When open, ‘The Birds of America’ can match the wingspan of a large buzzard or seagull, reaching just under a metre and a half in length. It’s a little over a metre tall, roughly the height of an Emperor penguin, and at 23 kilograms, a similar weight as well. In other words, you’d probably want at least one other person to help you to lift it.
With your assistant on hand, the two of you would then be able to open the brown leather-bound cover. They’d need to stay to help you leaf carefully through the thick, gold-edged pages – if you tried to turn them yourself, the paper would most likely tear, unable to support its own weight.
Every slow turn of a gargantuan page would unveil another full page hand-coloured image bursting with avian life. The birds, as well as the minutely detailed flora and fauna that surround them, are in most cases life-sized, or as close as they can be. The glossy feathers of larger birds ruffle impressively, taking up most of a page, whilst smaller species perch as a flock on mossy branches, or build delicate twiggy nests against a white background.
At present, the book is turned 90 degrees and sits in portrait, open on The Great White Heron, a page towards the end of the volume. An enormous bird of pure white feathers, it’s been drawn in the moment between scooping a fish up from the water and guzzling it into its long, snaking neck. The scaly legs of the heron, yellow at the tops but giving way to black feet and claws, are bent, and its body is horizontal, as though it’s stepped forward and tipped down to reach into the water. But its head and neck point skywards, creating a u-bend kink in its sinuous gullet. It’s only because of this crouching posture that the whole of the bird can fit on the page.
The heron’s long yellow beak, thin and sharp as a pair of scissors, is closing around the wide-eyed fish, which is only slightly smaller than the bird’s head. The fish is a reddish pink, with yellow stripes around its eyes, which fade to orange further down its body. The heron’s yellow eye, ringed by purple skin, looks out at us with a hard stare, its looming pupil gleaming.
The bird stands on a rocky outcrop, surrounded by a large body of dark water undulating with little waves. But most of the background is taken up by sky – threatening thunderclouds crowd out a more cheerful blue that peeks out at the top of the picture. In the lower section of the image, the sky gives way to the land, and just at that juncture, its clouds become a sunset pink. On the horizon, white birds soar over green puffs of tree-covered islands that rise from the water, and a little town of blocky buildings lines the water-front.
In contrast, nine tiny books are arranged over the opposite page, sitting on brass bars. The volumes are minuscule in comparison to this huge tome, the smallest book, in a metal case, only a little larger than the heron’s eye.