Bird brain

Special comb.: (a person with) a small brain; so bird-brained a., having a small brain; fig. inattentive, flighty.

(Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition)



Two birds from Little Screech Owl by John James Audubon. Birds of America (Octavo Ed. 1870).  California Academy of Sciences Library, Rare Books QL674 .A9 1870

A pair of "bird brains" (literally!) from "Little Screech Owl" by John James Audubon. Birds of America: From Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories (Octavo Ed. 1870). California Academy of Sciences Library, Rare Books QL674 .A9 1870.



I know a bunch of things about John James Audubon.  I know that he was a talented painter, a gifted naturalist, a passionate hunter, and by turns a successful businessman and an impoverished failure.  I know that he shot a lot of birds in order to paint them, and that he ate many of the birds he shot, and that he wrote about how good (or bad) those birds tasted.  I know that after failing to sell much of his art in America, he became a sensation in England, a romantic New World icon-- in Audubon's own words, he became the embodiment of an "American woodsman."

And I know that John James Audubon was many things, but not a birdbrain, at least not by the OED definition.

But I've got birds on the brain lately, thanks to Mr. Audubon.  If you've been up to the Academy Library lately, you've no doubt seen the new furniture in the Library Reading Room, which includes an exhibit case for the Academy's copy of Audubon's Birds of America, the immense work known as the Double-Elephant Folio.

Our Double-Elephant Folio was the gift of Edward E. and Florence Hopkins Hills of San Francisco. The set survived the 1906 earthquake and fire in the hands of the San Francisco Art Association, who sold the work to Hills in 1941.  The work came to the Academy in 1964.

We're thrilled to share this work with Academy Staff and Library visitors.  Watch this space for more information about Audubon and his great work.

Visiting the Academy and want to see the Library and the Audubon?  Make an appointment at


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