AUDUBON, John James (1785-1851)
Barn Owl [Barn Owl]
[Pl. 34] New York: [John Woodhouse Audubon], 1860. Chromolithograph by Julius Bien. Sheet size: 38 1/4 x 26 1/4 inches. Framed.
A highly dramatic composition in which Audubon shows his mastery of images that capture the moment.
A barn owl has returned at day-break with a chipmunk grasped in its talons, it alights on a branch at which point its mate approaches demanding a share of the spoils of the hunt. 'This species is altogether nocturnal... and when disturbed during the day, flies in an irregular manner, as if at a loss how to look for a place of refuge... the flight of the Barn Owl is light, regular, and much protracted. It passes through the air at an elevation of thirty or forty feet, in perfect silence, and pounces on its prey like a Hawk, often waiting for a fair opportunity from the branch of a tree, on which it alights for the purpose... This species is never found in the depth of the forests, but confines itself to the borders of the woods around large savannas or old abandoned fields... where its food... is found in abundance... I am not aware that it ever emits any cry or note, as other owls are wont to do; but it produces a hollow hissing sound, continued for minutes at a time... Its hearing is extremely acute, and as it marks your approach... it instantly swells out its plumage, extends its wings and tail, hisses, and clacks its mandibles with force and rapidity.' (Audubon, Birds of America, New York & Philadelphia: 1840-1844, vol.I, p.128). 'This long-legged...bird is the owl of Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard and other English literary works. It is the spook that haunts old barns, belfries, great hollow trees and caves... [Audubon proposed that the American owl was a distinct species from the barn owl of Europe.] This judgement has been overruled and today American and European birds are considered conspectic. Indeed, few species are more cosmopolitan. The barn owl is nearly worldwide in tropical and temperate regions; in the Americas it ranges from southern Canada to Tierra del Fuego, avoiding the higher altitudes' (R.T. & V.M.Peterson Audubon's Birds of America, 1981, no.234).
Susanne Low, A Guide to Audubon's Birds of America New Haven & New York: 2002, p. 354.