Lines and Colors art blog

Great American Hen & Young. Vulgo, Female Wild Turkey. Meleagris gallapavo, John James Audubon, from Birds of America
Great American Hen & Young. Vulgo, Female Wild Turkey. Meleagris gallapavo, John James Audubon

Image from Wikipedia, original source: University of Pittsburgh.

The American wild turkey is so removed from the rotund form of contemporary commercial farm turkeys as to be almost unrecognizable as related. Like most of our commercial poultry, the latter have been bred through narrow genetic strains over many generations to be essentially walking meat factories.

Audubon portrayed both the male and female of the wild turkey, Meleagris gallapavo, for his ambitious Birds of America, and used the male (above, top) as the first plate.

I actually find the image of the hen and chicks more interesting, however, and I’ve provided some detail crops from the version in the University of Pittsburgh collection here.

These are engravings hand-painted in watercolor, and they vary enough that each can be considered an individual work. The one from the University of Pittsburgh collection is available on Wikipedia as a very high resolution file (80mb) as well as in zoomable form on the university’s website (along with the male, and all of the other plates from their copy of Birds of America).

There are also versions of the plates from the collection of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art on Google Art Project, male and female. The color difference in this case is due to different paintings on engravings, not the usual internet color inconsistencies (though they may be at play as well).

See my post an Audubon’s Birds of America.

I also came across mention in the Wikipedia article that the common notion that Ben Franklin proposed the wild turkey as the national bird of the new republic, rather than the bald eagle, is essentially untrue — in that he never declared as much publicly. It has a basis in a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter in which he criticized the choice of the bald eagle for the crest of the Society of the Cincinnati.

Franklin said of the wild turkey: “…the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”

And of the bald eagle: “He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labour of the fishing hawk [osprey]; and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him.”

Hmmm…. given the current economic structure of the U.S., maybe the bald eagle is an apt choice for the national bird after all.


2 responses to “Audubon’s wild turkeys”

  1. Happy thanksgiving to you Charley.

    I recently watched a BBC documentary on drawing and Audubon’s bird’s were discussed…sadly to me he would use freshly killed birds as his models and is said to have remarked that a day in which he did not kill 100 birds was a day to be forgotten , I’m paraphrasing horribly here though.
    The works are great none the less.
    P.S. I especially liked your nod to how Fraklin’s words on birds do reflect on how some of us view today’s politico-socio-economic climate.
    Thanks for the post.

    1. Thanks, Mark.

      Yes, I was aware of the unfortunate requirements of Audubon’s methods. Given the number of birds killed daily by domestic cats and other results of human activity, I guess the best we can say is these were sacrificed in contribution to art and science.

      Franklin was a wellspring of interesting thought, frequently apt for modern times. Like most of history, though, the reality of it seems lost in the fun-house mirror versions that filter through popular culture.