Many naturalists claimed that Washington's Eagle was a separate species of eagle, with its own distinct hunting and flying patterns. Other naturalists disagreed- they claimed that Washington's Eagle was only an immature Bald Eagle.
Audubon was traveling up the Mississippi with his patroon, a Canadian, on a trading trip. The year was 1814, in February. It was cold and Audubon was lying huddled on the deck wrapped in a blanket. His patroon gave a yell and Audubon was instantly on his feet. The patroon had sptted a dark eagle flying overhead and told Audubon it was an eagle he had only seen a few times and only in the Great Lakes. Audubon believed it to be an eagle ornithologists had not recorded. However, he was not able to shoot the bird down, as was the practice of ornithologists of the time.
Other accounts are given of Audubon running into this eagle; he collects a specimen and names it Washington's Eagle, in honor of George Washington.
According to Thomas Bilby, other naturalists also collected specimens of this bird, and had seen it in its habitat. The naturalists (a Dr. Hayward, and a Mr. Nutall) claimed that Washington's Eagle had specific hunting and flying patterns. They claimed that while a Bald Eagle will steal fish from the Osprey, Washington's Eagle does not. As for hunting patterns, Washington's Eagle makes larger circles than the Bald Eagle, and spirals down close to the surface of the water before diving.
Also is the argument that Washington's Eagle is larger than the Bald Eagle. Washington's Eagle had been measured 3 feet 7 inches long, weighing over 14 pounds and having a wingspan of 10 feet 2 inches. The average Bald Eagle measures 2 feet 7 inches tall and has a 6.5 to 8 foot wingspan.
Washington's Eagle, if it existed, was rare in Audubon's time, and likely extinct now. We have knowledge of 3 specimens, and believe that 2 may still exist. One was captured by a Dr. Hayward of Boston. His intention was to poison it with mercury and donate it to the "Linnaeum Museum". His specimen proved highly immune to mercury, in doses of up to 2 drams. It may have been donated to the Linnean Society of London and then auctioned off; however, we have not been able to trace the specimen. A second specimen was believed to be in the Boston Museum of Natural History. However, this specimen's existance is unknown. The third was located in the Peales Museum of Philadelphia, part of the P.T. Barnum chain of museums. However, this museum was destroyed by fire and the specimen was likely also destroyed.
Most books on John James Audubon and raptors agree; Washington's Eagle is a mistake, and it is an immature Bald Eagle. One claims it was a hoax by those who worked with Audubon. Many web sites also list Washington's Eagle as a mistake by Audubon. One states that immature Bald Eagles have been reported to be larger than their parents for a period of time. This may be; but another theory is that the "immature Bald Eagle" that is oversized may actually be Washington's Eagle. Another theory to disprove the existance of Washington's Eagle is the fact that immature Bald Eagles may breed before becoming "Bald". The debate has been buried with time, and now Washington's Eagle is only listed as a mistake by John James Audubon. We may never know if Washington's Eagle really was/is a new species of eagle.
One of the only sources on Washington's Eagle itself came from a book written by Thomas Bilby (see Sources), in the early 1800's. The book was published after Bilby's death, in the 1880's. Don't try too hard to find this book however; it is very rare, we only know of 3 existing copies. Follow the link to view Bilby's Washington Eagle article.
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