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Audubon's Bird of Washington: the fraud that launched his Birds of America (1 Viewer)

GMK

Well-known member
Widely known as one of the most famous and valuable of all bird books, Audubon’s The Birds of America, brought its author fame that lasts to this day. In a new paper in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club, Matthew Halley reveals that the book might never have been published but for a ornithological con trick that Audubon initially pulled on an unsuspecting British nobility and scientific community.

The full paper is open access here: http://dx.doi.org/10.25226/bboc.v140i2.2020.a3

Matthew Halley has recently been interviewed on the ABA podcast about his research and the paper. You can listen here: https://www.aba.org/j-j-audubon-and...CSD_v-t8gIbwFBG4JrDx5y2PStEWS0WJOB1Yk4byXbA1w

This is the abstract to the paper, for a taster:

The Bird of Washington Falco washingtonii Audubon, 1827, was a new species of eagle published in the opening plates of John James Audubon’s influential work, The birds of America (1827–38). It was the first plate engraved by Robert Havell Jr. and the first new species Audubon described in his career. However, the Bird of Washington was published without specimen evidence and, to this day, no specimen with the anatomical characters in Audubon’s descriptions and plate has ever been found. To shed light on the case, I conducted an exhaustive search for primary (non-print) sources in multiple archives in the USA and transcripts in the literature. Here, I demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that Audubon’s painting of the Bird of Washington was not ‘faithfully figured from a fresh-killed specimen’, as he claimed, but was the product of both plagiarism and invention. The preponderance of evidence suggests that the Bird of Washington was an elaborate lie that Audubon concocted to convince members of the English nobility who were sympathetic to American affairs, to subscribe to and promote his work. Audubon rode his Bird of Washington to widespread fame and then actively maintained the ruse for more than 20 years, until his death, fuelling decades of confusion among scientists and the general public. The broad implications for Audubon-related scholarship and ornithology are discussed.
 

Nutcracker

Stop Brexit!
Presumably if this is a fraud, then the currently-accepted subspecies name Haliaeetus leucocephalus washingtoniensis (Audubon, 1827) can no longer be considered legitimate? Should the species be treated as monotypic, or is there a distinct subspecies that will need a new name?


PS perhaps this thread might be better moved to the Taxonomy forum?
 

GMK

Well-known member
Of course, you might choose to narrowly focus on the issue of the continued use of Audubon's name at subspecific level in the light of this paper, and that is obviously a valid topic to discuss in the taxonomy forum. However, I consider that the real interest of Halley's paper is the fact that the word of Audubon must now count for very little, unless independently corroborated. Given Audubon's fame, that is of much wider significance than the more arcane questions of whether to recognise a subspecies, and the name it should take, which are surely the preserve of specialists.
 

jurek

Well-known member
Isn't it a young Bald Eagle? The Audubon bird lacks pale patches in plumage and signs of moult found in young bald eagles. However, such things were corrected in naturalist illustrations until few decades ago. Compare for example, numerous pictures of young white-tailed eagles in older field guides, which show uniformly brown birds.
 

Nutcracker

Stop Brexit!
Isn't it a young Bald Eagle? The Audubon bird lacks pale patches in plumage and signs of moult found in young bald eagles. However, such things were corrected in naturalist illustrations until few decades ago. Compare for example, numerous pictures of young white-tailed eagles in older field guides, which show uniformly brown birds.
No, it's a figment of Audubon's imagination; it never existed. His 'specimen' of it is a lie. That's the whole point of the article!
 

Nutcracker

Stop Brexit!
Of course, you might choose to narrowly focus on the issue of the continued use of Audubon's name at subspecific level in the light of this paper, and that is obviously a valid topic to discuss in the taxonomy forum. However, I consider that the real interest of Halley's paper is the fact that the word of Audubon must now count for very little, unless independently corroborated. Given Audubon's fame, that is of much wider significance than the more arcane questions of whether to recognise a subspecies, and the name it should take, which are surely the preserve of specialists.
True, but he did shoot a lot of birds, and those are presumably available for examination in a museum? Most of the rest of his stuff is corroborated?
 

jurek

Well-known member
I think at that time the approach to plagiarism and copying were very different than the today sense, which the author so easily throws at Audubon. The author might consult some historians of art and science to put perspective of scientific and illustration policies of that time.

During the early 19. century, and much later, naturalists freely copied each other paintings and works and it was known and accepted. Also things like reuse of whole drawings. It was understood than an individual may have no sources or stamina to produce a huge work all by himself and must fill the gaps. It was even expected that good natural history illustrations follow certain conventions and what was the best style of illustration on the market. Much like a king or a queen on an old painting in a museum is usually painted in the same pose.

It was over a century before digital photography given bird artists an endless supply of bird models to copy, and before Bill Gates of Microsoft publicized the concept of intellectual property.
 
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Nutcracker

Stop Brexit!
I think at that time naturalists freely copied fragments of each other paintings and works and it was known and accepted. In fact it was expected that certain birds and other animals are described and illustrated in a certain way. Much like every king or a queen on an old painting is painted in the same pose.
According to the paper, by then it was expected, that if you wanted to name a new species, you had to go out and shoot your own specimen and deposit it in a museum, and draw from that. Copying old drawings was no longer acceptable ;)
 

jurek

Well-known member
Much of this article is applying 21. century views to 19. century practice. Good ornithology but not necessarily shows good understanding of history.
 

GMK

Well-known member
Much of this article is applying 21. century views to 19. century practice. Good ornithology but not necessarily shows good understanding of history.


A viewpoint, but nevertheless this and your other post suggest you have not actually read the paper critically. Firstly, as some background, the paper was peer-reviewed by three ornithologists with long experience in analysing both historical specimens and, even more importantly, artistic representations of the same. All are more than familiar with the fact that different artists routinely copied (with varying degrees of exactitude) previous portrayals of birds based on the only specimens in existence at the time. This is well known to both the author and the referees through many publications. (I might add that I, as editor, have a BA in history, so I understand the general principles behind evaluating historical evidence.)

The point is that Audubon copied existing artwork pertaining to the Bald Eagle, but introduced new details, not present in the earlier depictions, and then drew attention to the discrepancies as evidence for claiming a new species. To add insult to merely presenting what he knew to be a falsehood as fact, the real point of this for Audubon was to garner attention and subscribers for his book, which ultimately lead to both fame and relative fortune, his real goal, rather than simply to dupe some ornithologists into thinking he had found a new bird. That equals fraud in both scientific and financial terms.

It bears mention that even prior to the Bird of Washington, in 1824 Audubon had been refused admission to the Academy in Philadelphia against a background of suspected and proven plagiarism. And, in the immediate aftermath of the Bird of Washington, influential actors in European ornithology, such as William Swainson and Lucien Bonaparte, basically realised that they had been duped, while American ornithologists with ties to the Academy continued to decry Audubon's behaviour in private letters. So, it is most definitely not a case of applying 21st century attitudes to 19th century events. Like Meinertzhagen, Audubon got away with it, because his detactors at the time to some extent either failed to shout at all, or forgot to shout loud enough.
 

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