Audubon's Bird of Washington

Few of John James Audubon‘s drawings in Birds of America raise eyebrows faster than the Bird of Washington. In February of 1814, Audubon is traveling with a hunting party down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi. The temperatures are low, but the numbers of birds are high. Among them is the “Great Eagle!” Audubon remarks, “never shall I forget the delight which it gave me.”

Audubon has to wait another two years before he encounters another Great eagle. It is near the mouth of Kentucky’s Green River where Audubon is able to watch a female feed her young. When Audubon and his fellow hunters begin to move closer to the nest for a shot at the bird, they are detected. The Great eagle takes flight from her nest and puts out warning calls to her mate. Audubon returns the next day for another try only to discover that the Great eagle has re-located her young and vacated the nest.

It is a few years more before Audubon gets another glimpse of the Great eagle. He is walking to his friend Adam Rankin’s farm in Henderson. “I prepared my double-barrelled 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.” This is the bird that Audubon uses for his drawing in his Birds of America.

Audubon hesitates then decides to rename the bird after President George Washington. Calling the bird the Bird of Washington (Haliaetus washingtoni) is “preposterous and unfit; but as it is indisputable the noblest bird of its genus that has yet been discovered in the United States, I trust I shall be allowed to honour it with the name of one yet nobler, who was the saviour of this country, and whose name will ever be dear to it.”

The Bird of Washington no longer appears near the Green River or along the Upper Mississippi or anywhere else. Only a very few others ever report seeing the bird, and all of the specimens of the bird that were collected have been either lost or destroyed. Many bird experts doubt the bird ever existed and regard Audubon’s Bird of Washington as an immature Bald eagle. But Audubon goes to great lengths to distinguish the Bird of Washington from the Bald eagle. Audubon even dedicates an entire Plate (Number 126 in the double elephant folio) to an immature Bald eagle.

The most obvious difference is the size of the two birds. The wingspan of the Bird of Washington is 10 feet 2 inches compared to the Bald eagle’s 7 feet. Also of significant note is Audubon finding the bird’s nest and seeing the female parent. If the bird had been a Bald eagle, she would have had the unmistakable white head. If Bigfoot had a counterpart in the sky, it would be the Bird of Washington.

The Republican Swallow

Audubon's Cliff swallow

In the spring of 1815, Audubon is the first to document a species that does still exist. It is during a cold front when Audubon is rambling along the banks of the Ohio River. He comes across a number of birds on the ground that have perished from the unseasonal conditions. Others he sees flying in and out of small cups of mud that are close to each other on a cliff along the river. “I drew up a description at the time, naming the species Hirundo republicans, the Republican Swallow, in allusion to the mode in which the individuals belonging to it associate, for the purpose of forming their nests and rearing their young.”

It is not until Audubon is living in Cincinnati in 1819 that he notes seeing the Republican swallow in large numbers on the other side of the Ohio River. And later while living in New Orleans, Audubon observes them in the fall and winter coming together in even larger groups: “About sunset they began to flock together, calling to each other for that purpose, and in a short time presented the appearance of clouds moving towards the lakes, or the mouth of the Mississippi, as the weather and wind suited.” The Republican swallow is now called the Cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota).

While the numbers of Cliff swallows appear stable, especially in the western part of the United States, they are down considerably from the places where Audubon notes them. Henderson is located in Kentucky’s Henderson County. The county in Kentucky that is across the river from Cincinnati is Kenton. The most Cliff swallows that have been reported on Cornell University’s e-Bird for Henderson and Kenton County are 300 and 10, respectively. The highest count of Cliff swallows on e-Bird for the parish (Orleans) in which New Orleans is located is down from Audubon’s clouds to 125.

Audubon Fools Rafinesque

The effect of industrialization on wildlife has been mainly elimination and extinction. The effect of industrialization on human beings is a much different picture. At least in one regard, the work of human beings has become much more specialized and technical. This is especially evident in the science arena. The scientists with whom John James Audubon associates and whose works he studies often have much broader perspectives than today’s technologists and technophiles. Among them is Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840). Audubon’s opportunity to meet Rafinesque comes in the summer of 1818. His writings were published hundreds of times on subjects ranging from natural history, banking, economics, to religion. He is probably best known though for his contributions, some albeit spurious, to botany. He gave almost 7,000 plants binomial names.

A broad mind might give more room to enlightenment but could leave one more prone to err, such as taking credit for identifying a new species, like those that Audubon presents to Rafinesque. Audubon gives to Rafinesque drawings of fish that he tells Rafinesque have been found and studied. Rafinesque writes about the fish and declares them new species but later must retract the discoveries after learning that Audubon’s drawings were fictitious and meant as a joke. Fooling a scientist, even one as controversial as Rafinesque, occasional criticism of scientific methods, and frequent credits to God as nature’s creator later handicap Audubon when the success of Birds of America depends on the approval of the science community and scientific societies.

Identifying Ptarmigan

Audubon's American and White-tailed ptarmigan

Like Rafinesque, Edward Sabine (1788-1883) was knowledgeable of many different subjects and areas of science, but it was in physics that Sabine made his most important findings and discoveries. Beginning in the spring of 1818, Sabine accompanied English captain John Ross (1777-1856) and his nephew, James Clark Ross (1800-1862), to North America in search of a northwest passage. Sabine served as the expedition’s astronomer, geographer, and navigator. He was also a student of nature and collected numerous species of plants and animals during the expedition, including a bird he started seeing for the first time among islands on the western side of Baffin Bay. Upon his return to England, Sabine placed three specimens of the bird into a private collection managed by the 13th Earl of Derby (1775-1851).

John James Audubon later travels to England and has the opportunity to view the Earl of Derby’s collection. He selects one of Sabine’s birds to use as a model for Plate 418 of the double elephant folio of Birds of America. Audubon is told that the bird is the Rock ptarmigan. Audubon disagrees and labels the bird an American ptarmigan. Audubon admits that the American and Rock ptarmigan closely resemble each other but maintains they are different kinds of birds. He qualifies his identification by writing, “In the present state of our knowledge as to the changes and variations of plumage in Ptarmigans, it is impossible to form a decided opinion in many instances; nor will the subject be free of doubt until each alleged species has been traced through all its gradations.”

Audubon's Rock ptarmigan

On another expedition to find the northwest passage, John Ross collects more bird specimens, including the Rock ptarmigan. It is these birds that Audubon uses for his drawing of the Rock ptarmigan. Ross informs Audubon that the specimens were found in the same region as Sabine’s American ptarmigan. If there were ever two birds that belonged in the same drawing, it seems it would be the American and Rock ptarmigan. Instead, Audubon places the American ptarmigan with the White-tailed ptarmigan in Plate 418 of the double elephant folio of Birds of America.

Audubon is only a little bit more familiar with the Rock ptarmigan through the accounts of Ross and others. Audubon never sees a live specimen of the bird. Yet, Audubon is confident enough about the bird’s identification and dedicating a separate drawing to the bird. Audubon’s American ptarmigan remains the only record of the bird. And like the Rock ptarmigan, Audubon never gets a glimpse of a live White-tailed ptarmigan. His drawing of the later is based on a specimen in the collection of the Zoological Society of London. Few others have been able to track down the bird. The highest count of the White-tailed ptarmigan in Cornell University’s e-Bird database are the 63 that Bruce Paige counted in Adams Inlet of Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve on April 9, 1970.