The Everglades National Park
FIU IDH 4007

Audubon: Careless Bird Lover

Alberto Pisani
IDH 4007
Fall Semester 2005

   John James Audubon has been made famous by his work 'Birds of America' in which he portrays life size prints of over 400 birds. His technique consisted of shooting as many birds of the same species as possible so that he could use them as models for his life size paintings. Today such acts of barbarism would not go without public condemnation; but his work was done in the early 19th century, when the general public had a different approach to wildlife conservation. It is argued that without Audubon's work the general public at the time would have never learned about the existence of many species of birds that he shot and drew, and consequently people would have never cared enough to eventually agree that the Everglades need to be protected for these species to continue to exist. Audubon himself was highly concerned for nature conservation, even though his love for hunting would suggest otherwise. In fact, most hunters (not yahoo's from cities that just want to blast something) are very pro-conservation because if their favorite hunting areas are destroyed then there would not be anything for them to hunt. I still do not agree with Audubon's methods, which in many cases are exaggerated (like having a shooting contest with other explorers to the point where the dead and injured birds are amassed in a mountain-like heap) and inexcusable.

   Although the work of documenting all those species of birds was a great achievement, one has to look at the price that was paid. Audubon himself killed scores of them to get accurate portraits, and in the generations after Audubon's death, the birds' plumes became a highly requested item of fashion. This led to even more killing by plume hunters that nearly extinguished many species. I think this came about thanks to the publicity that Audubon gave them and that the general public was not ready to appreciate these beautiful birds when Audubon presented them in his works, and instead of wanting to protect them they chose to make fashionable hats out of their plumes. So perhaps Audubon did more harm than good by exposing these birds, because had they never been seen by the fashion designers of the time, they would have never been used as hats for the next few generations.

   In general I am not against hunting if the animals killed are then eaten. I believe that one should only kill what one will consume. I cannot stand excessive killing because it is wasteful and harmful to the balance of the ecosystem. Audubon's name in my opinion should not even be mentioned in such books like the Audubon Guide to South Florida' because his excessive shooting did much more damage than good to the ecosystems that he claimed to cherish so much. I simply cannot justify the killing or maiming of hundreds of birds at a time just to let the vast majority of them rot under the sun. In fact, had the public not been exposed to many of these exotic birds to begin with there would have never even been the absurd bird hat' fashion of the later years of the 19th century. It would have been much better had we discovered these birds later, when people were more responsible in their treatment of ecosystems. Then, instead of having one person shoot multiple birds just to draw them, you could have simply taken a photograph of the same bird and not damaged anything in the process. Audubon was a sport hunting fool that does not deserve the recognition he gets. His excessive hunting style reflects on a general culture of excess that led to much damage to habitats around the United States under various forms: dredging of swamps, pollution of streams and air, cutting down forests, and generally destroying the natural beauty of the United States to please the ever growing population and their excessive needs. Even today the general population embraces this culture of excess. The Native Americans lived in harmony with nature and never took more than what they needed, effectively living within the circle of life; the white man did nothing but disrupt the cycle of life, acting more like a cancer than an animal.

   Numerous wonderful animals have gone extinct or are in great danger of being extinct because of our irresponsible treatment of our natural surroundings (a good example being the random shooting of buffalo by train passengers crossing the great plains that led to the near extinction of an animal that once thrived in those regions). Even a beautiful National Park like the Everglades is no where near its past glory, and the once natural water flow is now controlled by man through a series of canals, pumps, and ridges. The restoration plans all include man controlled water flows and fires because we have found it impossible to coexist naturally with our surrounding and the only way for us to maintain them as they were intended to be is to control them ourselves. I do not believe it will ever be possible under these circumstances to restore the Everglades to their past beauty and plentiful resources, but at least we will be able to maintain a semi-natural environment (with the flow of water and the fire control being artificial'). It would be nice if we could all learn to live in harmony with nature like the natives did, but our culture of excess does not fit well with that sort of lifestyle so we need to take what we can get. The only hope we have to maintain these ecosystems is if, through technology, we can simulate and reproduce the natural conditions (such as in the case of the Everglades with water flow and fires). This is why it is very important to focus a lot of resources on science.

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