Text and bird photos by Gabrielle Friesen, Digital Collections Assistant
A new digital collection is up on the Fine Arts Center’s eMuseum. The collection features 155 of John James Audubon’s Birds of America prints. Check it out now!
John J. Audubon was born in Haiti, at the time Saint-Domingue, in 1785. He spent most of his youth in his father’s native France before being sent to manage his father’s estate in Pennsylvania in 1803 to avoid fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. As manager of the Mill Grove estate, Audubon found himself drawn to the birds of the area and began to document his observations. Audubon used and posed dead birds as references to capture musculature and movement, as well as drawing on field observations to try and depict the birds as naturally as possible in his watercolor paintings. His bird illustrations led to the publishing of Birds of America between 1827 and 1838, containing 435 watercolor prints of North American birds. The engraving and coloration of the prints was undertaken in England by Robert Havell Sr. and Robert Havell Jr. Audubon left behind extensive documentation of birds and their behavior in his notes and ornithological art.
After viewing our selection from Birds of America, you may want to visit the FAC in person or search out birds in the outdoors yourself. Whether you’re looking to check out more art or more birds, here’s a list of the top four birds you might be able to spot on the FAC grounds, as well as in Monument Valley Park and along Monument Creek to the west of us.
4. American goldfinch – FA 1958.6.20, “American Goldfinch,” Gift of the Estate of Phillip B. Stewart
A bright flash of yellow zipping between tree and bush means you might have just spotted an American goldfinch. During the winter, goldfinches are largely a brown color after their autumn molt, with just hints of yellow around the head. After their spring molt, the birds take on their golden color, which is how Audubon chose to show the birds. The males become a bright yellow except for the black on their wings, tail, and top of the head. Females, though taking on less overall yellow coloration, still sport a lovely yellow front, and take on a yellowish hue to the rest of their brown feathers. The American goldfinch stays with us in Colorado year-round, and along with spotting them around the FAC and Colorado College campus, you’re likely to see them throughout the city, so long as you there’s some spots for them to sit and tasty seeds to eat.
3. Black capped chickadee – FA 1958.6.146, “Chestnut-backed Titmouse, Black-capt Titmouse, Chestnut-crowned Titmouse,” Gift of the Estate of Phillip B. Stewart
Little birds are an utter joy, and one of the most joyous among them is the chickadee. Audubon’s original print is titled “Black Capt Titmouse,” although we generally know this bird as the black capped chickadee today. While a fast, flitting bird, the chickadee has two unique calls that can offer a clue to what sort of bird you’ve spotted, if you’re without the spotting aid of binoculars, or only caught a passing glimpse. Chickadees tell you their name, with a call of chicka –dee-dee-dee. A second mnemonic device for their singing is “cheeseburger” – a call with two stresses that can sound a bit like the bird is asking for a sandwich. Like the American goldfinch, Black capped chickadees are Colorado residents all year round and can be seen in the trees by the FAC and on Colorado College’s campus, as well as in the trees and long grass around Monument Creek.
2. Great horned owl – FA 1958.6.34, “Great horned-Owl,” Gift of the Estate of Phillip B. Stewart
Who else has as much charisma as the great horned owl, peering down at you from a well-camouflaged spot among the trees? Great horned owls live throughout Colorado, and for that matter, most of the United States. If you’re lucky, you can find them nesting in cavities in the cottonwoods in Monument Valley Park. My best advice is to find a grove of cottonwoods you like and then stay really still and really quiet. Good advice for sighting any bird, but especially owls.
The great horned owl’s natural coloration blends in very well with the branches, bark, and shadows of cottonwoods. You can see this camouflage present in the Audubon print, with the darker and lighter browns on the owl’s feathers mimicking shadow and light between tree branches. You’ll need a keen eye to spot the smallest movement of this bird. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll spot some owl chicks or juveniles still living with their parents.
1. Mallard – FA 1958.6.96, “Mallard Duck,” Gift of the Estate of Phillip B. Stewart
Some may say the mallard duck is too commonplace, too ubiquitous across water features in the United States to be an exciting bird spotting. Not I! The mallard is a steadfast friend. Even if all other birds are absent – the chickadees chased away by an elusive red-tailed hawk, the owls sleeping out of sight at the time of your walk, the finches off to fuller bird feeders – you can always count on a mallard duck spotting in Monument Valley Park. Whether chilling along the banks of Monument Creek or awaiting treats at the pond, a mallard duck is almost always present for you to gaze upon. (Should you choose to pass out treats to some feathered snack-desirers, peas are a nicer snack to give them than bread. Bread doesn’t give ducks the nutrients they need, and if they fill up on it, they’re less likely to eat food that’s good for them).
On top of that stalwart presence, they are beautiful. The deep greens of the mallard’s head glimmer in the sun, while the females have a lovely bit of blue along the wing, hidden amidst the patterns of their brown feathers. The Audubon print depicts this coloration, as well as some of the lively character that can be observed in these ducks.
If, after you’ve visited the Fine Arts Center and taken in the Permanent Collection displays throughout the museum and the temporary exhibitions in the El Pomar Galleries and Holaday and Seagraves Galleries, you find yourself in the mood for bird watching, head down the slope towards Monument Valley Park, and see which birds you can spot.
Happy birdwatching, and happy art viewing!
“American Goldfinch.” eBird. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Accessed April 7, 2021.
Kaufman, Kenn. “Black-capped Chickadee.” Audubon, March 31, 2020. https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/black-capped-chickadee
Kaufman, Kenn. “Great Horned Owl.” Audubon, December 4, 2019.
Kaufman, Kenn. “Mallard.” Audubon, June 12, 2020. https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/mallard.
Tekiela, Stan. Birds of Colorado: Field Guide. Cambridge, MN: Adventure Publications, 2021.