Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History

BioFortean Review, (November 2006)

Historical Note: Washington Eagle and Fish Hawk

Excerpt from Chapter XIII, Wild Scenes and Song-Birds, by C. W. Webber
(1858, New York, Leavitt and Allen)

We must premise in speaking of the "Bird of Washington," that the existence of any such distinct species, as to entitle it to a new name, is still regarded by the majority of American naturalists, at least, as hypothetical. Indeed, the savans of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia utterly repudiate the existence of any such species, persisting that it is merely the great Cinerious, or Sea-Eagle, which Mr. Audubon has mistaken for a new variety. This bird, Falco Albicilla, even Mr. Audubon acknowledges to bear so strong a resemblance to the Bird of Washington, Falco Washingtoniis, as to be easily confounded with it by a super­ficial observer. Now the Philadelphia Academicians assert that the specimen referred to by Audubon as having been deposited for the Washington Eagle, by Dr. Richard Harlan, in their collection, is nothing more nor less than a very large Sea-Eagle, and that the drawing by Audubon himself is clearly of a bird of the same species. Here doctors disagree, to be sure, and I am not entirely certain that the Philadelphians are not in some degree right; but that there is a new eagle, which has not yet been figured, or described, peculiar to the North American continent, I am perfectly sure, and that this eagle is the one noticed by Mr. Audubon, who saw it several times on the wing, I am equally certain, even although the particular bird figured by him may have been a Sea-Eagle. In a word, though there can be no doubt that he several times saw a new eagle on the wing, there may be some doubt about the particular specimen shot by him at Henderson being the same bird. I shall first, although having previously furnished a portion of these extracts in my first volume, give his description of the discovery by him of the Washington Eagle, feeling myself fully justified by the importance of the subject, in quoting them entire, before I proceed to explain my reasons for the seemingly paradoxical opinion given here.

Mr. Audubon says:

"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. Not even Herschel, when he discovered the planet which bears his name, could have experienced more rapturous feelings. We were on a trading voyage, ascending the Upper Mississippi. The keen wintry blasts whistled around us, and the cold from which I suffered had, in a great degree, extinguished the deep interest which, at other seasons, this magnificent sight has been wont to wake in me. I lay stretched beside our patroon. The safety of the cargo was forgotten, and the only thing that called my attention was the multitude of ducks of different species, accompanied by vast flocks of swans, which from time to time passed us. My patroon, a Canadian, had been years engaged in the fur trade. He was a man of much intelligence; and, perceiving that these birds had engaged my curiosity, seemed anxious to find some new object to divert me. An eagle flew over us. 'How fortunate!' he exclaimed, 'this is what I could have wished. Look, sir, the Great Eagle, and the only one I have seen since I left the lakes.' I was instantly on my feet, and having observed it attentively, concluded, as I lost it in the distance, that it was a species quite new to me. My patroon assured me that such birds were indeed rare; that they sometimes followed the hunters, to feed on the entrails of the animals which they had killed when the lakes were frozen over; but that when the lakes were open, they would dive in the daytime after fish, and snatch them up in the manner of the fish-hawk; and that they roosted generally on the shelves of the rocks, where they built their nests, of which he had discovered several by the quantity of white dung scattered below.

"Convinced that the bird was unknown to naturalists, I felt particularly anxious to learn its habits, and to discover in what particulars it differed from the rest of its genus. My next meeting with this bird was a few years afterward, whilst engaged in collecting cray-fish on one of those flats which border and divide Green river, in Kentucky, near its junction with the Ohio. The river is there bordered by a range of high cliffs, which, for some distance, follow its windings. I observed on the rocks, which, at that place, are nearly perpendicular, a quantity of white ordure, which I attributed to owls, that might have resorted thither. I mentioned the circumstance to my companions, when one of them, who lived within a mile and a half of the place, told me it was from the nest of the Brown Eagle, meaning the White-headed Eagle (Falco Leucocephalus), in its immature state. I assured him this could not be, and remarked, that neither the old nor the young birds of that species ever build in such places, but always in trees. Although he could not answer my objection, he stoutly maintained that a Brown Eagle of some kind, above the usual size, had built there; and added, that he had espied the nest some days before, and had seen one of the old birds dive and catch a fish. This he thought strange, having, till then, always observed that both Brown Eagles and Bald Eagles procured this kind of food by robbing the fish-hawks. he said, that if I felt particularly anxious to know what nest it was, I might soon satisfy myself, as the old birds would come and feed their young with fish, for he had seen there do so before.

"In high expectation, I seated myself about a hundred yards from the foot of the rock. Never did time pass more slowly. I could not help betraying the most impatient curiosity, for my hopes whispered it was a Sea Eagle's nest. Two long hours elapsed before the old bird made his appearance, which was announced to us by the loud hissings of the two young ones, which crawled to the extremity of the hole to receive a fine fish. I had a perfect view of this noble bird as he held himself to the edging rock, hanging like the barn bank, or social swallow, his tail spread, and his wings partly so. I trembled lest a word should escape my companions. The slightest murmur had been treason from them. They entered into my feelings, and, though little interested, gazed with me. In a few minutes the other parent joined her mate; and, from the difference in size (the female of rapacious birds being much larger), we knew this to be the mother bird. She also brought a fish; but more cautious than her mate, she glanced her quick and piercing eye around, and instantly perceived that her abode had been discovered. She dropped her prey, with a loud shriek communicated the alarm to the male, and, hovering with him over our heads, kept up a growling cry, to intimidate us from our suspected design. This watchful solicitude I have ever found peculiar to the female—must I be understood to speak only of birds?

"The young having concealed themselves, we went and picked up the fish which the mother had let fall. It was a white perch, weighing about five and a half pounds. The upper part of the head was broken in, and the back torn by the talons of the eagle. We had plainly seen her bearing it in the manner of the fish-hawk.

"This day's sport being at an end, we journeyed homeward, we agreed to return the next morning, with the view of obtaining both the old and young birds; but rainy and tempestuous weather setting in it became necessary to defer the expedition till the third day following, when, with guns and men all in readiness, we reached the rock. Some posted themselves at the foot, others upon it, but in vain. We passed the entire day without either seeing or hearing an eagle, the sagacious birds, no doubt, having anticipated an invasion, and removed their young to new quarters.

"I come at last to the day which I had so often and so ardently desired. Two years had gone by since the discovery of the nest, in fruitless excursions; but my wishes were no longer to remain ungratified. In returning from the little village of Henderson, to the house of Dr. Rankin, about a mile distant, I saw an eagle rise from a small inclosure, not a hundred yards before me, where the doctor had, a few days before, slaughtered some hog, and alight upon a low tree branching over the road. I prepared my double-barrelled piece, which I constantly carry, and went slowly and cautiously toward him. Quite fearlessly he awaited my approach, looking on me with undaunted eye. I fired, and he fell. Before I reached him he was dead. With what delight did I survey the magnificent bird! Had the finest salmon ever pleased him, as he did me? Never. I ran and presented him to my friend with a pride which they alone feel who, like me, have devoted themselves from their earliest childhood to such persuits, and who have derived from them their first pleasures. To others, I must seem to 'prattle out of fashion.' The doctor, who was an experienced hunter, examined the bird with much satisfaction, and frankly acknowledged he had never before seen or heard of it.

"The nature which I have chosen for this new species of eagle—the Bird of Washington—may, by some, be considered as preposterous and unfit; but as it is, indisputably, the noblest bird of its genus that has yet been discovered in the United States, I trust I shall be allowed to honor it with the name of one yet nobler, who was the savior of his country, and whose name will ever be dear to it. To those who may be curious to know my reasons, I can only say that, as the new world gave me birth and liberty, the great man who inspired its independence is next my heart. He had a nobility of mind and a generosity of soul, such as are seldom possessed. 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 soaring 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.

"In the month of January following, I saw a pair of these eagles flying over the falls of the Ohio, one in pursuit of the other. The next day I saw them again. The female had relaxed her severity, and laid aside her coyness, and to a favorite tree they continually resorted. I pursued them unsuccessfully for several days, when they forsook the place.

"The flight of this bird is very different from that of the White-headed Eagle. The former encircles a greater space whilst sailing, keeps nearer to the land and the surface of the water, and when about to dive for fish, falls in a spiral manner, as if with the intention of checking any retreating movement which its prey might attempt, darting upon it only when a few yards distant. The Fish-Hawk often does the same. When rising with a fish, the Bird of Washington flies to a considerable distance, forming, in its line of course, a very acute angle with the surface line of the water. My last opportunity of seeing this bird, was on the 15th of November, 1821, a few miles above the mouth of the Ohio, when two passed over our boat, moving down the river with a gentle motion. In a letter from a kind relative, Mr. W. Bakewell, dated "Falls of the Ohio, July, 1819," and containing particulars relative to the swallow-tailed hawk (Falco furcatus), that gentleman says: 'Yesterday, for the first time, I had an opportunity of viewing one of these magnificent birds, which you call the Sea Eagle, as it passed low over me, whilst fishing. I shall be really glad when I can again have the pleasure of seeing your drawing of it.'"

I can mention but one instance in my life—and it has been no inactive one—in which I have seen what I knew to be this or a similar new species. Nearly fifteen years, ago when standing on the deck of a steamer, in which I was ascending the Upper Mississippi, beyond Galena, I saw pass over us, flying very low, an immense eagle which I instantly knew to be a new bird, and conjectured must be the Bird of Washington—but conjectures won't do in science. I distinctly remember the strangeness of the sensation—the wild thrill—half awe and wonder—with which I looked up when the strange bird stirred the dim evening with the rush of mighty pinions just above me. With what an eager eye I followed up its slow and far recession—with what tumultuous images of fierce exulting freedom, boundless wilds and hidden mira­cles of strength and beauty, I was filled! O, the power and splendor of the world that weareth wings! How should our tyrannous will have known the infinite and conquered space, but that these winged eagles taught us—how tamed the elements, but that storm-cleaving pinions learned us first defiance?

But this is scarcely to the point of our narrative. I have fortunately seen the new bird vis-a-vis, within a few mouths, and now know beyond conjecture that it does exist. During a short stay in Louisville, in February of this year, '53, I was informed by some kind friends of mine, of the existence of a large specimen of eagles in the neighborhood—at Cave-Hill Cemetery—which had been raised from a fledging by a gentleman who has charge of the grounds. My friends asserted confidently that it was the Bird of Washington, and I, with great eagerness, immediately proposed a visit to the cemetery. A small party of us accordingly rode out the next morning. We were courteously received by the gentleman owning the bird, and forthwith conducted to its barred prison. There I found perched, to my great delight, a magnificent eagle of greater size than any with which I was familiar, in full and perfect health and splendid plumage. The owner assured me that he had held the bird in his possession for five years.

Having heard through some correspondent of his, that there was a pair of large Fishing Eagles frequenting certain bluffs along the shores of Lake Huron, he wrote to him immediately to endeavor to find its eyrie and send him one of the young.

His friend had been successful, and sent him this young bird; stating, at the same time, that the location of the nest and the general habits of the old birds, entirely corresponded with the description Mr. Audubon had given of his discovery and observation of the nest and habits of the Bird of Washington, in the cliffs of Green River, Kentucky.

I had no copy of Audubon's plate at hand, to compare the drawing with the living bird; but perceiving surely that it was entirely new, I concluded hastily that it must be the veritable "Falco Washingtonii"—especially as its owner stated that he had several times had this specimen compared with Audubon's original plate, and found its markings to agree fully. Still I had some little doubt, fearing that my memory might have deceived me, and therefore requested my wife—as the period of our stay had now nearly closed—to at least take an accurate sketch of the head of this fine specimen in pencil. She did so, and I was particularly careful to note the proportions. I know these to be perfectly accu­rate, and on comparing them when I returned to Philadelphia, both with the drawing of Audubon and the specimens in the Academy of Natural Sciences, so much talked of, I became convinced that this was a different species from either, and that, too, in characteristics admitting of no close correspondence.

In Audubon's plate the correspondence is not accurate by any means, in coloring of the plumage in the first place—and then the outlines of the head and form of the beak are in too many respects dissimilar to admit of the possibility of so accurate an artist having been guilty of such omissions in a subject so important to his reputation. He had clearly seen the new bird on the wing, and not having as yet chanced to meet with the great Cinerious Eagle in his wanderings, he has unguardedly confounded it with the new bird which he had seen before on the wing, and which he meant to name "The Bird of Washington"—and which beside has quite as positive existence as any winged aerial monarch of them all. Though Audubon may have failed in figuring the right subject—still the observation of this new variety—ay, and its discovery, ever belongs to him, the Eagle-eyed! He knew his mates, though they were strangers fleeting and swift as broadest wings could make them! He may have erred, but then the great Sea Eagle is a bird of mighty scope of wing—a continent to him is but a narrow Isthmus of full flight. He drops here and there as at "mine inn" along the zones, and finds new hemispheres to perch!

It surely may be reconciled to ordinary coincidences of this class when we have the singular fact that the "Jer Falcon," which is well known as a habitant of the Northern and Polar regions of our Continent, was shot within a few miles of Louisville, Kentucky, a year or two since. I had an opportunity of examining the splendid specimen of this bird, which had been carefully stuffed and mounted, and found it to be much finer than any I had yet seen in the Academies and Museums of the North and East. How came it there? What storm had been resistless enough to drift its unconquerable wings thus far inland? It was one of Nature's mysteries. But there it was—the veritable Jer Falcon, with its broad breast and swallow-like wings—its keen beak and powerful claws! Some tornado must have caught it in its gusts, and whirled it, dizzied and blind, amidst the huge turmoil of space—away! away in baffled battling into unfamiliar realms. That the bird was both weary and confounded was evidenced in the fact, that the most vigilant, wary and ferocious of all the falcons could be approached and killed by a boy, with a small fowling-piece, loaded with bird-shot.

Could the great Cinerious Eagle, shot by Mr. Audubon, have been, too, astray? At all events, the bird I saw is not identical with Audubon's Bird of Washington, as figured! Of this I am equally certain, as he supposed himself to be in the figuring and identification of the species, and hope to give in my next volume of the Hunter Naturalist, a correct figure, under the artistic hand of my wife.

We have, too, a great Sea-Eagle, which nearly agrees in its proportions with that described as the Bird of Washington, and which inhabits the British possessions on the Pacific coast, north of Oregon. This bird, Haliaetus pelagicus, has been figured for the new work of John Cassin, Esq., and will appear in his second number. This work is supplementary to that of Mr. Audubon, and will contain the latest discoveries of ornithological species since his publication. Mr. Audubon says further, in relation to his discovery:

"Whilst in Philadelphia, about twelve months ago, I had the gratification of seeing a fine specimen of this eagle at Mr. Brano's Museum. It was a male, in fine plumage, and beautifully preserved. I wished to purchase it, with a view to carry it to Europe, but the price put upon it was above my means.

"My excellent friend, Richard Harlan, M.D., of that city, speaking of this bird, in a letter, dated "Philadelphia, August 19th. 1830," says, "That fine specimen of the Washington Eagle, which you noticed in Brano's Museum, is at present in my possession. I have deposited it in the academy, where it will most likely remain." I saw the specimen alluded to, which, as far as I could observe, agreed in size and markings exactly with my drawing; to which, however, I could not at the time refer, as it was, with the whole of my collection, deposited in the British Museum, under the care of my ever kind and esteemed friend, O. G. Children, Esq., of that Institution.

"The glands, containing the oil used for the purpose of anointing the surface of the plumage, are extremely large. Their contents have the appearance of hog's lard which had been melted and become rancid. This bird makes more copious use of that substance than the White-headed Eagle, or any of the tribe to which it belongs, except the Fish-Hawk, the whole plumage looking, upon close examination, as if it had received a general coating of a thin dilution of gum-arabic, and presenting less of the downy gloss exhibited in the upper part of the White-headed Eagle's plumage. The male bird weighs fourteen and a half pounds avoirdupois, and measures three feet seven inches in length, and ten feet two inches in extent."

This completes Mr. Audubon's account of what he always considered his greatest discovery, the Bird of Washington. We remarked, that the fact of its being a discovery at all has been warmly disputed by the highest American authorities. The name is, however, too good a one to be lost; and if Mr. Audubon has made a mistake in figuring the wrong bird, he certainly has made none in regard to the fact of a new species. It must be a very scarce one of course, as specimens have been so difficult to obtain. He, himself, in the long years of wandering which made up the sum of his vigilant and active life, met with only one which it proved possible for him to obtain, though he mentions several instances of its having been seen on the wing.

The Fish-hawk or Osprey seems to be most naturally regarded as the transition species between the eagles, the falcons proper, and the hawks. Partaking, as it does, of many of the leading characteristics of these groups, it is yet clearly entitled to a separate and distinct classification as the Osprey. Indeed the dispute concerning the separate place and absolute identification of this bird, has, from the earliest period of which we have any accounts of its being noticed, given rise to an infinite series of humorous complexities between the sense of Cabinet Naturalists, ancient and more modern, and the clear demonstrations of the practical Field Naturalist of the present day. Alexander Wilson has set this forth with such admirable tact that we cannot forbear quoting him here—though it not the less illustrates the slow progress of science towards truth, for me to mention that the extract occurs is an article upon the Sea-Eagle, (Falco Ossifragus,) which he has thus classified, yet with a saving expression of doubt, whether it may not still prove to be the young of the Bald Eagle, (Falco Leucocephalus,) and which strong doubt of his has since been proven beyond question, to have suggested the truth. Wilson says:

"We were disposed after the manner of some, to substitute, for plain matters of fact, all the narratives, conjectures and fanciful theories of travellers, voyagers, compilers, etc., relative to the history of the eagle; the volumes of these writers, from Aristotle down to his admirer, the Count de Buffon, would furnish abundant materials for this purpose. But the author of the present work feels no ambition to excite surprise and astonishment at the expense of truth, or to attempt to elevate and embellish his subject beyond the plain realities of nature. On this account he cannot assent to the assertion, however eloquently made in the celebrated parallel drawn by the French Naturalist between the lion and the eagle, viz.: that the eagle, like the lion, 'disdains the pos­session of that property which is not the fruit of his own industry, and rejects, with contempt, the prey which is not procured by his own exertions;' since the very reverse of this is the case, in the conduct of the Bald and Sea-Eagle, who, during the summer months, are the constant robbers and plunderers of the Osprey or Fish-Hawk, by whose industry alone both are fed. Nor that, 'though famished for want of prey, he disdains to feed on carrion;' since we have ourselves seen the Bald Eagle, while seated on the dead carcass of a home, keep a whole flock of vultures at a respectful distance, until he has fully sated his own appetite. The Count has also taken great pains to expose the ridiculous opinion of Pliny, who conceived that the Ospreys formed no separate race, and that they proceeded from the intermixture of different species of eagles, the young of which were not Ospreys, only sea eagles; 'which sea eagles,' says he, 'breed small vultures, which engender great vultures, that have not the power of propagation.' But, while laboring to confute these absurdities, the Count himself in his belief on an occasional intercourse between the Osprey and the Sea-Eagle, contradicts all actual observation, and one of the most common and fixed laws of nature; for it may be safely asserted, that there is no habit more universal among the feathered race, in their natural state, than that chastity of attachment which confines the amours of individuals to those of their own species only.

"That perversion of nature, produced by domestication, is nothing to the purpose. In no instance have I ever observed the slightest appearance of a contrary conduct. Even in those birds which never build a nest for themselves, nor hatch their young, nor even pair, but live in a state of general concubinage—such as the cuckoo of the old, and the caw-bunting of the new continent—there is no instance of a deviation from this striking habit. I cannot, therefore, avoid considering the opinion above alluded to, that 'the male Osprey, by coupling with the female Sea-Eagle, produces sea eagles; and that the female Osprey, by pairing with the male Sea-Eagle gives birth of Ospreys,' or Fish-Hawks, as altogether unsupported by facts, and contradicted by the constant and universal habits of the whole feathered race, in their state of nature."

Wilson seems to have made the same mistake in regard to Falco Ossifragus, his sea-eagle, that Audubon has undoubtedly fallen into in relation to Falco Washingtonii and the same bird. Since, as I remarked in my last paper, the specimen figured by him as a specimen of the new bird, is so nearly like to Falco Albicilla, as to leave a doubt whether he has not figured a fine accidental example of the latter for a new and unnamed bird which undoubtedly does exist, but the swallow—like wings of which, not to speak of their immense extension and the peculiar beak and head, renders it as yet a comparatively unknown and certainly an unfigured species.


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