26 ½ x 38 ½ inches sheet, 33 x 45 inches framed. First edition aquatint engraving with original hand color. Plate legend on lower margin: “Shoveller Ducks,/Anas Clypeata. L./ Male 1. Female 2.” Annotation on upper right corner bearing plate number; annotation on lower right corner identifying Robert Havell as engraver, printer, and colorist.
Guidance: Guernsey’s, January 25 2014 - $20,000; Christie’s, June 25, 2004 - $26,290
This work is a first edition elephant folio engraving from Audubon’s awe-inspiring series Birds of America, the single most important visual study of North American ornithology ever produced. It features an animated scene with a pair of life size Northern shovelers, the most eye-catching of the dabbling ducks due to the iridescent and colorful plumage of the breeding males. As Audubon notes upon observing the shovelers: “We have no Ducks in the United States whose plumage is more changeable than that of the male of this beautiful species” (Audubon, 294).
The present composition opens in medias res, with a display of dramatic action that exemplifies what scholar Susanne Low calls Audubon’s “important breakaway from the stiff drawings of stuffed birds that until then had illustrated ornithological works” (Low, 4). We see a male (left) and female (right) shoveler perched on rocks above water; both are reaching for a green-blue beetle scuttling along the underside of a tall blade of marsh grass (Low, 168). We can tell the male duck here is currently breeding because of its shimmering green head and speculum, pale blue forewing feathers, white chest, and reddish brown stomach and flanks. In eclipse (non-breeding) male shovelers, the plumage resembles that of the female--brownish black with white speckles.
The shovelers’ other distinguishing feature is their large, spoon-shaped bill, after which they are named. This flat-wide bill contains small, comblike projections along the sides (lamellae), which function like a strainer. Around feeding time, the ducks can be seen swinging their bills from side to side in order to filter crustaceans and plankton from water. We see these highly specialized bills at work in the present engraving, where both the male and female shoveler have their yellowish-brown bills open wide in the hope of catching the hanging beetle. The fine combs of lamellae protruding along the bills’ two sides are depicted with remarkably meticulous detail, and are visible down to each individual tooth.
In addition to the lustrous plumage and fascinating bill, the ducks’ webbed feet, slender neck, and lively gaze are all rendered with extraordinary attention and precision.
References: John James Audubon, The Birds of America: From Drawings Made in the United States and their Territories Vol VI (New York, 1861); Susanne M. Low, A Guide to Audubon’s Birds of America, (New Haven and New York, 2002).
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