Posts Tagged ‘John James Audubon.’

Audubon’s “tawny weasel” was of no use as a ferret, but the species referred to as the ermine or stoat were excellent rabbit ferrets.

Using ferrets to catch rabbits is an old European tradition. It did have some following in the United States, but now it has been outlawed virtually everywhere.

However, there were at least a few attempts to adapt ferreting to American mustelids.

The following account comes from John James Audubon’s The Quadrupeds of North America, Volume 3 (1854):

We find from our notes, that in the State of New York in the winter of 1808, we kept a Weasel, which we suppose may have been this species [“The Tawny Weasel”], in confinement, together with several young ermines. The latter all became white in winter, but the former underwent no change in colour, remaining brown. On another occasion a specimen of a brown Weasel was brought to us in the month of December. At that season the ermines are invariably white. We cannot after the lapse of so many years say with certainty whether these specimens of Weasels that were brown in winter were those of the smaller, Putorius pusillus, or the present species ; although we believe from our recollection of the size they were the latter. We therefore feel almost warranted in saying that this species docs not change colour in winter.

We were in the habit of substituting our American Weasels for the European ferrets, in driving out the gray rabbit (Lepus sylvaticus) from the holes to which that species usually resorts in the northern States, when pursued by dogs… Whilst the ermines seemed to relish this amusement vastly, the brown Weasel refused to enter the holes, and we concluded that the latter was the least courageous animal (pg. 235-236).

From Audubon’s description of the “tawny weasel” describes it as being much more robust than a European weasel [the least weasel] and that it has a black-tipped tail.  The black-tipped tail and the description of it being distinct from but similar to a stoat or ermine strongly suggests that this “tawny weasel” was what we call a long-tailed weasel. Further, all North American stoats or ermines turn white in the winter. Not all long-tailed weasels do.

The ones in my area actually do, but the ones that Audubon was encountered in the lower part of New York State did not.

I’ve never heard of anyone using anything other than a ferret to ferret, but the use of North American mustelids for this purpose is pretty interesting.

Ferreting with the long-tailed weasels was evidently a failure, but using ermines/stoats to do so was not.

I wonder why stoats/ermines never became as domesticated as ferrets are.

I don’t know how hard they are breed in captivity, but if they were easy to handle, there must be some good reason why they were never domesticated.

In North America, rabbits go to ground only when pressed by an enemy or when the cold weather drives them into holes or pipes.

European rabbits dig extensive warrens, but American cottontails do not.

This could go a long way to explaining why European ferrets were so successful as domestic animals.

We didn’t have the need to make our own ferrets out of our own mustelids– except on a very limited basis.

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Audubon's red wolf. Audubon described the red-colored wolves of Texas as nothing more than a color phase.

For us to fully understand the problems inherent in deeming the red wolf a unique species, we need to look at this animal from an historical perspective.

This gets complicated very quickly, for the records we do have of wolves in the American South are not as good as one might think.

European man killed off the wolves– and anything that looked like a wolf– as soon as he arrived.

Most of the historical records make mention that the wolf of what became the United States came in several color.  Yellowish, reddish, black, gray, and white individuals were all recorded, but the black individuals were always mentioned. In some areas, like Florida, it appears that black individuals comprised nearly the entire population.

William Bartram, a famed botanist from the Philadelphia area, was the first person to describe these black wolves in Florida. He would give them the name Lupus niger, which later authorities would move into Canis niger, which is an archaic name given to the supposed red wolf species.

Bartram traveled into Florida during the 1770’s, and he later compiled his notes and stories into a book called Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws. Containing an Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions; Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians. Usually referred to as “Travels” or “Batram’s Travels,” the book includes detailed historical accounts of fauna and flora of the a huge swathe of the Southeast. It was published in 1791,  and his descriptions of the land of Florida made his American readers quite covetous of this territory, which was Spanish territory at the time.

Bartram first describes the wolves feeding on the carcass of a horse:

Observing a company of wolves (lupus niger) under a few trees, about a quarter of a mile from shore, we rode up towards them; they observing our approach, sat on their hinder parts until we came nearly within shot of them, when they trotted off towards the forests, but stopped again and looked at us, at about two hundred yards distance: we then whooped, and made a feint to pursue them; when they separated from each other, some stretching off into the plains, and others seeking covert in the groves on shore. When we got to the trees, we observed they had been feeding on, the carcase of a horse. The wolves of Florida are larger than a dog, and are perfectly black, except the females, which have a white spot on the breast; but they are not so large as the wolves of Canada and Pennsylvania, which are of a yellowish brown colour (pg. 197).

Bartram would later go on to describe the black wolves as coming in other besides black:

I have been credibly informed that the wolves here are frequently seen pied, black and white, and of other mixed colours. They assemble in companies in the night time, howl and bark altogether, especially in cold winter nights, which is terrifying to the wandering bewildered traveller.

The idea of there ever being black and white wolves may sound a bit dubious, but keep in mind that there are coyotes with Irish spotting. These spots likely came from crossing with dogs, and this description of black and white wolves further strengthens the case that black wolves were developed through crossing with domestic dogs.

It also argues against these animals being red wolves as we know them now. The red wolves that we know them today. Wolves and dogs are much more closely related than dogs are to coyotes, and the black coloration that originated in dogs is far more common in wolves than it is in coyotes. And although we do see coyotes with dog coloration, these animals are not that common. However, black wolves and wolves with dewclaws on the hind legs have been reported– which are definitely derived from wolves mating with dogs.

Coyotes have much stronger reproductive barriers against breeding with dogs than wolves do.  It’s easy to find stories of male wolves coming in on bitches in heat. In the old days, a bitch in heat was great bait to bring in the male wolves to the gun. Sometimes the hunters would wait until the two had mated, then they would come in and either club the wolf to death or chop it up with a hatchet while the two were tied.

Coyotes and dogs don’t readily breed with each other. If they did, the coyote population would have absorbed far more dog genes than it currently has.

However, Native American dogs and wolves were likely exchanging genes all the time, and it more strongly suggests that Bartram’s black wolf was part of Canis lupus, rather than a coyote or close relative of the coyote.

Further evidence for this close relationship between Florida wolves and native dogs comes from a dog that Bartram observed guarding a band of Seminole ponies:

One occurrence remarkable here, was a troop of horse under the controul and care of a single black dog, which seemed to differ in no respect from the wolf of Florida, except his being able to bark as the common dog. He was very careful and industrious in keeping them together; and if any one strolled from the rest at too great a distance, the dog would spring up, head the horse, and bring him back to the company. The proprietor of these horses is an Indian in Talahasochte, about ten miles distance from this place, who, out of humour and experiment, trained his dog up from a puppy to this business: he follows his master’s horses only, keeping them in a separate company where they range; and when he is or wants to see his master, in the evening he returns to town, but never stays at home a night (pg. 220-221).

The Seminoles had learned from the Spanish how to use dogs as livestock guardians. Raising the dogs with the stock, they ensured that the dog bonded with the animals. The Spanish used large mountain dogs and mastiffs, but the Seminoles used their native dogs, which may or may not have had some wolf ancestry. This black, wolf-like dog suggests very strongly for the hybrid origin of melanism in wolves, and that the Florida black wolf was actually part of Canis lupus, along with the dog.

The Pennsylvania physician and naturalist Benjamin Smith Barton would also describe similar dogs. In an article entiled “Some Account of Native American or Indian Dogs” that appeared in the The Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal in 1804. He aligns this particular dog with the black wolf, as did Bartram, but he points out some differences:

The dogs which are now in use among the Creeks, Chikkasah, and other southern tribes, are of different kinds. As far as I have been able to collect information concerning them, they, in general, bear a very strong family resemblance to the wolf. One kind is very similar to the Canis Lycaon, or black wolf. It is not, however, always black, but of different colours, commonly of a bay colour, and about one third less [in size] than the wild black wolf. It carries its ears almost erect, and has the same wild and sly look that the wolf has (pg. 12).

Barton never saw these dogs, but he got his information from travelers in the region. His source for this information was Bartram, whose previous description of the Florida black dog  matches this description of the Creek dogs in every way but size. Thus, both black color and spotting could have worked its way into the Southern wolf population without dramatically affecting phenotype.

Canis lycaon became a very common name to describe this black wolf, which Barton described as being quite large and common in the region where the Creeks lived in his Notes on the Animals of North America

Canis lycaon is a name sometimes used to refer to the supposed “Eastern wolf” today, but for much of its use, it referred to black North American wolves. Black European wolves were called Canis lupus niger,  but later texts, in supposed deference to Bartram, red wolves would be called Canis niger.

Nowhere do we find mention of these wolves being particularly different from other wolves. The only thing they have that is unusual is that they are very often black in color.

As I noted earlier, this black color likely originated in dogs. Black wolves living in North America today derive their black coloration from crossbreeding with domestic dogs. In Western North American wolves, this black coloration was introduced about 12,000 years ago. However, in these Eastern wolf populations there would have likely been a large number of Native American dogs running about, exchanging genes with wolves all the time.

It is theorized that melanism is associated with greater immune function, so there would have been a selection pressure for the black color in warm, humid places like Florida and much of the Eastern United States. This could explain why so many wolves in the Eastern US and the South were black. Warm and humid places are great environments for various pathogens to live, so a stronger a immune system that is associated with the same gene that gives the black coloration could be a major asset.

Okay, now that we understand that the Southeastern US was home to large black wolves that somehow got connected to so-called red wolves of East Texas, when does someone first mention the red wolf?

Well, the first text to include a mention of a red wolf in North America is John James Audubon and John Bachman’s The Quadrupeds of North America, Volume 2 (1851). This book was published after Audubon’s death, but it is from this description that we get the idea that the coyote-like animals that once roamed East Texas and Louisiana were “red wolves.” The text describes the red wolf as a color phase of wolf , not a unique species. The section is called the “Red Texan Wolf”:

This variety is by no means the only one found in Texas, where Wolves, black, white and gray, are to be met with from time to time. We do not think, however, that this Red Wolf is an inhabitant of the more northerly prairies, or even of the lower Mississippi bottoms, and have, therefore, called him the Red Texan Wolf.

The habits of this variety are nearly similar to those of the black and the white Wolf, which we have already described, differing somewhat, owing to local causes, but showing the same sneaking, cowardly, yet ferocious disposition.


In all species of quadrupeds that are widely diffused over our continent, it has often appeared to us that toward the north they are more subject to become white—toward the east or Atlantic side gray—to the south black—and toward the west red. The gray squirrel, (S. migrulorius), of the Northern and Eastern States presents many varieties of red as we proceed westwardly towards Ohio. In the south, the fox squirrel in the maritime districts is black as well as gray, but not red. On proceeding westwardly, however, through Georgia and Alabama,a great many are found of a rufous colour. In Louisiana, there are in the southern parts two species permanently black as well as the foxsquirrel, which in about half the specimens are found black, and the remainder reddish. The same may be said in regard to the Wolves. In the north there is a tendency towards white—hence great numbers are of that colour. Along the Atlantic coast, in the Middle and Northern States, the majority are gray. To the south, in Florida, the prevailing colour is black, and in Texas and the southwest the colour is generally reddish. It is difficult to account, on any principles of science, for this remarkable peculiarity, which forms a subject of curious speculation.

This variety of Wolf is traced from the northern parts of the State of Arkansas, southerly through Texas into Mexico; we are not informed of its southern limits….

The Wolves present so many shades of colour that we have not ventured to regard this as a distinct species; more especially as it breeds with those of other colours, gangs of Wolves being seen, in which this variety is mixed up with both the gray and black (pg 241-243.).

Audubon and Bachman didn’t think that the red wolf was a unique species. It is clearly described as a color variant that popped up in wolves living in East Texas. There is no description of this animal having many unique features or even a remote suggestion of it being a separate species. That notion is entirely rejected in the text– which is probably why they call it the “Red Texan Wolf” instead of the “Texas red wolf.”

Audubon and Bachman would have also been aware that the term “red wolf” referred to another species.

It is first mentioned in Georges Cuvier Le règne animal distribué d’après son organisation [The Animal Kingdom] (1817). In the text Cuvier refers to a very different animal than the one that Audubon and Bachman would have met in Texas:

Le Loup Rouge D’amerique

D’un beau roux cannelle, une courte crinière noire tout le long de l’épine. Des marais de l’Amérique méridionale (pg. 180).


“A beautiful brown cinnamon, a short black mane along the spine. Marshes of South America.”

Cuvier gave this animal the scientific name of Canis jubatus, and his description points to the maned wolf of South America (Chrysocyon brachyurus). It actually is red in color, but it does have black legs and a black mane. It’s not found in the marshes of South America. Instead, it is a creature of the grasslands and scrub forest.

Both Audubon and Bachman would have been familiar with Cuvier’s work. Audubon was a native French-speaker from Haiti, and Bachman was a well-read naturalist of his day.

Further, we know Audubon knew of Cuvier’s work from an unusual story.  Audubon shot an unusual red-crowned kinglet at his father-in-law’s farm on the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania in 1812. He thought was unique enough to be declared a new species, which he called Cuvier’s kinglet (Regulus cuvieri).

I have named this pretty and rare species after Baron Cuvier, not merely by way of acknowledgment for the kind attentions which I have received at the hands of that deservedly celebrated naturalist, but more as a homage due by every student of nature to one at present unrivalled in the knowledge of General Zoology.

–John James Audubon, Ornithological Biography (1831) (pg. 288).

So it’s very likely that Audubon, who was an admirer of Cuvier, wanted to make sure that the red wolves of Texas were clearly delineated from Cuvier’s Le Loup Rouge D’amerique.

So it’s very likely that the red wolf was actually just a color phase of wolf that was common in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

And nothing more.

Wolves of all colors were heavily persecuted in the region.

In Bruce Hampton’s The Great American Wolf there is a photo of a red wolf that was captured in the Arkansas in the early 1900’s. Its jaws are bound shut with wire, and it is very likely that the dogs are about to be set on it. Wolves were so hated  that they weren’t even accorded human dispatch. Tortuous methods were very commonly used, including this macabre spectacle in which dogs would tear a wolf to pieces. With its jaw bound, it would be unable to defend itself.

However, the photo of this wolf reveals that it looks nothing like the animals currently called red wolves. The photo shows an animal with broad jaws and relatively small ears, which are being slightly pulled back against the skull. The look on the animal’s eyes is nothing but pure terror.

This photo seems to agree with Audubon and Bachman. The red wolf was nothing more than a color phase of the wolf subspecies native to the region.

And that wolf subspecies was eventually killed off until just a few remained.

But they had already started mating with coyotes as soon as the widespread persecution of their species began, and those that remained soon got absorbed into the coyote population.

In the 1970’s, animals that were deemed red wolves based upon morphology were trapped in the region, and they were bred in captivity. The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, and this was to be one of the first major attempts at saving a species.

The wolves were bred in captivity for several decades.

And they were “reintroduced” to Eastern North Carolina in 1987 at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

The  animals did fine, but then coyotes started moving in. And the red wolves started mating with coyotes.

To keep the animals “pure,” the US Fish and Wildlife Service started trapping coyotes, and that’s what they’ve been doing ever since.

This project is deemed a major success of the ESA. So-called red wolves are roaming in several reserves in the Southeast now, but the main population is in Eastern North Carolina.

In 199w, Robert Wayne released the first extensive mitochondrial DNA studies on wolves in North America. These analyses revealed that the most red wolves, both historical and living, had coyote mtDNA. This suggested that the red wolf was a hybrid species.

This finding was not well-received. The ESA is the “Endangered Species Act, ” not the “Endangered Hybrids Act.”

Ron Nowak threw a fit. He contended that red wolves were actually primitive wolf-like canids that were ancestral to both wolves and coyotes.  He proposed several ancient species for the potential ancestors of the red wolf, ending with Canis mosbachensis. Canis mosbachensis might be the ancestor of all wolves in both the Old World and the New, so the argument might be a bit moot. Other proposed ancestors of the red wolf include Canis edwardii, which was red wolf-sized that lived from the Pliocene to the Irvingtonian stage of the Pleistocene. It may be the ancestor of all wolves and coyotes.

But it’s not the red wolf that we know today.

After Wayne’s study came out, there were some other genetic studies that looked a limited parts of the y-chromosome or limited microsatellite analyses.

Wayne stated that the red wolf should be conserved. Lots of wolves have coyote mtDNA, but these animals have all been listed as subspecies of Canis lupus, not a unique species. So he suggested that the red wolf be considered an endangered subspecies. (The Eastern wolf as Canis lycaon canard hadn’t really developed yet.)

It was only last year, when the genome-wide assessment was released that it became obvious that the red wolves that live today aren’t a unique species after all. They really can’t be called a hybrid species. Instead, it might be more accurate to call them coyotes with wolf ancestry– which is not a rarity in North America.

So the historical record shows that the red wolf as we know it now never existed in the wild until after wolves had been persecuted in East Texas and Louisiana.

The wolves of the South were very likely Canis lupus subspecies, judging from their description from contemporaries. These southern wolves, which were very often black– not red–are now extinct.

Some might say that the coyote-derived impostors that have been introduced into the former range of the Southeastern wolf are merely fulfilling the same niche as the large black wolves that once roamed there.

They might be.

But they are still impostors.

The Southeast of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century no longer exists.

We can only revisit it in the words of Audubon and Bartram.

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The following account of a tame black wolf that was used as a hunting dog can be found in John James Audubon’s The viviparous quadrupeds of North America, Volume 2 (1851):

Once, when we were travelling on foot not far from the southern boundary of Kentucky, we fell in with a Black Wolf, following a man with a rifle on his shoulders. On speaking with him about this animal, he assured us that it was as tame and as gentle as any dog, and that he had never met with a dog that could trail a deer better. We were so much struck with this account and the noble appearance of the wolf, that we offered him one hundred dollars for it; but the owner would not part with it for any price (pg. 130).

One might claim that this was a Native American dog, but I doubt it.

Audubon and the people living in Kentucky at this time could tell dogs from wolves, and the deer hunter didn’t claim this animal as a dog. The people living in Kentucky during the early nineteenth century lived very close to Native Americans and to the natural world as a whole. They were fully aware of what animals existed there.

I think this animal is what Audubon and this hunter said it was.

It was a deer hunting wolf.

So yes, people in modern times have used wolves as hunting dogs.

See earlier posts

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From Ornithological biography, or, An account of the habits of the birds of the United States of America (1831) :

The pleasant days of spring have arrived, and the trees vigorously shoot forth their buds ; but the opossum is almost bare, and seems nearly exhausted by hunger. It visits the margins of creeks, and is pleased to see the young frogs, which afford it a tolerable repast. Gradually the poke-berry and the nettle shoot up, and on their tender and juicy stems it gladly feeds. The matin[g] calls of the Wild Turkey Cock delight the ear of the cunning creature, for it well knows that it will soon hear the female, and trace her to her nest, when it will suck the eggs with delight. Travelling through the woods, perhaps on the ground, perhaps aloft, from tree to tree, it hears a cock crow, and its heart swells as it remembers the savoury food on which it regaled itself last summer in the neighbouring farm-yard. With great care, however, it advances, and at last conceals itself in the very hen-house.

Honest farmer ! why did you kill so many crows last winter ? aye, and ravens too ? Well, you have had your own way of it; but now hie to the village and procure a store of ammunition, clean your rusty gun, set your traps, and teach your lazy curs to watch the opossum. There it comes ! The sun is scarcely down, but the appetite of the prowler is keen ; hear the screams of one of your best chickens that has been seized by him ! The cunning beast is off with it, and nothing now can be done, unless you stand there to watch the fox or the owl, now exulting in the thought that you have killed their enemy and your own friend, the poor crow. That precious hen under which you last week placed a dozen eggs or so, is now deprived of them. The opossum, notwithstanding her angry outcries and rufflings of feathers, has removed them one by one; and now, look at the poor bird as she moves across your yard ; if not mad, she is at least stupid, for she scratches here and there, calling to her chickens all the while. All this comes from your shooting crows. Had you been more merciful or more prudent, the opossum might have been kept within the woods, where it would have been satisfied with a squirrel, a young hare, the eggs of a Turkey, or the grapes that so profusely adorn the boughs of our forest trees. But I talk to you in vain.

There cannot be a better exemplification of maternal tenderness than the female oppossum. Just peep into that curious sack in which the young are concealed, each attached to a teat. The kind mother not only nourishes them with care, but preserves them from their enemies; she moves with them as the shark does with its progeny, and now, aloft on the tulip tree, she hides among the thick foliage. By the end of two months they begin to shift for themselves; each has been taught its particular lesson, and must now practise it.

But suppose the farmer has surprised an Opossum in the act of killing one of his best fowls. His angry feelings urge him to kick the poor beast, which, conscious of its inability to resist, rolls off like a ball. The more the farmer rages, the more reluctant is the animal to manifest resentment ; at last there it lies, not dead, but exhausted, its jaws open, its tongue extended, its eye dimmed; and there it would he until the bottlefly should come to deposit its eggs, did not its tormentor at length walk off. ” Surely,” says he to himself, ” the beast must be dead.” But no, reader, it is only ” ‘possuming,” and no sooner has its enemy withdrawn, than it gradually gets on its legs, and once more makes for the woods (pg. 455-456).

Now, that’s some good nature writing!

I don’t think Audubon recognized that opossums also ate vegetation, but it is interesting that he recognized that human depredations against wild birds– in this case, crows and ravens– often drove the opossum to raid the chicken coops.

I don’t know how much opossums rely upon the nests of corvids for their sustenance, but this observation does suggest a certain level of ecological awareness on the part Audubon, even if it may not be entirely correct. In this analysis, Audubon clearly thinks that a human activity– shooting too many crows and ravens– causes the opossum to raid hen houses.

I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it does show a rudimentary sense of ecological understanding on the part of Audubon.

Not something one would expect from someone writing in the early part of the nineteenth century.

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John James Audubon painted this illustration of a "great white heron." Plato, his "retrieving Newfoundland," fetched the first specimens of this species that Audubon encountered. However, this species is no longer considered valid. Great white herons are a white subspecies of the great blue heron that is endemic to South Florida.

Today is John James Audubon’s 226th birthday. If you use Google today, the site’s logo celebrates Audubon’s legacy.

Audubon is known for his wonderful paintings and books about the wildlife of North America. He was among  the first to fully and accurately catalog our native birds both his writing and his art.

One of the most respected conservation societies is named in his honor– The National Audubon Society.


Now for some biased Audubon lore:  Audubon was a retrieverman.

His most notable dog was a “Newfoundland’ named Plato.

The dog had been given to him by a physician,  for it was well-established that Aududon would need a retriever on his forays. To get such anatomically correct depictions of birds, Audubon shot his subjects.

The dog was of great use in Florida, hauling out scores of cayenne terns. However, he is probably best known for fetching two young great white herons, one of which was not particularly thrilled with being carried by a retriever:

On the 24th of April, 1832, I landed on Indian Key in Florida, and immediately after formed an acquaintance with Mr. Egan. He it was who first gave me notice of the species which forms the subject of this article, and of which I cannot find any description. The next day after that of my arrival, when I was prevented from accompanying him by my anxiety to finish a drawing, he came in with two young birds alive, and another lying dead in a nest, which he had cut off from a mangrove. You may imagine how delighted I was, when at the very first glance I felt assured that they were different from any that I had previously seen. The two living birds were of a beautiful white, slightly tinged with cream-colour, remarkably fat and strong for their age, which the worthy pilot said could not be more than three weeks. The dead bird was quite putrid and much smaller. It looked as if it had accidentally been trampled to death by the parent birds ten or twelve days before, the body being almost flat and covered with filth. The nest with the two live birds was placed in the yard. The young Herons seemed quite unconcerned when a person approached them, although on displaying one’s hand to them, they at once endeavoured to strike it with their bill. My Newfoundland dog, a well-trained and most sagacious animal, was whistled for and came up; on which the birds rose partially on their legs, ruffled all their feathers, spread their wings, opened their bills, and clicked their mandibles in great anger, but without attempting to leave the nest. I ordered the dog to go near them, but not to hurt them. They waited until he went within striking distance, when the largest suddenly hit him with its bill, and hung to his nose. Plato, however, took it all in good part, and merely brought the bird towards me, when I seized it by the wings, which made it let go its hold. It walked off as proudly as any of its tribe, and I was delighted to find it possessed of so much courage. These birds were left under the charge of Mrs. Egan, until I returned from my various excursions to the different islands along the coast ( pg. 110-111).

Plato would also guide Audubon and his party through a vicious Florida storm:

Early one morning I hired a boat and two men, with the view of returning to St Augustine by a short cut. Our baggage being placed on board, I bade adieu to the officers, and off we started. About four in the afternoon we arrived at the short cut, forty miles distant from our point of departure, and where we had expected to procure a waggon, but were disappointed. So we laid our things on the bank, and, leaving one of my assistants to look after them, I set out, accompanied by the other, and my Newfoundland dog. We had eighteen miles to go ; and as the sun was only two hours high, we struck off at a good rate. Presently we entered a pine barren. The country was as level as a floor ; our path, although narrow, was well beaten, having been used by the Seminole Indians for ages, and the weather was calm and beautiful. Now and then a rivulet occurred, from which we quenched our thirst, while the magnolias and other flowering plants on its banks relieved the dull uniformity of the woods. When the path separated into two branches, both seemingly leading the same way, I would follow one, while my companion took the other, and unless we met again in a short time, one of us would go across the intervening forest.

The sun went down behind a cloud, and the south-east breeze that sprung up at this moment, sounded dolefully among the tall pines. Along the eastern horizon lay a bed of black vapour, which gradually rose, and soon covered the heavens. The air felt hot and oppressive, and we knew that a tempest was approaching. Plato was now our guide, the white spots on his skin being the only objects that we could discern amid the darkness, and as if aware of his utility in this respect, he kept a short way before us on the trail. Had we imagined ourselves more than a few miles from the town, we would have made a camp, and remained under its shelter for the night; but conceiving that the distance could not be great, we resolved to trudge along.

Large drops began to fall from the murky mass overhead -, thick, inpenetrable darkness surrounded us, and to my dismay, the dog refused to proceed. Groping with my hands on the ground, I discovered that several trails branched out at the spot where he lay down; and when I had selected one, he went on. Vivid flashes of lightning streamed across the heavens, the wind increased to a gale, and the rain poured down upon us like a torrent. The water soon rose on the level ground so as almost to cover our feet, and we slowly advanced, fronting the tempest. Here and there a tall pine on fire presented a magnificent spectacle, illumining the trees around it, and surrounded with a halo of dim light, abruptly bordered with the deep black of the night. At one time we passed through a tangled thicket of low trees, at another crossed a stream flushed by the heavy rain, and again proceeded over the open barrens.

How long we thus, half-lost, groped our way, is more than I can tell you ; but at length the tempest passed over, and suddenly the clear sky became spangled with stars. Soon after we smelt the salt-marshes, and walking directly towards them, like pointers advancing on a covey of partridges, we at last to our great joy descried the light of the beacon near St Augustine. My dog began to run briskly around, having met with ground on which he had hunted before, and taking a direct course, led us to the great causeway that crosses the marshes at the back of the town. We refreshed ourselves with the produce of the first orange treethat we met with, and in half an hour more arrived at our hotel. Drenched with rain, steaming with perspiration, and covered to the knees with mud, you may imagine what figures we cut in the eyes of the good people whom we found snugly enjoying themselves in the sitting room. Next morning, Major Gates, who had received me with much kindness, sent a waggon with mules and two trusty soldiers for my companion and luggage ( pg. 294-295).

Although Plato is described as a black and white Newfoundland dog. I think it is more likely that he had been a more of St. John’s type dog. It is not that the larger Newfoundlands weren’t excellent retrievers.  The typical nineteenth century dog of the large Newfoundland type was white with black markings, not black with a white spots. The St. John’s breed was usually black with some white markings.

Further, Audubon describes the Newfoundland dog coat when discusses the opossum’s adaptations to the cold in his Missouri River Journals (1843). Opossums are only sparsely furred, but they possess a layer of fat for insulation. Audubon clearly states that the same can be said for the “Newfoundland dog”:

The Newfoundland dog manifests a similar propensity. Having a constitution as hardy as that of the most northern animals, it stands the coldest weather, and does not hibernate, although its covering of fur and hair may be said to be comparatively scanty even during winter. The defect, however, seems to be compensated by a skin of considerable thickness, and a general subcutaneous layer of fat (pg. 501).

Although the coat on a St. John’s water dog was quite dense, it could be described as sparse. I don’t think one could logically make that claim for any of the larger Newfoundland dogs.

One must remember that in the nineteenth century, the line between Newfoundland and retriever was somewhat nebulous. So it is both accurate to call Plato a Newfoundland and  a retriever. “Retriever” was just a function, not a breed and many dogs Newfoundland ancestry fit the job.

In his earlier days, Audubon also had a dog that was called a retriever. The dog was a bitch, but she was listed at “Dash–a slut.” Slut is an archaic word that just means bitch, and she would accompany Audubon down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans, fetching shot birds for his paintings.

I cannot say exactly what kind of retriever she was. She may have been nothing more than an improved setter or a cross between a setter and “Newfoundland.” She may have been a water spaniel or water spaniel cross.

Whatever she was, both Plato and Dash were absolute necessities for a shooting naturalist who wanted to collect specimens that could later be used to create the most anatomically correct depictions of their species the world had yet seen.

They were valued in their service in cataloging the North America’s amazing avian fauna. Although they don’t make much mention in Audubon’s writings and he never took the trouble to paint them, it is obvious that he appreciated them very much.

He described Plato as “a well-trained and most sagacious animal,” which is what all retrievers, regardless of their time period or breed, should be.

Well-trained and sagacious.

The naturalist’s dog.

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This depiction of a cross fox comes from The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America by John Bachman and John James Audubon.

The cross fox is a color phase of the red fox, which is found almost exclusively in the North American populations. In fact, I’ve never heard of a European cross fox, but if they exist, I’ve not heard of them.

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