At 1230 local time in the Central Library in Liverpool, I was looking at one of only about 120 remaining complete volumes of John James Audubon’s Birds of America which was opened to the passenger pigeon page.
This amazing book, the most expensive in the world when one of the copies sold for $11,500,000 a few years ago, is on permanent display in the Oak Room of the refurbished Liverpool Central Library. I contacted the library about a month ago to ask whether they would open the book to the passenger pigeon page on this auspicious date, and I am very grateful to them that they did.
The image here isn’t great, as it is taken through the glass case which protects this valuable volume, but it gives you an idea of the beauty of the art and the beauty of an extinct bird. The pose of a female on a higher branch than a male, with the male’s beak reaching inside the female’s, is not biologically realistic, but the birds certainly look alive and vibrant – and beautiful – all these years after they were depicted; 113 years after the bird ceased to exist in the wild and 99 years after the last of its kind, Martha, died.
In the impressive nearby circular reading room I flicked through, with care, the pages of the modern edition of the Birds of America which is a large book, but a more manageable size than the 10-inch thick double-elephant folio pages of the original. The 40 inch by 27 inch original allowed Audubon to depict every one of the books 1050 individual birds as life sized – though some , such as the flamingo, needed to be doing contortions, even so, to fit the page.
As I turned the pages I saw species that reminded me of my travels in the USA over the years; Plates 48 (cerulean warbler) and 54 (rice bunting – better known now as bobolink) reminded me of a day birding with friends; nighthawk (Plate 147) reminded me of visiting the John James Audubon Museum in Henderson, Kentucky; California condor (Plate 426) reminded me of a starry night and looking down a few feet at an enormous threatened species; and Mississippi kite (Plate 117) reminded me of loveliness on the tall grass prairie.
I looked at the clock on the wall of the reading room. It stood at 1235 – maybe that was when the passenger pigeon went extinct 99 years ago?
I am very grateful to the Central Library Liverpool for humouring me and opening Birds of America to this particular page for early September. I don’t know how long the book will be open to this page (maybe they will post a comment here) but whichever page is displayed, it will always be worth a look.
It’s a lovely library: a good mix of Victorian splendour and modern technology with dark wood and airy light. The staff on the day were very helpful and friendly and allowed me to take photographs. The Public Libraries Act was introduced to Parliament by the Liverpool MP, Sir William Ewart, in 1850, and I am very grateful to him. Our public libraries still serve us well. Save our Libraries!
How will the world mark the centenary of the extinction of the bird which was formerly the commonest on the planet on 1 September 1914?
My book, ‘A Message from Martha‘ will be published by Bloomsbury next summer – and I have until 30 September to finish writing it!