National Treasures—Selected Gulls for The Birds of America (1827-38)
Looking at these five watercolors you are enjoying an experience similar to that of John James Audubon’s (1785–1851) original subscribers to The Birds of America (1827-38). The watercolors are rotated on a quarterly basis to limit the potential damage caused by their exposure, ensuring that these national treasures are available to future generations.
The double-elephant-size The Birds of America (1827-38) contains 435 plates with images of 1,037 individual large birds and over ninety-nine smaller ones in the backgrounds. (There are 1,026 individuals in the extant watercolors Audubon used as models, and sometimes Audubon instructed his brilliant engraver Robert Havell Jr. to add other birds.) They represent just under five hundred species (a number that constantly changes as DNA evidence alters modern taxonomy). This deluxe edition, considered the most spectacular color folio print series ever produced, remains one of the world’s preeminent natural history documents.
Gulls, more informally called seagulls, are birds in the family Laridae. They are most closely related to the terns (family Sternidae) and have more distant relatives among other water birds. Gulls are typically medium to large birds, usually gray or white in coloration, often with black markings on the head. They characteristically have harsh wailing or squawking calls. Most gulls are ground-nesting carnivores, which dive to the water’s surface for live food, like small crabs or fish, or scavenge opportunistically. They are, therefore, beneficial to the environment but also are beach beggars and thieves! The large species take up to four years to attain full adult plumage, but two years is typical for the smaller gulls. Gulls, especially the larger species, are resourceful, inquisitive, and intelligent, demonstrating complex methods of communication and a highly developed social structure. They are the least specialized of all seabirds, and their morphology allows for equal adeptness in swimming, flying, and walking. They are more comfortable walking on land than most other seabirds, and the smaller gulls tend to be more maneuverable while walking. This trait may partially explain why Audubon portrayed most of them on land, as opposed to terns, which he represented soaring or diving. In the air gulls are able to hover and they are also able to take off quickly with little space. Their sometimes swirling flight can be hypnotic. Audubon executed nine watercolors of various species of gulls for plates in The Birds as well as three alternate watercolor studies, all in the collection of the New-York Historical Society.