When John James Audubon first arrived in Cincinnati in late 1819, he was a bankrupt failure, just out of jail, with nothing but the clothes on his back and a hunting rifle.

Audubon had been living in Louisville and Henderson, Ky., trying his hand — badly, it seems — at farming, store-keeping and mining, among other occupations. His two hobbies, though, were his true passions: Drawing birds and roaming the Kentucky and Ohio woods to observe wildlife.

For a while, the penniless artist was forced to scrape out a living by scribbling charcoal portraits on Cincinnati street corners at $5 a head. He also drew deathbed sketches, popular in the days before photography.

Finally, the Western Museum of Cincinnati gave Audubon a break and hired him on as a taxidermist. “It was a challenging period in Audubon’s life,” relates Nancy Powell, curator of collections at the Audubon Center in Audubon, Pa. “He was offered a magnificent salary of $125 a month and, on that basis, moved his family to Cincinnati. Unfortunately, the U.S. economy was experiencing a bust period, and he never received full payment for his services.”

John James Audubon, as it happens, had a legitimate background in the arcane art and science of taxidermy: He’d recently developed the new technique of inserting wires into freshly killed birds, in order to better manipulate them into more lifelike positions for his sketching.

The early 1800s were an interesting time to be working at the Western Museum of Cincinnati. The newly hired curator, Joseph Dorfeuille, was concerned with the lack of audiences willing to pay 25 cents to view old dinosaur bones and animal specimens. So, he developed the notion of transforming the Western Museum from a center of scientific study into a place of popular entertainment.

Working under the philosophy that natural truths are nowhere near as compelling as “occasional errors of nature,” Dorfeuille introduced moving skeletons, optical machines and cosmoramas (enhanced pictures of world landmarks), creepy organ music, even a wax tableau depicting the crimes of a local ax murderer named Cowan.

Audubon wasn’t likely amused by these antics, in the same way he didn’t tolerate anyone he viewed as a rank amateur.

When a noted natural artist came through Cincinnati on his travels, Audubon would have none of him. “From want of knowledge of the habits of birds in a wild state,” he sharply criticized, “he represented them as if seated for a portrait.”

Finally, the man who was to become the most renowned ornithologist of his time decided to fly away from Cincinnati. It was time to pack up and move on farther west to paint.

Audubon, at the age of 35, set out to capture on paper no less than every bird native to America — in full size, full color and in their natural settings. During the next four years, he would crisscross the nation and produce 400-plus watercolors representing nearly 500 species.

He published his life’s work, Birds of America, in four volumes between 1827 and 1838. His illustrations showed, for the first time, American birds in their natural poses and habitats.

Audubon, finally having achieved success, bought an estate on the Hudson River in 1841. He died there of a stroke in January 1851, at the age of 65.

Today, little evidence remains of John James Audubon’s time in the Queen City. There’s a statue of him on the Riverwalk in Covington, and the Cincinnati Art Museum has more than a hundred chromolithographs (color prints), as well as a portfolio of lithographs from Birds of America. Temporarily, at least, there is an Audubon original hanging at the Taft Museum of Art, but it’s on loan from the New York Historical Society and leaves after Jan. 17.

“I don’t know if there is an actual Audubon painting (permanently) here in town or not,” says Alvin May, president of the Cincinnati chapter of the National Audubon Society. “There could be one in a private collection, I suppose.”

One of the most notable private collections in town — the three-dozen paintings that adorn the walls in the executive suite at Procter & Gamble — contains major American artists of the 19th century, everyone from Frank Duveneck to Henry Farny, but no Audubon to be found.

“The public library does have a complete set of the ‘Elephant Folio’ drawings of birds and mammals that Audubon published,” notes Anne Shepherd, reference librarian at the Cincinnati Historical Society Library.

The Audubon Museum at Audubon State Park in Henderson may be the best regional warehouse of his works, with many of his originals, prints and copper plates, as well as personal artifacts. “We have 10 original paintings on display at this time,” says L. Alan Gehret, curator of collections.

The Speed Art Museum in Louisville also boasts several rare Audubon portraits of human beings. “We have three chalk drawings Audubon did of members of the Berthoud family, including James Berthoud, whom Audubon identifies as his first (human) sitting,” says Kirsten Popp, public information associate.

Want to learn more about Audubon, or meet other fellow enthusiasts? Well, you could always hang out by his statue on the Covington Riverwalk and see who strolls by. You know what they say about “birds of a feather.”