In 1814 artist and ornithologist John James Audubon first saw the elusive gigantic eagle he called “The Bird of Washington” flying along the bluffs of the upper Mississippi river, near the Great Lakes. Audubon documented four more sightings of this bird before finally acquiring a specimen. Larger than any known species of eagle found anywhere in the world, the eagle Audubon shot measured almost four feet tall, with a wingspan over ten feet wide. Due to its impressive size, Audubon immediately named it falco Washingtonii, or Washington’s Eagle, and declared it to be a new species native to North America. Specimens of the “Bird of Washington” graced museum collections in Philadelphia, Boston, and London during the 19th century.
Audubon struck a patriotic note when he published his description and painting of the “Bird of Washington” in his 1827 Birds of America. He named it after our nation’s first president, citing comparisons between the great leader and the bird.
“I trust I shall be allowed to honour it with the name of one yet nobler, who was the savior of his country, and whose name will ever be dear to it. . . . as the new world gave me birth and liberty, the great man who ensured its independence is next to my heart . . . . 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.”
Audubon made sure this painting of the “Bird of Washington” conveyed the General and President’s commanding presence. In its pose and demeanor, the immense raptor resembles a formal portrait of a leader, seen in profile, gazing out into the distance.
Credit Line: Text courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.