One of my favorite parts of spring is seeing all the birds come back to our yard and neighborhood. I guess it was appropriate that John James Audubon, America's leading bird illustrator, was born on this day in 1785.

After studying drawing in Paris under the French painter Jacques Louis David, Audubon struggled for many years to make a living from his art, shuttling back and forth between Europe and the United States and supplementing his income by giving drawing lessons, turning out portraits, playing the flute or violin at local dances, and at one time running a general store.

In 1820 he began a flatboat excursion down the Mississippi River to seek out new varieties of birds to paint. Eventually he had enough bird portraits to publish in book form. Birds of America, produced with the help of engraver Robert Havell, Jr., contains 435 hand-colored plates and was published in "elephant folio" format to accommodate the life-sized portrayals of birds on which Audubon insisted.

After his death in 1851, Audubon's wife Lucy returned to teaching to support herself. One of her students, George Bird Grinnell, became the editor of Forest and Stream magazine and in 1886 organized the Audubon Society for the study and protection of birds.
For more ornithological information (that's bird stuff), check out www.audubon.org.