On Easter Monday 2013, my dear mother, Mary Shuker, passed away.
So today, on Easter Monday 2014, I am dedicating this ShukerNature blog post to her.
God bless you, little Mom -
I shall always love you, miss you, and wish that you were here with me still.
Computer-created representation of a white eagle in mountain darkness
(© Dr Karl Shuker)
To misquote Oscar Wilde: To lose one white eagle may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.
In the annals of ornithology, only two types of white eagle have been reported – one in Europe, and one in North America. Both, however, are long vanished, not only from our planet but also from contemporary records. Indeed, even their erstwhile existence is known from only the most sparse and fragmentary details, and has been largely forgotten for centuries - until now. I first learned of these birds from their tantalisingly short entries in Extinct Birds (2012) by Julian P. Hume and Michael Walters, and was determined to find out more about them. Consequently, after having spent much time painstakingly tracing and collating it, I now have pleasure in documenting here the very scattered, disparate history of what appear to have once been a pair of real and extremely impressive but highly mysterious raptors, of unconfirmed taxonomic status, which were lost to the world before any physical trace of their former presence had been obtained for scientific examination.
The earliest documentation of the European white eagle appears to occur in the writings of the 13th-Century German Dominican friar and Catholic bishop Albertus Magnus. His words were reiterated three centuries later in a couple of brief references in the year 1555. The first of these was by Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner (1516-1565), who documented it on p. 199 of his Avium Natura (1555), the bird tome in his celebrated five-volume, 45,000-plus-page encyclopaedia Historiae Animalium (published 1551-1558). He referred to it as Aquila alba sive Cygne ('the white or swan eagle'), and Aquila alba subsequently became its official binomial name in taxonomic nomenclature. Similarly, French naturalist Pierre Belon (1517-1564) referred to this bird as the 'aigle toute blanche' ('all-white eagle') on p. 89 of his L'Histoire de la Nature des Oyseaux (1555). Following Gesner's lead, Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) termed it Aquila alba seu cycnea on p. 231 of his Ornithologiae, hoc est de Avibus Historia (1599).
An illustration of the European white eagle from 1790
On p. 63 of his Onomasticon Zoicon: Plerorumque Animalium Differentias et Nomina Propria Pluribus Linguis Exponens (1668), Somerset-born natural history writer Walter Charleton (1619-1707) called it the white eagle. And it was Aquila alba to Poland's Reverend Gabriel Rzaczynski (1664-1737) on p. 299 of his tome Historia Naturalis Curiosa Regni Poloniae (1721), who also referred to it as Aquila Cygnea Aldrovandi in a subsequent publication of 1745 entitled Auctarium Historiae Naturalis Regni Poloniae Magnique Ducatus Lituaniae Annexarumque Provinciarum in Puncta. Five years later, Jacob T. Klein briefly documented it on p. 42 of his Historiae Avium Prodromus cum Praefatione de Ordine Animalium in Genere (1750). In 1760, French zoologist Mathurin J. Brisson (1723-1806) documented Aquila alba on p. 424 of his tome Ornithologia, sive Synopsis Methodica Sistens Avium Divisionem in Ordines, Sectiones, Genera, Species, Ipsarumque Varietates. Acclaimed French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) also alluded to white eagles in his multi-volume magnum opus Histoire Naturelle (1749-1788).
English ornithologist John Latham (1740-1837) documented this raptor in three separate publications – calling it the white eagle on p. 36 of his famous treatise A General Synopsis of Birds (1781), applying to it the taxonomic binomial name Falco cygneus on p. 14 of his Index Ornithologicus (1790), and commenting upon what he believed its status to be in his General History of Birds (1822). Meanwhile, on p. 257 of his own version (published in 1788) of Linnaeus's pioneering taxonomic work Systema Naturae, German naturalist Johann F. Gmelin (1748-1804) had christened it Falco albus (but as the genus Falco was subsequently limited to falcons, this was later reverted to Aquila alba by other writers). In 1809, English zoologist George Shaw (1751-1813) dubbed it Falco cygneus on p. 76 of the bird volume in his sixteen-volume series General Zoology (1809-1826).
And this seems to be the full (or at the very least the major) extent of the European white eagle's formal documentation in the scientific literature – but what did these various accounts actually say about it? Sadly, the answer to that question is…very little indeed. Moreover, as was typical back in those far-distant days, each work did little (if anything) more than simply regurgitate what had been published in the previous ones. So here is a summary of the sparse, salient details gathered from these sources.
Gesner's illustration of the golden eagle
Albertus Magnus stated that the European white eagle preys upon rabbits, hares, and sometimes fishes too, and that it inhabits the Alps, as well as the rocks bordering the Rhine, where, according to the Rev. Gabriel Rzaczynski, it builds its nests. Brisson stated that it is as large as the familiar golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos, but is entirely white - as white as snow. Rzaczynski noted that it has a 9-ft wingspan, and likened its white plumage to that of a swan. He also claimed that a specimen had been killed in Poland and its body shown to the country's monarch, John II Casimir Vasa ((but its subsequent fate is apparently unknown). Due to its fish-eating proclivities, Aldrovandi suggested that it may be more closely related to the osprey than to any eagle (but there are a number of eagle species famed for their piscivorous behaviour).
All of the European white eagle's early chroniclers presumed it to be a valid, distinct race in its own right. However, Buffon deemed all white eagles to be nothing more than varieties of the golden eagle. Conversely, although he included Buffon's opinion in his own coverage of the European white eagle within his 1781 publication, Latham decided to follow Brisson's stance in categorising it as a separate species – but by 1822 he had changed his mind, labelling it as merely a colour variety of the golden eagle after all.
Not that it mattered much by then anyway, except in a strictly academic sense, because sightings of the European white eagle were no longer being reported. Indeed, in his 1809 bird volume, Shaw had already noted that "it does not appear to be known to modern naturalists". Tragically, this pallid-plumed, winged prince of the alpine mountains had gone, forever. No records exist regarding the reason for its disappearance, but such a spectacular bird would unquestionably have been a major target for hunters, seeking to add its immaculate form to their trophies (a comparable fate befell the white tiger in India). If, as does seem likely, it existed as a discrete, self-perpetuating population of a distinct colour morph of the golden eagle, presumably either albinistic or (more probably) leucistic, and therefore the physical expression of a recessive mutant allele, it would not have been common to begin with, so would have been unable to withstand persecution for any notable length of time. Occasionally, a freak partially-white specimen of the golden eagle is reported today, usually in North America, but not from any self-perpetuating white population.
A partially-white (leucistic) golden eagle sighted in Colorado in July 2008
(© Constance Hass)
I am not aware of any preserved specimens of the European white eagle, and the present ShukerNature post is the most comprehensive documentation of this hitherto all-but-forgotten mystery bird ever written.
As for America's equivalent: This is – or was – the Louisiana white eagle Aquila candidus, also known as the conciliating eagle. It was originally documented by Antoine-Simon le Page du Pratz (1695?-1775) in his tome Histoire de la Louisiane (1758). Although born in Europe, this noted ethnographer, historian, and naturalist had lived in Louisiana from 1718 to 1734, where he had befriended the leaders of the Natchez nation there and had also learned their language. On p. 75 of his work, he referred to a white eagle that was smaller and rarer than the golden eagle, but more handsome, being almost entirely white – only the tips of its wings' quills were black. These quills were purchased at high prices by the Natchez people, who valued them greatly and apparently used them to compose the fan section of their symbol of peace, known as the calumet or pipe of peace (a very long reed ornamented with feathers).
On p. 197 of the second (bird) volume in his two-volume treatise Arctic Zoology (1785), documenting the mammals and birds of North America, Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant (1726-1798) merely paraphrased Du Pratz's documentation of the Louisiana white eagle. So too did Latham in his 1781 tome. On p. 258 of his version of Linnaeus's Systema Naturae, Gmelin accorded this raptor the taxonomic binomial name Falco candidus, whereas in 1809 George Shaw dubbed it Falco conciliator on p. 77 of the bird volume in his General Zoology.
Hand-coloured engraving from 1840 of an adult bald eagle
But what was this enigmatic bird, which, just like its European equivalent, has long since disappeared, both physically and figuratively? Its last notable mention was by English ornithologist Hugh E. Strickland (1811-1853), who included it in his posthumously-published book Ornithological Synonyms (1855). Here he listed its name as a synonym of the bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus, and questioned the accuracy of du Pratz's original account of it. Yet other zoological descriptions included by du Pratz in his book were accurate, so why shouldn’t his account of the Louisiana white eagle have been too? French naturalist Charles-Nicholas-Sigisbert Sonnini de Manoncourt (1751-1812) speculated that the Louisiana white eagle and the European white eagle were one and the same form, but du Pratz claimed that the former raptor was smaller than the golden eagle, whereas according to Brisson the European white eagle was the same size as the golden eagle. If these claims were correct, this indicates that the two white eagles were distinct from one another.
Worth noting is that a few confirmed specimens of white or mostly white bald eagle have been documented in modern times, but not a small, self-perpetuating population of them, which seems to have been true with the Louisiana white eagle. Certainly, Du Pratz did state that this latter raptor was rare; and in view of how valuable its feathers were, it may well have gone the same way as other birds whose handsome plumes attracted similarly unwelcome attention - such as the New Zealand huia (click here for more details) and the Hawaiian mamo, for instance.
Whatever the answer, the world is surely a poorer place without the sight of a magnificent white eagle soaring skyward among the lofty peaks of some stark mountain, like a pale feathered phantom whose mighty pinions bear it ever higher toward that great Empyrean above.
Nor are they the only mystery eagles on record. Remind me, another time, to recall for you the tiger eagle of Latvia, or the fierce eagle of Astrakhan, or the Macarran eagle of South America. And don't forget to click here for my extensive ShukerNature documentation of Washington's eagle – the most controversial lost eagle of all.
Beautiful painting of an adult bald eagle in soaring flight (© William Rebsamen)