Even though celebrated American naturalist-artist John James Audubon (1785–1851) produced some of the most spectacular paintings of North American wildlife ever created, he has also stirred up a degree of controversy among ornithologists, because his artwork includes depictions of certain birds that cannot be identified with any species known to present-day science. Most of these feathered mysteries are small, relatively nondescript perching birds (see FT222:42–44), but there is one big (indeed, very big) exception: Washington’s eagle.
Today, science recognises the existence of just two species of eagle in the USA – the bald eagle Haliæetus leucocephalus (a sea eagle), and the golden eagle Aquila chrysætos (a true eagle). According to Audubon and a number of contemporary writers, however, there was – and may still be – a third, much larger, visibly distinct species, referred to variously as the great eagle, great sea eagle, bird of Washington, Washington eagle, and Washington’s eagle. Said to possess an enormous 3.1m wingspan, it hardly seems the kind of bird that could readily be overlooked or forgotten, and yet it is conspicuous only in its absence from modern bird books. So, whatever happened to Washington’s eagle?
It was Audubon who first brought this majestic but mystifying raptor to widespread attention, after he and a Canadian fur-dealer aboard a trading vessel on the Upper Mississippi observed one such bird flying overhead on a cold February day in 1814. His companion informed him that it was a rare bird called the great eagle, which he had previously seen only in the Great Lakes region and, after viewing it attentively, Audubon was convinced that it was a species new to science, native to America’s northern realms.
During the next few years, Audubon made four other sightings, which included observing at close range on some cliffs bordering Kentucky’s Green River a pair at their nest with two young – but to his great disappointment he missed the opportunity to shoot any of them. Then, just two years later, came his fateful encounter close to the village of Henderson, Kentucky. An adult individual was scavenging at a pig slaughter – Audubon had a gun with him, took careful aim, and duly bagged his long sought-after specimen of the noble Washington’s eagle.
After parcelling up its corpse, Audubon ran with it excitedly to the nearby home of his friend, experienced hunter Dr Adam Rankin, who, after examining it, claimed never to have seen such a bird before, even though he had lived in the area for many years. Both men studied the corpse in depth, which proved to be that of a male specimen. Audubon penned an extensive morphological description and used the bird as the subject of a magnificent, meticulously executed, life-sized painting depicting its species, which he formally dubbed Falco [now Haliæetus] washingtonii, the bird of Washington or Washington’s eagle, in honour of America’s first president, George Washington.
According to Audubon’s account and painting, Washington’s eagle resembled in superficial outward appearance an immature bald eagle (i.e. predominantly brown in colour, lacking its species’s characteristic white head and tail until it has attained maturity). However, it exhibited certain very distinct differences from the latter. Washington’s eagle’s cere (a soft, fleshy swelling on the beak’s upper basal region, containing the nares or nostrils) did not correspond in appearance with any known version reported from the bald eagle. The uniform scutellation (scaling) on Washington’s eagle’s tarsi is not seen in any developmental stage of the bald eagle. And Washington’s eagle was bigger – far bigger – than any specimen of bald eagle ever documented. Audubon claimed that his specimen measured 109 cm long, and sported a wingspan of 3.1m, which significantly exceeds the measurements of any known species of North American raptor.
Faced with these distinctions, the ornithological world initially accepted Washington’s eagle as a valid species, including it in several authoritative publications. Moreover, several other notable persons (respected Boston naturalist Dr Lemuel Hayward and ornithologist Thomas Nuttall among them) reported their own Washington’s eagle sightings plus those of additional eyewitnesses. Hayward actually captured one such eagle, but after keeping it alive for a time he supposedly killed his hapless prisoner with mercury in order to send its body to what he referred to at that time as the ‘Linnæum Museum’ (presumably the museum of London’s Linnæan Society); according to another report, the museum did receive the bird’s body, then later auctioned it off, but its subsequent fate is unknown.
Eyewitnesses even stated that the flight and feeding behaviour of H.washingtonii differed from those of the H.eucocephalus. Thus, when hunting, Washington’s eagle allegedly flew in wider circles than the bald eagle, and whereas the latter swoops down directly after spotting prey, Washington’s eagle would descend in spirals before finally diving. Also, although the bald eagle is often seen stealing fish from another native piscivorous bird of prey, the osprey, Washington’s eagle was never reported indulging in this kleptoparasitic practice. And whereas the bald eagle usually builds its massive nests in trees, Washington’s eagle built ground nests on rocky cliffs near water, even in wooded localities.
Nevertheless, even before Audubon’s death in 1851, the first shadows of doubt had begun to be cast upon the authenticity of his great sea eagle. In particular, claims were aired that the morphological differences specified by him for it were contentious, and that his measurements were in error. Ultimately, Washington’s eagle became totally discredited, at best synonymised with the bald eagle’s northern subspecies and at worst dismissed as a mythical species or even a deliberate hoax perpetrated by Audubon. But is this attitude justified?
Worth noting here is that a few museum specimens (such as Hayward’s above-mentioned ‘Linnæum Museum’ example, one at the New England Museum, one at the Cleveland Academy of Science, and one at Boston’s Museum of Natural History) have been claimed, but none of them, not even Audubon’s own specimen, seems still to survive, or at least be traceable. A specimen was also reputedly housed at Philadelphia’s Peales Museum, but this was presumably destroyed when the museum later burnt down. Even so, if we assume that Washington’s eagle did indeed exist at one time, three options seem to exist regarding its zoological identity. It may be based upon nothing more than normal but misidentified immature bald eagles and/or golden eagles; it may involve some exceptional specimens of the above; or it may truly represent a species distinct from all those currently accepted by science.
IN DEFENCE OF AUDUBON
In his excellent Biofort blog, wildlife author-teacher Scott Maruna of Jacksonville, Illinois, has published his very comprehensive review of the Washington’s eagle saga, in which he meticulously examines the pros and cons for considering Washington’s eagle to be a genuine species in its own right. These can be summarised as follows.
Beginning with its uniform tarsal scutellation: one critic boldly stated that Audubon’s painting was inaccurate and mistakenly claimed that Audubon’s description had been written years after his painting had been prepared, and must therefore have been based upon his own inaccurate depiction. In reality, of course, Audubon’s description was penned shortly after the eagle had been killed, and hence well before his painting had been prepared. Another critic opined that the uniform scutellation in Audubon’s painting was merely an optical illusion created by the angle at which the bird had been portrayed. Again, however, this argument is dismissed by Audubon’s substantiating written description. As for Audubon being mistaken about the bird’s size: when creating his spectacular, painstakingly-detailed life-size paintings of birds, Audubon used a complex double grid system to guarantee precision of dimensions, with one grid placed directly behind the mount and an identical one for his folio, thereby matching the respective shape and size of subject and image exactly. So unless he deliberately misrepresented his Washington’s eagle’s dimensions (and there seems no good reason why he would do this), we must assume that its mighty size was genuine.
One of the most popular explanations is that Audubon simply did not recognise that his and all other Washington’s eagles were merely immature bald eagles and/or golden eagles. Yet Audubon’s diaries clearly differentiate between the various eagle types, consistently referring to all-brown immature bald eagles as ‘brown eagles’, and Washington’s eagles as ‘s. eagles’ (sea eagles). The latter designation shows that Audubon also readily differentiated Washington’s eagle from the golden eagle (which is a species of true eagle, whose extended leg feathers instantly distinguish it from sea eagles – a characteristic with which Audubon would certainly have been acquainted, because he had painted the golden eagle).
Moreover, Audubon was very familiar with all-brown immature bald eagles, which he had seen on countless occasions (and again also painted), and was fully aware that they mature into the well-known white-headed adult. He even remarked in one diary that the sea eagles (Washington’s) that he had seen were roughly one quarter larger than the brown eagles. This is significant because, intriguingly, all-brown immature bald eagles can be very slightly rangier than their white-headed adult counterpart due to marginally greater contour wing feather length. So for him to note how much larger than immature bald eagles was Washington’s eagle only emphasises its great size. By comparison, adult bald eagles are 70–102cm long (Audubon’s specimen of Washington’s eagle was 109cm long), and boast a wingspan of up to 2.44m (Audubon’s eagle’s wingspan was 3.1m).
In addition, female bald eagles are roughly 25 per cent larger than males, thus making the size of Audubon’s eagle even more noteworthy. For although it was huge in bald eagle terms (regardless of sex), it was, according to Audubon, a male – which, if true, suggests that female Washington’s eagles would be quite enormous!
A related aspect that discounts an immature bald eagle as a likely candidate for Washington’s eagle is the fact that Audubon (in the company of others) witnessed a nesting pair of the latter birds with two young. Very occasionally, a bald eagle will breed while still sporting immature all-brown plumage. However, for two such plumage-perplexed oddities to meet, mate, and rear young together is so unlikely as to be unworthy of serious consideration – especially when such freaks would of course need to be not only aberrantly-plumaged but also exceptionally large, thereby compounding the implausibility of this proposal.
So could it really be that Washington’s eagle was indeed a valid, giant species of eagle, native to northern North America? Even if this were true, it was already so rare in Audubon’s time that it must surely have died out soon afterwards – otherwise it would still be reported today. And with the handful of alleged preserved specimens all lost or of presently unknown location and therefore unavailable for scrutiny via modern-day taxonomic analytical techniques, there seems no way now in which this riddle can ever be conclusively resolved – unless, that is, Washington’s eagle is, in fact, still alive.
If we turn to the annals of cryptozoology, modern-day reports in North America of huge eagles have indeed been filed. Scott Maruna noted that surviving Washington’s eagles may conceivably be the source of such reports originating in particular from Pennsylvania’s Black Forest region – Washington’s eagles having been documented a century earlier from the Great Lakes area north of Pennsylvania. And in the remote coastal areas of northern and western Alaska, containing localities rarely if ever visited by humans, even such a sizeable bird form as this could persist, undisturbed and unseen, for generations. Could it even be that the legendary Amerindian thunderbird originated at least in part from doubtlessly awe-inspiring sightings of Washington’s eagles?
Needless to say, of course, this is all highly speculative. And yet… every so often, a report comes along that makes me wonder, what if?
One such report was placed online by Scott Maruna, and recounted a sighting of a huge raptor one winter’s morning in 2004 by William McManus and his wife, spied across a small meadow between their cabin home (located roughly 24km north of Stillwater, Minnesota) and a river channel, as it perched in a dead tree. They immediately discounted any bald eagle, adult or immature, and also a golden eagle, on account of the sighted bird’s dark brick-red colour, and also because of its size, which they estimated to be well over 1m tall. After viewing it for two hours at a distance of only 60m or so, they moved nearer but the bird flew away, revealing itself to be indeed an eagle (and not a condor, as they had begun to wonder), with an enormous wingspan far exceeding a bald eagle’s. After seeing Audubon’s painting of his Washington’s eagle in Maruna’s blog, McManus believed that this is what he and his wife saw that day.
This communication received two interesting responses. One, posted by Kurt N on 24 October 2006, stated that he had seen at the Hawk Mountain bird observatory in Pennsylvania a photo taken there in or around 1993 that depicted a large unidentified eagle that was clearly no bald or golden eagle but had elicited speculation that it was some kind of sea eagle. And in a post of 9 January 2007 (later removed), a reader with the username of dogu4 mentioned that a couple of years earlier (2005), a bush pilot and some passengers flying over a remote stretch of western Alaska claimed to have seen a gigantic bird. (See also FT165:21; 166:6 for two 2002 sightings.)
As dogu4 also noted pertinently: “If there were ever an area where it [Washington’s eagle] could have survived as a small population unnoticed, the coastal areas out along the edges of the Y-K Delta would fit the description as far as inaccessibility and remoteness [are concerned], not to mention the abundance of sea-life, rookeries and breeding grounds for a multitude of relatively undisturbed populations of birds and sea-mammals. And the incredible solitude.”
The most recent report reached me in November 2009, courtesy of a longstanding correspondent called Mark, from Birmingham, Alabama, who emailed me with news of an intriguing report aired a month or so earlier on an episode of the popular American TV show entitled ‘Coast To Coast AM’, presented by George Noory. Apparently, on two separate occasions during the course of this particular episode, which focused upon cryptozoology, a man in his 40s called in claiming a remarkable sighting made by him and two ex-army friends while in a harbour around the Aleutian Islands off western Alaska.
The caller stated that while standing not far away from some telegraph poles, they saw perched on top of one of them what he referred to as a gigantic bald eagle. He mentioned that there were other, normal-sized bald eagles flying around it and that it was therefore very easy to estimate its size – 3m or so tall. This seems far too large, but perhaps the caller was thinking of wingspan rather than height. In any event, he told Noory that he and his two friends looked at each other in amazement, hardly believing what they were seeing. Referring to it as a gigantic bald eagle implies that it had a white head. Yet, as already discussed, only adult bald eagles have this, whereas immature, all-brown bald eagles are just as big and eyecatching, so we cannot say for sure that the Alaskan mega-eagle was white-headed simply because it was likened to a bald eagle. What we can say, however, is that if it was all-brown, it would bear much more than a passing resemblance to that most enigmatic of northern USA mystery birds, Washington’s eagle.
So if any eagle-eyed (pun intended) FT reader saw this ‘Coast To Coast AM’ episode, we’d be delighted to receive any additional information concerning the above report.
Scott Maruna: “Substantiating Audubon’s Washington Eagle”, biofort.blogspot.com, posted 14 Oct 2006.
Scott Maruna: “Of Washington Eagles, Ivory-bills and ‘Thunderbird’ Sightings”, biofort.blogspot.com, posted 18 Oct 2006.
Scott Maruna: “Witness Claims a Washington Eagle Sighting”, biofort.blogspot.com, posted 23 Oct 2006.
CW Webber: Wild Scenes and Song-Birds, Leavitt & Allen, New York, 1858.