PBS will premier John James Audubon in its American Masters series on July 25. The film traces Audubon's life from its unlikely beginning to its unfortunate end and includes triumphs and tragedies the artist experienced along the way.
Audubon got around — from Philadelphia to New Orleans and out to the Montana-North Dakota border; from Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence; and over to Europe, where he hustled his life's project — The Birds of America.
Along the way, over nearly four decades, he seemingly met everyone there was to meet in the young country.
The one-hour film includes an animated sequence on the 19th century passenger pigeon hunts. The film follows the pigeons from a sky blackened by never-ending waves of migrating birds to a drawer at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where a few examples of the now-extinct bird remain.
For west Tennessee, the passenger pigeon's demise is best told by Benjamin C. Miles, an acute observer of nature and enthusiastic sportsman when his interesting notes on the disappearance of this celebrated bird in Tennessee was printed in the “Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia” in 1895.
He says: “Wild Pigeons last visited our section [Brownsville] in numbers in the year 1881, but were not as numerous as about eight years before. I remember that I remarked then they were depleted.
“In the fall of 1893, Mr. Riddick of this town killed one of a flock of eight, five miles from here — the last I know of being in the country.
“The first I remember must have been in the year 1851, when I was five years old. They roosted that fall ten miles from here and about a mile from our home. Permission was given me to go … to the roost, and I well remember … how scared I was at the noise when we arrived. However, we got our bags and baskets full; killed them with poles — and got back early. That was my first taste of sport and I have been a sportsman ever since.
“As near as I can recall the dates, we had them in 1853-1855 — that year I had a gun and shot them in Carroll County, this State. In 1856 I went to Virginia. In 1865 I was here [Brownsville] and that fall a few came in scattering flocks and I was ready for them.
“In 1866 there were more than in '65, in '67 more still, though not in the overwhelming numbers, while there were every year more or less to be killed easily, we saw them no more in droves. That year they came for the last time, and as though to take our farewell shot, every one bagged a few.”
The passenger pigeon disappeared from the continent in the first decade of the 20th century.
The last survivor of the race of heath hens died in 1932 on Martha's Vineyard.
The Eskimo curlew was extinct by 1925.
The Great auks have been extinct since 1844.
The last known Labrador Duck fell to a gunner on Long Island Sound in the autumn of 1875.
The Carolina paroquet, also now extinct, was a summer resident in the river bottoms of west Tennessee. Mr. Miles said: “In the early 1850s a flock of Paroquets came to our orchard and we chased them out and killed them with sticks and apples; saw a flock at Ashport [Lauderdale Count] on the Mississippi River 100 in number in 1874, and saw one killed alone, within five miles of Brownsville in 1876 — the last I have ever heard of.”
Nearly 50 years after Audubon's death, a small group of people banded together to protest the wholesale slaughter of birds for their plumes, which were then used to decorate women's hats. The group eventually dubbed itself the Audubon Society.