sidekick manage a three-second look at the enormous, black-and-white, straight-flying behemoth of woodpeckers in Arkansas's remote Bayou de View.

Die-hard birders will appreciate the climactic moment, but other readers may feel "you hadda be there."

Souder's job in tracking Audubon - who spent much of his life grumbling, grousing, and endlessly doubting his fabulous talent - was in some ways as adventurous a quest as Gallagher's.

Working from Audubon's extensive journals and letters, Souder recounts the naturalist's yo-yo-like ups and downs.

We see a man happier in the wild than in patrons' drawing rooms, whose worst travail was not being pursued by a bear but rather facing his own psychological and financial problems.

The tall, comely Audubon is a crack shot, deft artist, nimble fencer and dancer, able fiddler and singer. But he's unstable of mood, unfortunate in business, fearful of reputation, embarrassed by his bastard lineage, wishy-washy about his marriage.

He can't decide whether his estranged wife, Lucy, should visit him on his long subscription rounds in England. He was happiest left to do what he did best: stalk, shoot, mount, sketch, and paint nearly every known bird in eastern and central North America.

Souder excels at colorful and immediate accounts of the wild. Audubon's month-long forays on horseback into the field with shotgun and pack, portfolio and chalk, come alive through judicious snippets of diary and his own vivid reimaginings.

A chapter on a locust-like hurricane of millions of passenger pigeons - one year a plague, then suddenly nearly extinct - seems gripping and eerily prophetic. His tale of Audubon's brush with rattlesnakes is hair-raising.

Yet the Who's Who of fellow birdmen well met in cameos - artist Constantin Rafinesque, hunter Daniel Boone, naturalist Alexander Wilson - loom larger than Audubon's encounters with the birds themselves.

Both books carry lightly their exhaustive research, and, ultimately, both authors succeed in spinning entertaining yarns. They weave fact with speculation and (in Souder's case) intersperse biography with firsthand diary accounts.

But in the end both concern themselves more with the personalities and quirks of the men than the birds they pursue. It may be a choice that says something about today's reader, who would perhaps rather read about people than birds.

Fred Bouchard is a freelance writer and professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

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