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Rare Audubon Book Showing North America’s Birds Now On Display At Field Museum

The Field's copy of "The Birds of America" is one of only 120 known to exist.

The Field Museum has a rare, 3-foot-long book of birds on display until Dec. 1.
Michelle Kuo for the Field Museum/Provided
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DOWNTOWN — Seminal wildlife artist John James Audubon’s 19th century book of life-size paintings of North American birds will be shown at the Field Museum until Dec. 1.

The illustrations in the book, “The Birds of America,” were made by etching the images into copper, printing them and then painting them by hand, according to the Field Museum. The museum’s copy of “The Birds of America” is one of only 120 known to exist today.

The massive book is 39 inches long, 26 inches wide and, when shut, about 2.5 inches thick. It takes three people to open the glass display case that houses the book, and its pages are so delicate they’re only turned once a week, according to the Field Museum.

The exhibit gives viewers a chance to look at the book and to learn about Audubon’s 12-year journey seeking out birds to paint.

Audubon started his travels in 1826 in hopes of painting every bird in the continent. Some species in the resulting book have since become rare or extinct.

“At a time when photography was still at its infancy and not accessible for most, scientific journals heavily relied on paintings and drawings to illustrate animals,” said Diana Duncan, the Field Museum’s technical services librarian, in a news release. “Birds were not seen as art subjects, so Audubon’s unique and beautiful, life-size renderings were impactful not only in the scientific community for capturing the birds at their most natural, but also in the art world.”

Bird specimens from the museum’s collection will also be on display.

The exhibit is open until Dec. 1 in the Brooker Gallery. It’s included with basic admission and will be presented in English and Spanish.