Now, after a decade-long search by an Audubon scholar from Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences and a numismatic historian from St. Louis, Audubon's first published illustration of a bird has been discovered.
The effort to find Audubon's missing bank note illustration dates back to the 1950s. Every Audubon scholar since then has met with failure -- until now.
Robert M. Peck, curator of art and artifacts and senior fellow at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and Eric Newman, a currency historian, studied 19th century American banking and engraving companies known to manufacture paper money in Audubon's time.
The men traced the different engravings of one particular bank note artist, Gideon Fairman (1774-1827), and discovered that Audubon had given him the Heath Hen drawing.
Unfortunately the Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) that Audubon depicted has since gone extinct. Heath hens were so cheap and plentiful in their habitat during Colonial times they had a reputation as poor man's food. Overhunting led to their rapid decline and eventual extinction. However Heath hens were one of the first bird species that Americans tried to save from extinction. As early as 1791, a bill "for the preservation of heath-hen and other game" was introduced, and even though it was ultimately unsuccessful, it paved the way for conservation of other species.