Birds books didn’t start with John James Audubon, and they didn’t end there either. Before Audubon, there was Mark Catesby, who in 1722 was sent by the Royal Society to the Carolinas on a plant-collecting expedition.
Over the next four years Catesby traveled around Eastern North America and the West Indies, collecting samples of plant and animal life. After returning to England, he spent seventeen years working on his Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands: drawing samples and etching plates himself for the publication, the first to use large. folio-sized color plates in a natural history book.
He learned to do the engraving and hand-coloring of the plates himself to keep the cost of producing it down, bookmaking being as foolish a financial investment then as it it today. He painted more birds than anything else, placing them in the middle of the page with some element of their habitat. It is the first true ornithological text dealing with American birds, and sparked a wave of interest in the topic.
AND you can read his masterwork here, online, because the internet is amazing, when it’s not terrible: