The Birds of America, featuring 435 hand-colored engravings of native American bird species, was the creation of John James Audubon, who spent six years (1820-1826) traveling the wilds of the American continent in search of avian subjects. He drew each of the 489 species in its natural habitat, using such varied media as watercolors, pen, pencil, pastel, oils and egg-white to obtain the full effect of the bird. With these drawings, Audubon returned to England to arrange for publication of his masterpiece.
Approximately 200 complete sets of The Birds of America double elephant folio were distributed to subscribers, at the then-hefty price of $1,000 apiece. Of the original sets, approximately 135 are known to remain in existence. Union’s copy was purchased directly from Audubon: when the naturalist visited campus in July 1844, President Eliphalet Nott arranged for the delivery of a complete set of engravings, which arrived from England less than a year later. For many years they were neglected: a 1908 “Forest and Stream” article reveals that “they lay dust-covered and neglected in a portion of the library accessible to all,” and before 1922 they were re-discovered languishing in the attic of what is now known as Old Chapel. The prints are now housed in Schaffer Library’s Special Collections section.