John James Audubon: Ecology's Patron Saint

By | August 1, 2019

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Mallard Duck by John James Audubon (Photo by VCG Wilson. Source: (

John James Audubon is a name associated with ecology and conservation. While most people are familiar with his renowned paintings of birds, Audubon’s story is a compelling tale of a self-made, self-reliant immigrant.

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John James Audubon in 1826. Painting by John Syme. Source: (Wikimedia)

Early Life

Audubon was born on April 26, 1785, in the French colony of San Domingue (now Haiti). He was the illegitimate child of Jean Audubon, a sea captain and plantation owner and his chambermaid, Jeanne Rabin, who died shortly after giving birth. The infant took the surname of his mother and was named Jean Rabin.

Jean Audubon sold his holdings on San Domingue in 1791 out of fears of a slave revolt. He returned to Nantes, France where he was raised as a member of the family and even welcomed by Jean Audubon’s wife despite her husband’s infidelities. As the tumults of the French Revolution shook the country, the Audubon’s formally adopted Jean who then took on the family name becoming Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon. He was schooled in geography, drawing, music, fencing, geography, and mathematics. He was a good student, but even then he showed such a liking for the natural world that it distracted him from his studies. He especially took to drawing birds. Audubon went to the French Naval Academy at Rochfort but was washed out.

Audubon’s father had an estate in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. As the French Revolution transformed into the despotism of Napoleon Bonaparte, Jean Audubon sent his son across the Atlantic in 1803 in order to avoid conscription.