AUDUBON, John James (1785-1851)
Bird of Washington. Falco Washingtonii. Aud. Male
[Pl. 11] London: R. Havell, . Hand-coloured engraving with aquatint and etching, paper watermarked "J. Whatman/1836" Sheet size: 39 3/4 x 26 1/8 inches. Plate mark: .
From the first edition of "The Birds of America."
Commonly believed to be a majestic but mis-identified portrait of a juvenile Bald Eagle, it has now been convincingly argued by Scott Maruna in an article entitled "Substantiating Audubon's Washington Eagle" that the Bird of Washington was indeed a third species of North American eagle, larger than both the Bald and Golden Eagles, that became extinct or confined to very remote regions. This is a fine copy of the Havell issue of this magnificent bird portrait.
Audubon sighted examples of this large species of sea eagle four times according to his writings, and procured the specimen portrayed himself. Understandably enthusiastic about this rare find and because he was highly patriotic, he decided to celebrate the United States and George Washington by naming this noble, independent bird in his honor.There were however few subsequent, authoritative sightings and, as the Bald Eagle became in everyone's mind the national bird, Audubon's Washington Eagle came to be considered a mis-identification and a mistake. This view was aided clearly by professional ornithologists at the time who wished to take him down a few pegs and who, never having seen one, assumed it could not exist.
This has been the prevailing view of subsequent commentators until recently when the quite plausible assertion has been made that this could in fact have been an unnamed species of Sea Eagle that was unable to live close to humans and has disappeared. Audubon was of course quite familiar with Bald Eagles in all stages of development, having seen a great many, and was unlikely to have confused an immature Bald Eagle with this larger, somewhat differently colored bird. He saw several specimens of the Washington Eagle: male, female and young, including the one portrayed here, who was examined anatomically. So his bold assertion deserves more respect than it has received.
Audubon's confidence in his find is demonstrated by the fact that he made this Plate XI, very near the beginning of Birds of America , (which appeared in installments of five plates at a time) where it would get proper admiration or, failing that, at least lots of critical attention.
All of which makes this genuinely impressive picture much more interesting and desirable than it was formerly thought to be.
Susanne M. Low, A Guide to Audubon's Birds of America , New Haven & New York: 2002, p.35 (second of two variants); Scott Maruna, "Substantiating Audubon's Washington Eagle" Biofort (blog) 10/14/06.