When reports out of Arkansas this spring confirmed the continued survival of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird long feared extinct, thoughts on campus turned to John James Audubon. At the Hay Library someone opened one of the six volumes of his Birds of America to the ivory-billed page and set it in the lobby display case.
The print—the male’s red crest glows against the drabber colors around it—is one of 435 printed on double elephant folio paper, the largest handmade sheet available at the time. Audubon’s all-consuming ambition was to depict every American bird life size and lifelike, an unprecedented task requiring extraordinary means. (The photo at right is of the print as it appears in the octavo edition.)
Brown’s set of Birds of America is part of the Lownes Collection of Books in the History of Science. Albert E. Lownes ’20, a president of the American Silk Company who later lectured at Brown on the history of science, donated it in 1970 in honor of his 50th reunion. When he lectured, Lownes would arrive carrying a suitcase of his books. He’d bought Birds of America in 1933, along with five volumes of Audubon’s Ornithological Biography, for $5,200. Today the value of the Birds volumes alone is in the millions.