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Uncovering What Audubon Missed, and What He Made Up

By the time Kenn Kaufman finished the research for his upcoming book on early North American ornithology, his view of John James Audubon, history’s most famous birder and the central figure in his new work, had changed entirely — starting with whether Audubon was a fraud.

“I began the process assuming that everything he’d written in ‘Ornithological Biography’ must be true and accurate, aside from a few honest mistakes and a few puzzling lapses,” Kaufman said, referring to Audubon’s landmark 1831 study of bird behavior.

But as Kaufman read on, he noticed Audubon’s penchant not just to embellish, but to make up tales from whole cloth. More than once Audubon described birds that almost certainly never existed. He even made the dubious claim of having gone hunting with the famed frontiersman Daniel Boone in Kentucky around 1810, even though Boone was in his 70s at the time and living in Missouri.

“When you look at his work, you start with the assumption that he may have just invented this out of nothing,” Kaufman said. “It makes him a really fascinating character.”

The miscues, contributions and shortcomings, at times severe, of Audubon and the other figures who helped define the study of birds in the United States in the early 1800s animate Kaufman’s book, “The Birds That Audubon Missed,” out Tuesday from Avid Reader Press.

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