John James Audubon (1785–1851), the ornithologist and artist, traveled widely through the great American wilderness searching for bird specimens to draw for what became The Birds of America (1827–38). He observed them closely in their natural environment, keeping detailed field notes and journals under difficult conditions. Out of curiosity and hunger, he often cooked and ate these birds after drawing them and wrote down how they tasted—another kind of evidence. The article concentrates on his written descriptions (lively, humorous, wry, or astonished) and tasting notes in the wild. Audubon traveled down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, north to Labrador, south to the Florida Keys, and later, when searching for mammals to draw for The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America , northwest up the Missouri River. There he wrote about hunting American buffalo (bison), sometimes comparing customs and rituals of white hunters and various Indian tribes, and even sampled dog served by a Blackfoot princess. During the western expansion of the early nineteenth century, Audubon witnessed and recorded profound changes in the American landscape. Settlers’ encroachment on habitat and hunters’ wanton destruction of wildlife increasingly alarmed him. He presaged the extinction of some species whose habits and tastes he described. Conservation is an implicit theme.
Franklin and the turkey, both American icons, are far more complicated than most people realize. The early Spanish explorers took the New World bird to Europe where it quickly spread. By the early 16th century this domesticated bird made its way back again to Virginia and Massachusetts and onto the colonists' tables. As early as 1776 the growth in human population threatened that of wild turkeys. When Franklin was exploring the properties of electricity, he experimented on turkeys and found that electrocution tenderized their flesh. Later, his famous letter to his daughter, expressing his preference for the turkey to be the national bird rather than the eagle, was more polemical than genuine. In the last fifty years, efforts to restore the nearly extinct wild turkey have succeeded. The quality of the turkey on the American Thanksgiving table, over-bred and industrialized, needs to be restored as well.