Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
[Bald Eagle (see also White-headed Eagle).]
HALIAETUS WASHINGTONI, Aud.
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 river has been wont to awake 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 engaged many years 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 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 Fishing
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
afterwards, whilst engaged in collecting crayfish 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 them do
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 had 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, banging like the Barn, Bank, or Social
Swallow, his tail spread, and his wings partly so. I trembled lest a word
should escape from my companions. The slightest murmur had been treason from
them. They entered into my feelings, and, although 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 largest), we knew this
to be the mother bird. She also had 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 5 1/2 lbs. 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, as we journeyed homewards, 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 loner to remain ungratified. In returning from the little
village of Henderson, to the house of Doctor RANKIN, about a mile distant, I saw
an Eagle rise from a small enclosure not a hundred yards before me, where the
Doctor had a few days before slaughtered some hogs, 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 towards him. Quite fearlessly
he awaited my approach, looking upon 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 can feel,
who, like me, have devoted themselves from their earliest childhood to such
pursuits, 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 be
had never before seen or heard of it.
The name 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 honour it with the name of one yet
nobler, who was the saviour 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 ensured its
independence is next to 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 soarings 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
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, had laid aside her coyness, and to
a favourite 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 those 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."
FALCO WASHINGTONI, Aud. Birds of America, pl. ii.; Orn. Biog.,
vol. i. p. 58.
Tarsus and toes uniformly scutellate in their whole length. Bill
bluish-black, cere yellowish-brown, feet orange-yellow, claws bluish-black.
Upper part of the head, hind neck, back, scapulars, rump, tail-coverts, and
posterior tibial feathers blackish-brown, glossed with a coppery tint; throat,
fore neck, breast, and belly light brownish-yellow, each feather, with a central
blackish-brown streak; wing-coverts light greyish-brown, those next the body
becoming darker; primary quills dark brown, deeper on their inner webs;
secondaries lighter, and on their outer webs of nearly the same light tint as
their coverts; tail uniform dark brown.
Length 3 feet 7 inches; extent of wings 10 feet 2 inches; bill 3 1/4 inches
along the back; along the gap, which commences directly under the eye, to the
tip of the lower mandible 3 1/3, and 1 3/4 deep. Length of wing when folded
32 inches; length of tail 15 inches; tarsus 4 1/2, middle 4 3/4, hind claw