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The Cover
June 2, 2010

Carolina Parrot (The Birds of America, Plate 26)

JAMA. 2010;303(21):2114. doi:10.1001/jama.2010.676

Natural historians of the 19th century who took an interest in birds sorted themselves into two camps: the ornithologists, who were preoccupied with morphology and taxonomy, and the bird watchers, who were attuned to the habits, songs, nesting, and other features of bird behavior. The most influential of the bird watchers was John James Audubon (1785-1851).

Audubon's father was a French naval officer who owned a sugar plantation in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), where Audubon was born in 1785. His mother died when he was a small child. After a slave revolt in 1788, Audubon's father sold his holdings in Saint-Domingue and took his son and infant daughter to France. As a boy Audubon had many interests, including music, riding, fencing, fishing, and hunting, but he had no interest in school. His father thought the boy might be suited to a naval career, but Audubon showed little aptitude for sailing or the mathematics of navigation and failed the naval officers qualification test. In 1803, when Audubon was 18, his father sent him to a family farm in the state of Pennsylvania, so that he could avoid conscription in Napoleon's army and perhaps find a way to support himself financially. Success in business eluded Audubon, but he found many opportunities to hunt, fish, and observe the wildlife of the forests and fields. On a trip back to France, he met the naturalist and physician Charles-Marie D’Orbigny, who explained how the natural world could be studied scientifically.