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New exhibit looks at the controversial genius of John James Audubon

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Gyrfalcon, left, parakeet, right
On left: Gyrfalcon, On right: Carolina Parakeet.
John James Audubon / Courtesy Bell Museum of Natural History

John James Audubon set out in the early 1800s with the goal of painting every bird of America, life-sized and in color, and then publishing his work.

"Given that he was basically a shopkeeper on the American frontier, to have this idea was kind of ridiculous," said Don Luce, curator of "Audubon and the Art of Birds" running at the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum of Natural History through June 8.

  Audubon nearly achieved his goal, said Luce. He painted hundreds of species and managed to publish them in the book that made him famous, "The Birds of America." This work consisted of four volumes, each weighing about 50 pounds, with pages more than three feet tall.

  Some of the original "double-elephant" prints from "The Birds of America" are on display as part of the Bell Museum exhibit. Produced in the early 1800s, those images changed our view of birds.

Wood duck, left, cuckoos and warblers
On left, by John James Audubon: The wood duck, one of Audubon's favorite birds. On right, by Alexander Wilson: Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Black-billed Cuckoo, Palm Warbler, Northern Parula Warbler. Wilson was a ornithologist and illustrator who worked a generation before Audubon.
Courtesy Bell Museum of Natural History

  Sharon Stiteler, blogger and birder known as Birdchick, joined Tom Crann for a visit to the Bell Museum to see some of the original "double-elephant" prints from "The Birds of America."

Hear their conversation about the controversial genius of Audubon using the audio player above.