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Walking with Birds: The Art of Audubon and MacGillivray


Audubon's Passenger Pigeon

Audubon's passenger pigeon, Plate 62 of Birds of America

An Eye on Nature

Audubon was unique for his time in depicting birds life-size, in motion, and in their natural habitat. Many people purchased the smaller edition of Birds of America - 'the first birding guide' - to use for identifying birds in the field. Audubon's detailed observations of natures were cited by Charles Darwin in his On the Origins of Species (1859).

Audubon's art is still inspirational today, contributing to the huge popularity of bird watching, wildlife photography and bird conservation. MacGillivray's work is less known, but his outdoor teaching and his founding of the Zoology Museum inspired a generation of future naturalists in Scotland.

Audubon and Slavery

Audubon's father earned his wealth through trading enslaved West-African people, while Audubon himself relied on the work done by enslaved people on his estate. Since this exhibition was curated, the Audubon Society has published research that more fully explains Audubon's racial history, his opposition to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, and his promotion of racist ideas.

While we recognise the impact that Birds of America has had on the world, we must also acknowledge the racist abuse and exploitation enacted by its maker, and the cost of its existence for those whose labour helped bring it into existence.

Unethical Collecting

Audubon and MacGillivray both benefitted from and perpetuated the injustices of white supremacy and colonialism.

Audubon was interested in phrenology, the pseudoscientific study of human skulls to reveal mental traits that was used to justify racist and white supremacist beliefs. Audubon stole the remains of Native American people from burial sites in pursuit of this interest, some of which he sent to MacGillivray for the University of Aberdeen's collections. It is now the University's responsibility to address this legacy, including repatriating the remains of ancestors.

Suggestions for how to protect bird life

Visitors to the Walking with Birds exhibition left their suggestions for how to protect birdlife for other visitors to read


Audubon and MacGillivray lived at a time when the realisation was just dawning that human activity could damage the natural world. Their attitudes can, however, appear paradoxical. While Audubon condemned the devestation caused by mass hunting of buffalo, he could kill up to 100 birds to create one drawing.

Today MacGillivray's walk to London would be short of birdsong compared to 1819, and one in eight bird species worldwide is threatened with extinction. Environmental destruction and climate change are a much greater threat than could have been imagined in the worst nightmares of the nineteenth century.


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