It’s not every day in Baton Rouge you’ll hear a group of people of all ages discussing intently the origins of Louisiana bird names — but that is exactly what happened all day Saturday at the LSU Hill Memorial Library.
“Rice bird — do they eat rice?” a child asked aloud.
“Yes they do. They also have a really pretty song,” answered Walker Wilson, 38, a wildlife biologist who was enjoying the exhibit.
It was the library’s annual showing of one of its most valuable collections — the famed double elephant folio edition of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” a set of four enormous books whose pages are filled with various species of birds. The book was published in London from 1827 to 1838.
Throughout the day, about 200 people streamed into the quiet hall to watch as library volunteers wearing white cloth gloves carefully turned the pages of the four enormous books, each page of colorful bird paintings eliciting “oohs” and “aahs.”
The library owns one of the 120 sets that are thought to exist today. In 2010, one of those complete sets sold for $11.5 million, the highest price ever paid for a printed book, according to the library’s information handout.
“I’m amazed,” said Madison Pierce, 10. “I’ve never seen something so old.”
“It was like a piece of history,” said LSU graduate student Katie Cheramie, 23.
Elaine Smyth, interim assistant dean for the LSU Libraries, said she looked forward every year to showing the public the “wonderful treasures,” which are usually locked up for safekeeping in the library’s packed, six-story warehouse.
“This is really why we’re here,” Smyth said. “Our goal is to preserve the history of the state, but also preserve it in a way that people get to experience it.”
Wilson, the biologist, said he had grown up looking at reproductions of Audubon’s work and especially loved seeing the artist’s paintings of species of Louisiana birds that are now extinct because of human intervention.
One of the pages depicted a Carolina parakeet, a species that became extinct when farmers shot flocks of them when the birds fed on their fruit crops, Wilson said. The birds had the unfortunate habit of returning immediately to the scene of the death of one of their flocks, facilitating the farmers in killing them off.
Another page depicted an ivory-billed woodpecker, a species that became extinct after humans destroyed the old-growth forests filled with dead trees that housed the beetles that the birds relied on for food.
“It was like they took away their grocery store,” Wilson said. “They didn’t have any place to go eat, so they died.”