On the very first page of his memoir, Audubon describes the death of a parrot as if it were a murder. It is an extraordinarily strange but meaningful story. According to Audubon, his mother, a highborn Louisiana lady living in St. Domingue, kept a number of parrots as well as several pet monkeys. One morning, one of the parrots asked for breakfast, and a monkey, offended for some reason, stood up and killed the bird. Little Audubon was so traumatized by this primal scene that he recalled it, he writes, thousands of times, noting that it was responsible for his lifelong love of birds.
One of the things that makes the story disturbing is that Audubon was creating a sort of racial parable with his tale -- his mother, he later tells the reader, was killed by blacks in the slave revolt that turned St. Domingue into Haiti; his story, therefore, feels like a weird racial parable in which his mother is somehow the delicate bird and the black slaves are the killer primates. But Audubon was lying -- his mother wasn't killed in St. Domingue; she died in childbirth and was a chambermaid. Audubon was fabricating a story to hide his illegitimacy. Which is something I believe many of us do in relationship to nature -- hide our origins. Darwin, after all, has made monkeys of us all. Racism is merely the crudest attempt to force a single group to bear the burden of our shared animal natures.
As it turns out, nobody really knows who his mother was--or his father.