A Matter of Scale: The Flamingo in Audubon’s Birds of America

July 28th, 2014
Detail of flamingo in Audubon's Birds of America. From the Thordarson Collection, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

On display through August 1 (this Friday!) in our exhibit “Books of Nature” is the magnificent illustration of the American flamingo in Audubon’s double-elephant folio Birds of America. Our copy (in four volumes) of Audubon’s Birds is part of the Thordarson Collection, which includes many titles with hand-colored ornithological illustrations.

The flamingo, like the other birds depicted in Audubon’s masterwork, was shown at life size. For small and medium birds, pages of rather smaller compass would have sufficed. Not so for large birds  like the eagle, cranes, egrets, and the flamingo, which filled, or more than filled, the oversize pages — hence Audubon’s insistence on using the paper designated as double elephant folio. Our copy, for example, is 100 centimeters tall.

Despite the generous size of the pages, the flamingo was one of those birds that required a particular pose to allow it to be depicted at life size. What Audubon called the American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber, Linn., Old Male) was shown in plate CCCCXXXI (431) with a gracefully bent neck, the better to feed in shallow lagoons and lakes. Here is a closeup of the head of the “Old Male,” close by its foot:

close-up view of flamingo from Audubon's double elephant folio Birds of America (Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Modern sources indicate that the male American, or common, or Caribbean flamingo is some 40-48 inches tall, weighs 8 pounds, and has a wingspan of 5 feet. In Audubon’s companion textual work, Ornithological biography, he wrote of the flamingo’s “glowing tints” and wingspan of 66 inches, and described the flamingo’s nest as no bigger than the crown of a hat.

In the first octavo edition of the Birds, published in New York in 1840-1844 in 7 volumes, the lavish illustrations of the double elephant folio were redone at approximately 1/4 of the original size, but still handcolored. Our copy of this octavo edition, likewise from the Thordarson Collection, is 26 centimeters tall, and depicts the flamingo in a similar pose:

This octavo edition adds 65 images to the 435 of the double elephant folio edition, with text revised from that in the Ornithological biography, and rearranged according to Audubon’s one-volume Synopsis of the Birds of North America of 1839, itself only 22 centimeters tall.

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The University of Wisconsin-Madison has other associations with the flamingo. The UW Digital Collections contain images from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Zoological Museum Galapagos Collections, including this photograph of the Phoenicopterus ruber (greater flamingos) taken by Helene Marsh in Ecuador in 1991.

photograph of the Phoenicopterus ruber (greater flamingos) taken by Helene Marsh in Ecuador in 1991, digitized as part of the UW-Madison Zoological Museum Galapagos Collections, UW Digital Collections

And, famously, the Pail and Shovel Party populated Bascom Hill with more than a thousand plastic pink flamingos to greet students on the first day of classes in 1979. For more information, see the Wisconsin Historical Society description of their plastic flamingo from the episode, itself derived from the wonderfully titled history of college pranks, Neil Steinberg’s If at all possible, involve a cow (1992). The stunt still held appeal in 1990, when a graduate’s mortarboard featured a balloon version, as shown on the homepage for the University Archives.