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After two weeks of drifting with the current, he ran into his first birds, a flock of Carolina paroquets (which he called parrots) seeking shelter in a snowstorm. He captured one of these strange birds, strange because of their quizzical air, marvelous powers of flight and lame and crippled gait on the ground. He improvised a cage for it on the stern of his rowboat. The bird learned to know its name, to come when called, to sit on his shoulder and to eat from his mouth. When he went ashore he wrapped it in his handkerchief and put it in his pocket, although, he said, "we generally had a quarrel over this." At night he slept by the roots of trees, his paroquet dozing by his side or gazing at the fire with great composure.
In 21 days Wilson and his paroquet reached Louisville. There he called on a young storekeeper born in the French West Indies, to try to sell him a subscription to his set of books. This was John James Audubon, whose career as a naturalist had not yet begun. After Wilson's death, a fierce quarrel developed between Wilson's adherents and Audubon, with Wilson's followers accusing Audubon of plagiarism. The bitterness of the dispute seems out of all proportion to the issues involved, but echoes of it still persist. Their meeting at Louisville, however, was friendly. Audubon wanted to subscribe to Wilson's books and started to do so, but his partner in the store dissuaded him. Audubon showed Wilson some of his first bird drawings (which were as awkward and amateurish as Wilson's early work had been), and Wilson said they were good. The two ornithologists made one bird-hunting trip together, found nothing, and Wilson sold his boat, bought a horse and started across Kentucky with his paroquet.
A day's travel after leaving Audubon he left the road to study a pigeon roost, one of the remote breeding places of the now extinct passenger pigeon. The roost was in a forest of beech trees, roughly three miles wide and 40 miles long, and Wilson counted an average of 90 nests in each tree. The flock inhabiting this roost was so enormous that the limbs of the trees were broken, the leaves stripped, and the ground literally covered with droppings. The food in the area was exhausted, and the passenger pigeons flew north to Indiana each morning to feed on the prairies. While Wilson was resting beside Benson Creek about one o'clock in the afternoon, they began to return to the roost, flying with great steadiness and speed at a height above gunshot, several strata deep, darkening the sky as far as he could see in both directions. He timed them. At 6 o'clock that night the flock was still passing overhead. Assuming they were flying a mile a minute, the flock was 240 miles long. He estimated that there were at least three pigeons to the square yard, probably more—which meant that this one flight contained more than 2 billion birds.
He made his way 200 miles to Nashville, shooting grouse, noting whippoorwills, brown larks, warblers, swallows, and gradually becoming festooned with preserved bird specimens, feathers and his drawings and paintings. He carried his drawing equipment with him and sketched or painted each new specimen on the spot.
His friend Meriwether Lewis had died mysteriously in a cabin on the Natchez Trace a short time before, and Wilson set aside his bird studies to make his way through 500 miles of wilderness to investigate Lewis' death. It was officially listed as a suicide, though the circumstances suggested murder. Wilson collected all the available facts and sent them to Sarah Miller. She published his account in a Philadelphia magazine, and it has remained as the only reliable record of the great explorer's fate. As Wilson went on after asking questions about Lewis, he himself became deathly ill. He was in a swamp in the Indian country of Mississippi, hundreds of miles from a white settlement, when he found himself virtually paralyzed and barely able to keep on his horse. He nevertheless made his way to Natchez, where he was astonished to secure 17 subscriptions to his books. "You seem to be traveling for the good of the world," an innkeeper told him, when Wilson tried to pay his bill. "I cannot and will not take your money."
To Wilson's bewilderment, he found he had become a success. A great plantation owner gave him living quarters and the run of his acres. In New Orleans, he sold 60 subscriptions to his books in a few days, more than he had sold in Philadelphia in years. Most of the 500 sets that were printed, in fact, were sold in the South, while 15 were sold in Europe and England. Wilson also found himself in an ornithologist's paradise. On one of his first trips out after his illness he shot on the wing, and brought down alive, a new species of hawk that he named the Mississippi kite, an immense and haughty bird that regarded him with a curious personal hatred as he painted it and nearly severed a finger from his hand in an unguarded moment. From bird-loving Louisianians he heard endless stories of mockingbirds and of the celebrated prothonotary warbler, rarely seen outside deep woods, and the painted bunting, a sociable and winning little bird that the French called le pape and the Americans in Louisiana called the nonpareil. Traveling to Florida, to the swamps at the mouth of the Mississippi and to Army camps and plantations in the interior, Wilson was dazzled by the flocks of herons and flamingos and fortified in his conviction that the abundance of American bird life hinted at the existence of some natural pattern of life on this continent that man could ceaselessly study with profit.
His southern trip was the last of his great bird-collecting and book-selling expeditions. The years left to him were spent finishing the drawings, writing the essays and coloring the plates of the last volumes of American Ornithology. He was now engaged to marry Sarah Miller, but after "all these disappointments" which seem to have lasted for years, new problems delayed their wedding. Wilson had made no profit on his books. Lawson's two daughters got $5,000 for coloring some of the plates—an unprecedented sum for women to earn in those days—but Wilson had not been paid. When the War of 1812 broke out, Wilson's colorists left him, and he had to color the last volumes himself. The publisher then refused to advance him any more money until he himself had been paid. Wilson refused to continue the work until he received something. The upshot was that Wilson made a final trip through New England to attempt to collect from subscribers. His health failed on the way, the rapid palpitation of his heart making travel difficult.
At Haverhill, Wilson was arrested as a spy. He was dismayed by the charge. He could say, truthfully: "Few Americans have seen as much of their country as I have done, and none love it more." He was certainly no spy (and in fact the charges were quickly dropped), but an element of mystery clung to him: people could not believe anyone could be as interested in birds as Wilson was. He died soon after this incident, supposedly as a result of exposure while searching for some unknown species of water bird near Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey. He left all his possessions, consisting only of his rights to American Ornithology, to Sarah Miller. Her brother later became a celebrated Congressman, and in later years she herself married into the Rittenhouse family.
Behind the relative obscurity of Wilson's life and work there was a double mystery. In his lifetime his books made him known to informed people, but he could never get over a subtle sense of estrangement from the public at large. After his death he remained a favorite with collectors, while Audubon became universally celebrated. Part of the reason for Wilson's obscurity is mechanical. It was never possible to reproduce his books. The hand-coloring of 40-odd bird pictures in each of the nine volumes, with 500 sets printed, meant that something like 182,000 pictures had to be colored with the most painstaking and delicate detail. When Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a nephew of Napoleon and amateur ornithologist, brought out a new edition of Wilson's work in 1825, the color reproductions were so inferior they gave no indication of the quality of Wilson's own paintings. Meanwhile, Audubon's great folios had appeared, with their bold design and spectacular color and, though naturalists sometimes said, as did the scholarly John Cassin, that "all statements made by Audubon are to be received with caution," his color and life endeared him to people who did not know of Wilson's existence.
Even nature writers who venerate Wilson as the father of American ornithology often praise him for his writing alone. The 200 prose essays on birds scattered through the nine volumes of American Ornithology are unrivaled in English literature. While he sat in his schoolroom at Gray's Ferry after school hours, painting tanagers and grosbeaks on the flyleaves of old books, Wilson also made notes on such subjects as the flight of the red-bellied nuthatches, darting through the bushes like so many tumblers and rope dancers, or the extraordinary song of the yellow-breasted chats, filled with anger and anxiety, hoarse and vehement, occasionally sounding like the barking of puppies and more often like a crowd of foreigners lost in the woods and gabbling together in a strange dialect.