Heart of Louisiana: Alley Plantation

St. Francisville -- In 1821, the lady of this St. Francisville plantation met John James Audubon in New Orleans. Lucy Pirrie was impressed with Audubon's artwork, and hired him to live at her home and teach her daughter Eliza to draw.

"And for 60 dollars a month plus room and board, he'll come out here, he'll paint his birds in the afternoon and he'll teach the daughter in the morning," said John House, historic site manager at Oakley Plantation.

Audubon was on a mission to paint every bird in America. He found the hilly forests between the Oakley plantation and the Mississippi River to be rich in birds.

"He saw birds everywhere," said House. "This is a migratory throughway, so as a result of which birds that he didn't have access to anywhere else were here, right before him, right out his window at many times."

Audubon lived here at Oakley House and roamed the woods around St. Francisville for just over three months. But during that short time, he did paintings of 32 Louisiana birds.

"If you think about that, he's only here for about 90 days," said House. "That means he's actually producing a painting every three days."

The paintings are more than a portrait of a single bird. They tell a story. Audubon spent hours tracking the birds, and then studying how they lived and how they interacted with their surroundings.

"I guess my favorite is the rattlesnake and mockingbird," House told us.

House says the snake was killed near the Oakley house. Aubudon added the snake to a scene with four mockingbirds.

"They're defending their nests and their young from a rattlesnake," said House. "He simply recreated the scene he'd seen before."

To capture the detail in his paintings, Audubon would shoot a bird, bring it back to his room at Oakley House and use wire to pose it. He was able to copy the tiniest details of his specimens. His massive Birds of America, published in 1827, contained a remarkable collection of 435 paintings.

Audubon has also painted species that are believed to be extinct, like the ivory billed woodpecker, and the colorful Carolina parakeet, which he painted at Oakley House.

"The idea I think that stays with us today is to appreciate nature, to appreciate what we have around us," said House. "Because it may not be there, like the Carolina parakeet, like the passenger pigeon, just cause it's here today in great numbers does not mean that we can't wipe out a species."

Aubudon's countless wanderings through the woods, his passion for birds and tireless attention to detail have given us these portraits, unmatched in their beauty and understanding of nature.

Last year, an original complete edition of Audubon's Birds of America sold at auction in London for $11.5 million. For more information, go online to http://crt.louisiana.gov/parks/iaudubon.aspx.