Don Richard Eckelberry, a prolific
illustrator who was one of the country's foremost bird painters,
died Jan. 14 in Bay Shore, N.Y. He was 79 and lived in Babylon,
N.Y. He died of respiratory failure after surgery, said his
Al Gilbert, past president of the Society of Animal Artists, said, "Don was probably in stature comparable to Roger Tory Peterson in the field of wildlife art and bird painting."
As illustrator of Richard Pough's Audubon Bird Guide in 1946, Mr. Eckelberry portrayed virtually all the birds of North America north of Mexico in all significant plumages, in 1,250 color pictures.
Dr. Durbin Rowland of the University of Chicago wrote of the first volume: "Each bird seems to have sat or rather perched for a portrait rich in distinguished traits, right in stance, in coloring and even in feathered personality." Audubon, the professor said, would have been thrilled.
Mr. Eckelberry's drawings and paintings are found in 14 books,
including "An Introduction to Nature" by John Kieran,
"A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies," "A
Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago," "Our Amazing
Birds" by Robert S. Lemmon, and the Audubon Western Bird
Guide. He was a staff artist with the National Audubon Society
in the 1940's but worked after that as a
Les Line, editor in chief of Audubon magazine from 1966 to 1991, described Mr. Eckelberry's artwork, which he frequently published, as "fine art rather than draftsmanship."
Mr. Line said Mr. Eckelberry bucked a growing trend in the 1970's and 80's in which artists, working from photographs, put more and more detail into wildlife painting, including detail one could not hope to see in the field, until the painted birds ended up looking stuffed.
By contrast, he said, "Eckelberry's paintings really breathed life, and as they really looked in nature a bird flying over the ocean with waves breaking or flocks of skimmers lined up on shore."
Mr. Eckelberry was born and raised in Sebring, Ohio, and by the age of 15 had formed a bird club, was writing nature columns for two newspapers and had had a one-man show. He attended the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he met his future wife, who was his freshman design instructor, and spent a summer as a trailside naturalist for the Cleveland park system.
While working in a California optical company as part of the war effort, he went on a desert bird-watching trip with John H. Baker, director of the National Audubon Society, who promptly hired him.
Some of his early jobs for the society included being warden of wildlife sanctuaries in Louisiana, where he traveled to check on the nearly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker; Okeechobee, Fla.; and Cape May Point, N.J.
"Don was known as the consummate field man, making brilliant, lifelike sketches of birds throughout North, Central and South America," said Robert M. Peck, curator of art at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and a long time friend of Mr. Eckelberry's.
"He was also a fabulous raconteur, creating eerily convincing sound effects and affecting a wide range of accents as he wove captivating tales of his many adventures in the field."
In 1967, Mr. Eckelberry and two other conservationists raised money to buy Spring Hill Plantation, a thousand-acre estate in Trinidad well known to ornithologists because of its nesting oilbirds and a wide variety of other tropical species. They renamed it the Asa Wright Nature Center, after its former owner, and it is now a nonprofit center for ecotourism and research.