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John James Audubon's Discovery of a Bird That Might Not Exist

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“It was in the month of February, 1814, that I obtained the first sight of this noble bird, and never shall I forget the delight which it gave me.”

That’s John James Audubon, the American naturalist and artist, writing in The Birds of America. Audubon is remembered today for creating some of the most spectacular paintings of North American wildlife ever made, identifying 25 new species and a number of sub-species of birds and lending his name to the Audubon Society, an environmental organization dedicated to conservation. His spotting of that noble bird one morning, though, left a blemish on his legacy, stirred up a years-long controversy among ornithologists, and led some people to brand him a liar or a nut. The bird has turned out to be unidentifiable and is rarely reliably reported in the wild.

The First Sighting

Audubon first saw one on a trip up the Mississippi River with a Canadian fur trader. Both were tired, cold, and miserable when an eagle flew overhead. The trader’s mood changed instantly.

"How fortunate!" he said. “This is what I could have wished. Look, sir! The Great Eagle, and the only one I have seen since I left the [Great] Lakes.”

Audubon leapt to his feet and watched the bird for a few minutes as it circled over their heads. It resembled an immature bald eagle, but he couldn’t identify it and decided it was a species new to him, if not everyone. The fur trader explained that the huge, brown birds were rare, and sometimes followed hunters and trappers in the north to scavenge what they could from a kill. They were also formidable hunters in their own right, diving into the Great Lakes to retrieve fish in their beaks. The behavior didn’t sound like that of either known North American eagle—the bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, and the golden eagle, Aquila chrysaetos—and Audubon was convinced that the bird was an undiscovered species.

A few years later, he had another encounter with the mystery bird. He was in Kentucky visiting a friend, and walking along a path near a shack where they had slaughtered a hog a few days before.

“I saw an Eagle rise from a small enclosure not a hundred yards before me…and alight upon a low tree branching over the road,” wrote Audubon in Birds of America. “I prepared my double-barreled piece, which I constantly carry, and went slowly and cautiously towards him. Quite fearlessly he awaited my approach, looking upon me with undaunted eye. I fired and he fell.”

He and his friend examined the bird and acknowledged that neither of them knew what it was. They collected the corpse and brought it back to the house for further study. Audubon made a biological description and a life-size painting of what he dubbed Falco washingtonii, the bird of Washington or Washington’s eagle, in honor of America’s first president. He said of the connection between the two, “He was brave, so is the Eagle; like it, too, he was the terror of his foes; and his fame, extending from pole to pole, resembles the majestic soarings of the mightiest of the feathered tribe. If America has reason to be proud of her Washington, so has she to be proud of her great Eagle.”

According to Audubon’s description and depiction of the bird, it stood 3 feet, 7 inches tall and had a wingspan of 10 feet, 2 inches, making it far bigger than any known North American raptor. Given its size and a few other physical distinctions—among them a uniform scaling on its tarsi (the lower parts of a bird’s legs)—biologists accepted Audubon’s discovery as a legitimate new species and additional sightings, especially in the Great Lakes region, were reported in scientific journals for years after.

Not A New Species, After All

Soon, though, the tone around Washington’s eagle began to change. In the later years of Audubon’s life, other naturalists began to question whether the bird was really a distinct species. He was accused of taking sloppy measurements of his specimen and overstating the physical differences between his bird and other species. Washington’s eagle, as a species, was quickly discredited among scientists, the consensus being that the bird was either a misidentified bald eagle or a hoax and publicity stunt. Just a few years after Audubon’s death in 1851, the journal American Naturalist called it a valid species only among “amateur ornithologists.”

What did Audubon see, shoot and make such a big deal out of? Most of his critics suspected it was an exceptionally large northern bald eagle, which are all brown before they reach maturity and lack the distinctive white head the bird is known for. It’s possible that Audubon misidentified it because he was unfamiliar with the species’ development, but he wrote about plenty of encounters with both mature and immature bald eagles and should have been familiar with their changing appearance, and known one when he saw one. There’s also the nagging matter of his eagle’s size and tarsal scaling.

If Audubon really did discover an unknown giant North American eagle, science might never be able to confirm it. Ornithologists haven’t reported seeing anything like it in all their years studying raptors since, and reports from the public have turned out to be misidentifications. Only a handful of the birds were ever said to be captured, killed and preserved during Audubon’s day, and everyone one of those supposed specimens is long gone. One that was sent to the Linnean Society of London for safekeeping was auctioned off and its location is unknown. One at the Peale Museum in Philadelphia was destroyed in a fire. The ones at the New England Museum, the Cleveland Academy of Science and Museum of Natural History in Boston have all been lost and possibly destroyed. Even the specimen that Audubon painted is missing in action. Without a live or stuffed specimen matching Audubon’s description on which to run a DNA analysis, Washington’s eagle remains something of an avian Bigfoot, and maybe just an idea for the birds.

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Animals
Watch as Hummingbirds Fly, Drink, and Flap Their Tiny Wings in Slow Motion
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Hummingbirds have more feathers per inch than nearly any other bird, but it’s hard to fully appreciate their luminescent colors when they beat their wings between 70 to 200 times per second.

For the enjoyment of birders everywhere, National Geographic photographer Anand Varma teamed up with bird biologists and used a high-speed, high-resolution camera to capture the tiny creatures in slow motion as they flew through wind tunnels, drank artificial nectar from a glass vessel, and shook water from their magnificent plumage.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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Scientists Study the Starling Invasion Unleashed on America by a Shakespeare Fan

On a warm spring day, the lawn outside the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan gleams with European starlings. Their iridescent feathers reflect shades of green and indigo—colors that fade to dowdy brown in both sexes after the breeding season. Over the past year, high school students from different parts of the city came to this patch of grass for inspiration. "There are two trees at the corner I always tell them to look at," Julia Zichello, senior manager at the Sackler Educational Lab at the AMNH, recalls to Mental Floss. "There are holes in the trees where the starlings live, so I was always telling them to keep an eye out."

Zichello is one of several scientists leading the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program, or SRMP. After completing a year of after-school science classes at the AMNH, New York City high school students can apply to join ongoing research projects being conducted at the institution. In a recent session, Zichello collaborated with four upperclassmen from local schools to continue her work on the genetic diversity of starlings.

Before researching birds, Zichello earned her Ph.D. in primate genetics and evolution. The two subjects are more alike than they seem: Like humans, starlings in North America can be traced back to a small parent population that exploded in a relatively short amount of time. From a starting population of just 100 birds in New York City, starlings have grown into a 200-million strong flock found across North America.

Dr. Julia Zichello
Dr. Julia Zichello
©AMNH

The story of New York City's starlings began in March 1890. Central Park was just a few decades old, and the city was looking for ways to beautify it. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin came up with the idea of filling the park with every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. This was long before naturalists coined the phrase "invasive species" to describe the plants and animals introduced to foreign ecosystems (usually by humans) where their presence often had disastrous consequences. Non-native species were viewed as a natural resource that could boost the aesthetic and cultural value of whatever new place they called home. There was even an entire organization called the American Acclimatization Society that was dedicated to shipping European flora and fauna to the New World. Schieffelin was an active member.

He chose the starling as the first bird to release in the city. It's easy to miss its literary appearance: The Bard referenced it exactly once in all his writings. In the first act of Henry IV: Part One, the King forbids his knight Hotspur from mentioning the name of Hotspur's imprisoned brother Mortimer to him. The knight schemes his way around this, saying, "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him to keep his anger still in motion."

Nearly three centuries after those words were first published, Schieffelin lugged 60 imported starlings to Central Park and freed them from their cages. The following year, he let loose a second of batch of 40 birds to support the fledgling population.

It wasn't immediately clear if the species would adapt to its new environment. Not every bird transplanted from Europe did: The skylark, the song thrush, and the bullfinch had all been subjects of American integration efforts that failed to take off. The Acclimatization Society had even attempted to foster a starling population in the States 15 years prior to Schieffelin's project with no luck.

Then, shortly after the second flock was released, the first sign of hope appeared. A nesting pair was spotted, not in the park the birds were meant to occupy, but across the street in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History.

Schieffelin never got around to introducing more of Shakespeare's birds to Central Park, but the sole species in his experiment thrived. His legacy has since spread beyond Manhattan and into every corner of the continent.

The 200 million descendants of those first 100 starlings are what Zichello and her students made the focus of their research. Over the 2016-2017 school year, the group met for two hours twice a week at the same museum where that first nest was discovered. A quick stroll around the building reveals that many of Schieffelin's birds didn't travel far. But those that ventured off the island eventually spawned populations as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. By sampling genetic data from starlings collected around the United States, the researchers hoped to identify how birds from various regions differed from their parent population in New York, if they differed at all.

Four student researchers at the American Museum of Natural History
Valerie Tam, KaiXin Chen, Angela Lobel and Jade Thompson (pictured left to right)
(©AMNH/R. Mickens)

There are two main reasons that North American starlings are appealing study subjects. The first has to do with the founder effect. This occurs when a small group of individual specimens breaks off from the greater population, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity. Because the group of imported American starlings ballooned to such great numbers in a short amount of time, it would make sense for the genetic variation to remain low. That's what Zichello's team set out to investigate. "In my mind, it feels like a little accidental evolutionary experiment," she says.

The second reason is their impact as an invasive species. Like many animals thrown into environments where they don't belong, starlings have become a nuisance. They compete with native birds for resources, tear through farmers' crops, and spread disease through droppings. What's most concerning is the threat they pose to aircraft. In 1960, a plane flying from Boston sucked a thick flock of starlings called a murmuration into three of its four engines. The resulting crash killed 62 people and remains the deadliest bird-related plane accident to date.

Today airports cull starlings on the premises to avoid similar tragedies. Most of the birds are disposed of, but some specimens are sent to institutions like AMNH. Whenever a delivery of dead birds arrived, it was the students' responsibility to prep them for DNA analysis. "Some of them were injured, and some of their skulls were damaged," Valerie Tam, a senior at NEST+m High School in Manhattan, tells Mental Floss. "Some were shot, so we had to sew their insides back in."

Before enrolling in SRMP, most of the students' experiences with science were limited to their high school classrooms. At the museum they had the chance to see the subject's dirty side. "It's really different from what I learned from textbooks. Usually books only show you the theory and the conclusion, but this project made me experience going through the process," says Kai Chen, also a senior at NEST+m.

After analyzing data from specimens in the lab, an online database, and the research of previous SRMP students, the group's hypothesis was proven correct: Starlings in North America do lack the genetic diversity of their European cousins. With so little time to adapt to their new surroundings, the variation between two starlings living on opposite coasts could be less than that between the two birds that shared a nest at the Natural History Museum 130 years ago.

Students label samples in the lab.
Valerie Tam, Jade Thompson, KaiXin Chen and Angela Lobel (pictured left to right) label samples with Dr. Julia Zichello.
©AMNH/C. Chesek

Seeing how one species responds to bottlenecking and rapid expansion can provide important insight into species facing similar conditions. "There are other populations that are the same way, so I think this data can help [scientists],” Art and Design High School senior Jade Thompson says. But the students didn't need to think too broadly to understand why the animal was worth studying. "They do affect cities when they're searching for shelter," Academy of American Studies junior Angela Lobel says. “They can dig into buildings and damage them, so they're relevant to our actual homes as well.”

The four students presented their findings at the museum's student research colloquium—an annual event where participants across SRMP are invited to share their work from the year. Following their graduation from the program, the four young women will either be returning to high school or attending college for the first time.

Zichello, meanwhile, will continue where she left off with a new batch of students in the fall. Next season she hopes to expand her scope by analyzing older specimens in the museum's collections and obtaining bird DNA samples from England, the country the New York City starlings came from. Though the direction of the research may shift, she wants the subject to remain the same. "I really want [students] to experience the whole organism—something that's living around them, not just DNA from a species in a far-away place." she says. "I want to give them the picture that evolution is happening all around us, even in urban environments that they may not expect."

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