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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 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 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, hanging 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 much
larger), 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 5½
lb. 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

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 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 he 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 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, 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."

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 19, 1830," says, "That fine
specimen of _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, in
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 J. G. CHILDREN, Esq. of
that Institution.

The glands containing the oil used for the purpose of anointing the
surface of the plumage were, in the specimen represented in the plate,
extremely large. Their contents had 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, excepting the Fish-hawk, the whole plumage looking, upon
close examination, as if it had received a general coating of a thin
clear 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 14½ lb. avoirdupois, and measures 3 feet 7 inches in
length, and 10 feet 2 inches in extent.


Adult Male. Plate XI.

Bill shortish, very deep, compressed; upper mandible with the dorsal
outline forming the third of a circle, rounded above, sloping and flattish
on the sides, nearly straight with a slight obtuse process, on the acute,
overlapping edges, the tip deflected, trigonal, acute, at its lower
part perpendicular to the gap line; lower mandible convex in its dorsal
outline, with inflected acute edges, which are deflected at the end. A
naked cere, in the fore part of which are the oblong, oblique, nearly
dorsal, open nostrils, which have a process from the anterior margin.
Head rather large, flat above. Neck robust, of ordinary length. Body
ovate. Feet rather short, with the leg long, the tarsus short, rounded,
anteriorly covered with transversely narrow scutella, posteriorly with
large, laterally with small tuberculous scales; toes robust, free,
scutellate above, papillar and scabrous beneath, with large tubercles;
claws curved, rounded, marginate beneath, very acute.

Plumage compact, imbricated, glossy; feathers of the head, neck and breast
narrow and pointed; of the back, breast and belly, ovate, distinct, acute;
the wing-coverts narrow, acute, compact. Space between the beak and eye
barish, being sparsely covered with feathers consisting of a shaft, downy
at the base, prolonged into a hair. Eyebrow bare, and greatly projecting.
Wings long, second quill longest, first considerably shorter. Tail of
ordinary length, rounded, extending considerably beyond the tips of the
wings, of twelve broad acute feathers. Tarsus feathered one-third down.

Bill bluish-black, the edges pale, the soft margin towards the commissure,
and the base of the under mandible yellow. Cere yellowish-brown. Lore
light greenish-blue. Iris chestnut-brown. Feet deep 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 marked along the centre with blackish-brown. Wing-coverts
light greyish-brown, those next the body becoming darker and approaching
the colour of the back. 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. Anterior tibial
feathers greyish-brown.

Length 3 feet 7 inches, extent of wings 10 feet 2 inches. Bill 3¼ inches
along the back; along the gap, which commences directly under the eye,
to the tip of the lower mandible 3⅓, and 1¾ deep. Length of wing when
folded 32 inches; length of tail 15 inches; tarsus 4½, middle 4¾, hind
claw 2½.

The two stomachs large and baggy. Their contents in the individual
described were fish, fishes' scales, and entrails of various kinds.
Intestines large, but thin and transparent.

Passing over the affinity of this bird to the young of the White-headed
Eagle (_Falco leucocephalus_), which WILSON has described and figured
under the name of Sea Eagle (_Falco Ossifragus_, Linn.), I shall institute
a comparison between it and the true Sea Eagle or Cinereous Eagle
(_Falco Albicilla_), which bears so strong a resemblance to the Bird of
Washington, that by a superficial observer they might be confounded, at
least were he to view them separately.

The White-tailed or Cinereous Eagle (_Falco Albicilla_ of LINNÆUS), has,
when full grown, the bill and iris yellow, the general colour of the
upper parts pale greyish-brown, passing into wood-brown, the belly and
thighs chocolate-brown, some of the upper tail-coverts, and the whole of
the tail, white. In this state, it is sufficiently different from our
bird, at least in colouring, but the young has a different appearance.
In the bird just fully fledged, the bill is deep brown, tinged with
blue, its base and the cere greenish-yellow; the iris dark brown; the
feet gamboge-yellow; the head deep brown, the bases of all the feathers
of the body white; on the hind neck the whole feathers white, excepting
the ends which are deep brown; the upper and middle back light brown,
the tips umber; the lower back white, with umber tips; the tail greyish
at its origin, deep brown, with an irregular brownish-white patch along
the inner webs, the fore-neck and upper breast brownish-white, spotted
with umber, the tips being of the latter colour; the belly pale brown,
spotted with umber; the thighs brown; the under tail-coverts whitish,
tipped with deep brown. In this state, and until nearly full grown, it
has been described as a distinct species, under the name of Sea Eagle
or Osprey (_Falco Ossifragus_, LINN.).

The principal changes which take place in regard to colour as the bird
advances, are these: the bill first becomes bluish-black, and ultimately
yellow, the cere becomes brighter, the iris assumes more of yellow, the
white at the base of the plumage gradually disappears, the tail becomes
lighter, the general colour of the plumage at first darker, but ultimately
paler. At the age of two years, the only period when the bird much
resembles ours, it is as follows:—and here I shall make the description
correspond in its arrangement with that of the Bird of Washington, that
the two may be more satisfactorily compared.

The bill corresponds with that of our bird, only that it is _not so deep_,
and proportionally _more elongated_. The other circumstances mentioned
in the first paragraph of the description of the Bird of Washington are
the same in the Sea Eagle.

Plumage compact, imbricated, glossy; feathers of the head, neck and
breast, narrow and pointed; of the back, breast and belly, ovate,
distinct, acute; the wing-coverts ovate and pointed. Space between
the beak and eye barish, being sparsely covered with bristly feathers.
Eyebrow projecting and bare on the edge. Wings long, _fourth and fifth
quills longest_, the first considerably shorter. Tail of ordinary length,
rounded, of the same length as the closed wing, and consisting of twelve
broad acute feathers. Tarsus feathered one-third down.

Bill bluish-black, brownish at the tip of the upper mandible, and along
the greater part of the under; yellowish at the edges of the lower.
Cere greenish-yellow. Lore of the same colour. Iris darkish brown.
Head and hind neck dark brown, the latter still _marked with white_.
Fore neck and breast _brownish white_, longitudinally marked with deep
brown. Upper parts in general pale brown, spotted with deeper, some of
the scapulars glossed with purple. Lower back _white_, the tips umber.
Tail-coverts brownish-grey. Base, outer webs and tips of tail-feathers
deep brown; inner webs and part of outer near the tip _brownish-white_.
Belly pale brown spotted with umber. Primaries brownish-black, secondaries

Length 3 feet, extent of wings 6 feet 9 inches; bill 3½ inches along
the back, 1⅕ deep.

All circumstances duly considered, the Bird of Washington stands forth
as the champion of America, _sui speciei_, and henceforth not to be
confounded with any of its rivals or relatives. If ornithologists are
proud of describing new species, I may be allowed to express some degree
of pleasure in giving to the world the knowledge of so majestic a bird.




No traveller who is at all gifted with the faculty of observation, can
ascend that extraordinary river, the Mississippi, in the first days of
autumn, without feeling enchanted by the varied vegetation which adorns
its alluvial shores:—The tall Cotton-tree descending to the very margin
of the stream, the arrow-shaped Ash mixing its branches with those of the
Pecan and Black Walnut, immense Oaks and numerous species of Hickory,
covering with their foliage the densely tangled Canes, from amongst
which, at every step, Vines of various kinds shoot up, winding round
the stems and interlacing their twigs and tendrils, stretching from one
branch to another, until they have reached and overspread the whole,
like a verdant canopy, forming one solid mass of richest vegetation, in
the fore ground of the picture; whilst, wherever the hills are in view,
the great Magnolias, the Hollies, and the noble Pines, are seen gently
waving their lofty heads to the breeze.

The current becomes rapid, and ere long several of the windings of the
great stream have been met and passed, and with these new scenes present
themselves to the view. The forest at this place, as if in doleful
mourning at the sight of the havock made on its margin by the impetuous
and regardless waters, has thrown over her a ragged veil, produced by
the long dangling masses that spread from branch to branch over the
cypress trees. The dejected Indian's camp lies in your sight. He casts
a melancholy glance over the scene, and remembers that he is no longer
the peaceful and sole possessor of the land. Islands, one after another,
come in sight, and at every winding of the stream you see boats propelled
by steam ascending the river, and others, without such aid, silently
gliding with the current.

Much might the traveller find to occupy his mind, and lead him into
speculations regarding the past, the present, and the future, were he
not attracted by the clear mellow notes, that issue from the woods,
and gratified by the sight of the brilliant Oriole now before you. In
solitudes like these, the traveller might feel pleased with any sound,
even the howl of the wolf, or the still more dismal bellow of the
alligator. Then how delightful must it be to hear the melody resulting
from thousands of musical voices that come from some neighbouring tree,
and which insensibly leads the mind, with whatever it may previously
have been occupied, first to the contemplation of the wonders of nature,
and then to that of the Great Creator himself.

Now we have ascended the mighty river, have left it, and entered the still
more enchanting Ohio, and yet never for a day have we been without the
company of the Oriole. Here, amongst the pendulous branches of the lofty
Tulip-trees, it moves gracefully up and down, seeking in the expanding
leaves and opening blossoms the caterpillar and the green beetle, which
generally contribute to its food. Well, reader, it was one of these
pendulous twigs which I took when I made the drawing before you. But
instead of having cut it on the banks of the Ohio, I found it in the
State of Louisiana, to which we shall return.

The Baltimore Oriole arrives from the south, perhaps from Mexico, or
perhaps from a more distant region, and enters Louisiana as soon as
spring commences there. It approaches the planter's house, and searches
amongst the surrounding trees for a suitable place in which to settle
for the season. It prefers, I believe, the trees that grow on the sides
of a gentle declivity. The choice of a twig being made, the male Oriole
becomes extremely conspicuous. He flies to the ground, searches for the
longest and driest filaments of the moss, which in that State is known
by the name of Spanish Beard, and whenever he finds one fit for his
purpose, ascends to the favourite spot where the nest is to be, uttering
all the while a continued chirrup, which seems to imply that he knows
no fear, but on the contrary fancies himself the acknowledged king of
the woods. This sort of chirruping becomes louder, and is emitted in an
angry tone, whenever an enemy approaches, or the bird is accidentally
surprised, the sight of a cat or a dog being always likely to produce it.
No sooner does he reach the branches, than with bill and claws, aided by
an astonishing sagacity, he fastens one end of the moss to a twig, with
as much art as a sailor might do, and takes up the other end, which he
secures also, but to another twig a few inches off, leaving the thread
floating in the air like a swing, the curve of which is perhaps seven
or eight inches from the twigs. The female comes to his assistance with
another filament of moss, or perhaps some cotton thread, or other fibrous
substance, inspects the work which her mate has done, and immediately
commences her operations, placing each thread in a contrary direction
to those arranged by her lordly mate, and making the whole cross and
recross, so as to form an irregular network. Their love increases daily
as they see the graceful fabric approaching perfection, until their
conjugal affection and faith become as complete as in any species of
birds with which I am acquainted.

The nest has now been woven from the bottom to the top, and so secured
that no tempest can carry it off without breaking the branch to which
it is suspended. Remark what follows. This nest contains no warming
substance, such as wool, cotton, or cloth, but is almost entirely composed
of the Spanish moss, interwoven in such a manner that the air can easily
pass through it. The parents no doubt are aware of the intense heat which
will exist ere long in this part of the world, and moreover take especial
care to place their nest on the north-east side of the trees. On the
contrary, had they gone as far as Pennsylvania or New York, they would
have formed it of the warmest and softest materials, and have placed
it in a position which would have left it exposed to the sun's rays,
the changes in the weather during the early period of incubation being
sometimes so great there, that the bird looks on these precautions as
necessary to ensure the life of its brood against intense cold, should
it come, while it knows that the heat in these northern latitudes will
not be so great as to incommode them. I have observed these sensible
differences in the formation and position of the nests of the Baltimore
Oriole, a great many times, as no doubt have other persons. The female
lays from four to six eggs, and in Louisiana frequently rears two broods
in a season. The period of incubation is fourteen days. The eggs are about
an inch in length, rather broadly ovate, pale brown, dotted, spotted,
and tortuously lined with dark brown.

The movements of these birds as they run among the branches of trees
differ materially from those of almost all others. They cling frequently
by the feet in order to reach an insect at such a distance from them
as to require the full extension of their neck, body, and legs, without
letting go their hold. They sometimes glide, as it were, along a small
twig, and at other times move sidewise for a few steps. Their motions
are elegant and stately. Their song consists of three or four, or at
most eight or ten, loud, full, and mellow notes, extremely agreeable to
the ear.

A day or two before the young are quite able to leave the nest, they
often cling to the outside, and creep in and out of it like young
Woodpeckers. After leaving the nest, they follow the parents for nearly
a fortnight, and are fed by them. As soon as the mulberries and figs
become ripe, they resort to these fruits, and are equally fond of sweet
cherries, strawberries, and others. During spring, their principal food
is insects, which they seldom pursue on the wing, but which they search
for with great activity, among the leaves and branches. I have seen the
young of the first brood out early in May, and of the second in July. As
soon as they are fully able to take care of themselves, they generally
part from each other, and leave the country, as their parents had come,
that is, singly.

During migration, the flight of the Baltimore Oriole is performed high
above all the trees, and mostly during day, as I have usually observed

Online LibraryJohn James AudubonOrnithological Biography, Volume 1 (of 5) → online text (page 8 of 50)