AUDUBON, John James (1785-1851)
Pinnated Grouse [Greater Prairie-Chicken]
[Pl. 186] London: R. Havell, . Hand-coloured engraving with aquatint and etching. Paper watermarked "J. Whatman/1834." Sheet size: 25 3/8 x 38 1/2 inches.
One of Audubon's greatest images from the elephant folio first edition of The Birds of America.
Set against a background of meadows with hills in the distance, this dramatic image depicts two male Great Prairie Chickens fighting for the attention of a lone female. Audubon captures the moment, perhaps after long preliminaries of booming cries, bluster and circling, one of the males launches a physical attack on the rival cock. The female looks on with shy fascination. This plate is among Audubon's most carefully-balanced compositions, with the bulk of the left hand bird offset by the fragile beauty of the martagon lily on the right. Audubon would write of this bird: "It has been my good fortune to study the habits of this species of Grouse, at a period when, in the district in which I resided, few other birds of any kind were more abundant. I allude to the lower parts of the States of Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri ... As soon as the snows have melted away ... the Grouse, which had congregated during the winter in great flocks, separate into parties of from twenty to fifty or more ... Inspired by love, the male birds, before the glimpse of day lightens the horizon, fly swiftly and singly ... to meet, to challenge, and to fight the various rivals led by the same impulse to the arena...Imagine them assembled ... see them all strutting in the presence of each other, mark their consequential gestures, their looks of disdain, and their angry pride, as they pass each other. Their tails are spread out and inclined forwards, to meet the expanded feathers of their neck, which ... lie supported by the globular orange-coloured receptacles of air, from which their singular booming sounds proceed ... the fire of their eyes evinces the pugnacious workings of their mind, their notes fill the air around, and at the very first answer from some coy female, the heated blood of the feathered warriors swell every vein, and presently the battle rages ...The weaker begin to give way, and one after another seek refuge in the neighbouring bushes ...The vanquished and the victors then search for the females, who, believing each to have returned from the field in triumph, receive them with joy" (J. J. Audubon, The Birds of America, New York & Philadelphia: 1840-1844, vol. V, pp.95-96).
Susanne M. Low, A Guide to Audubon's Birds of America, New Haven & New York: 2002, p.117.