Genevieve (Gennie) Jones was a talented young woman whose family, like many in nineteenth century America, fostered a passion for natural history. From an early age, she helped collected bird nests, eggs, and other natural wonders for the family’s curiosity cabinet. But Gennie noted the lack of an authoritative guide to identifying nests and eggs without seeing the adult birds. Inspired by Audubon’s famous book The Birds of America, published forty years before, she decided to compile such a a guide.
She planned to illustrate the nests and eggs of all 130 species of birds then breeding in Ohio. She and her friend Eliza Schulze created the images from nests and eggs that her brother Howard collected; her father Nelson provided start-up funds and even build a special addition to their barn that got enough sunlight to work by. The plates were lithographs—the image was etched onto a smooth stone surface, then coated with ink and transfered to paper—and the women planned to hand-colour all 100 copies of their initial print run. Creating a single plate could take days. The book would published by subscription, with a set of three illustrations issued periodically. Ex-president Rutherford B. Hayes and then-undergraduate Teddy Roosevelt were among the subscribers.
But after only one month of work, with 15 plates completed, disaster struck: Gennie contracted typhoid fever and died at the age of 32.
Gennie’s family decided to memorialize their lost daughter by completing her book. Her mother Virginia, teaching herself about natural history and scientific illustration, took on the monumental task of drawing the other 120 or so species, hiring three local women to help colour the prints. Howard continued to collect nests and wrote much of the book’s text. It took them seven yearst to complete Gennie’s project, entitled Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio. This book is now extremely rare, but librarian Joy M. Kiser has brought it to light with the publication of America’s Other Audubon. It reprints all of the colour plates with excerpts from the original text, and is among the most beautiful natural history books I’ve ever seen.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve recently worked as a nest-searching technician for several avian research projects, so bird nests have a special place in my heart. Each life-sized image is painstakingly detailed and accurate but also manages, through some combination of the birds’ skill and the artists’, to be aesthetically wonderful. The text describes both the particulars of the location and structure of the depicted nest and the range of variation within the species. It also features some classic wry, Victorian anthropomorphization. Take, for instance, these words from the description of the Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus):
The Great Crested Flycatchers are very quarrelsome and tyrannical among themselves, or at least they appear to be, as they are continually scolding and complaining to each other and engaging in fights. This, however, may all be in fun, and their notes, which are so harsh and grating to the human ear, that when once heard are never forgotten, may convey to each other very pleasant and peaceful ideas.
The story of the Jones family’s labour of love is inspiring, but no less so is the author’s quest to bring this story to light. The book’s self-effacing preface describes this quest, from the intrepid librarian’s first encounter with The Nests and Eggs to the present publication. While nest-hunting may not be as common a pastime as birding (indeed, collecting or otherwise disturbing nests is illegal in both the U. S. and Canada), nest and egg identification can be a useful tool for birders and an essential skill of students of natural history.
Smithsonian Libraries’ online exhibit about The Nests and Eggs of the Birds of Ohio, including high-resolution scans of many of the plates and more of the text of the original book (America’s Other Audubon has only short excerpts)
A writeup about the book on the blog Brain Pickings, where I originally heard about it