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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September 27, 2012 - 4:30pm
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