Old Abe, the Bald Eagle mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry in the Civil War, and the inspiration for the army’s 101st Airborne eagle insignia, has been confirmed by DNA testing to have been a male bird. While a few soldiers from the 8th thought the bird was female, it was generally accepted that the very famous bird named after Abraham Lincoln was a male, although the species’ two genders are almost impossible to differentiate.
In 1889, controversy erupted when suffragette Lillian Deveroux Blake claimed that Old Abe was actually an Old Abigail, and that she had been known to lay eggs. This made headlines in the newspapers, and outraged some veterans, but nothing could be proven one way or another, and a significant minority opinion continued to believe Blake’s claim. Old Abe died in 1881, and his remains were stuffed by a taxidermist and put on display at the State Capitol building. In 1904, a fire at the Capitol destroyed the building and also destroyed the remains of Old Abe. Various people had feathers from Old Abe, and sent them to the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall, the forerunner of the modern day Wisconsin Veterans Museum, in the hopes of keeping the bird’s memory alive.
When the question of Old Abe’s gender came up among the museum staff, an effort got underway to solve the mystery. The museum contacted the University of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center Molecular Archaeology Group to see if they could extract and analyze DNA from the feathers. The researchers had never attempted that with birds, but agreed to give it a try and did so free of charge (no doubt it is an opportunity for publication of some research). Fortunately, sample collection did not involve destroying the entire feathers, as only very small amounts of the artifacts were necessary for the tests. The big question was whether the DNA in the feathers had deteriorated to the point where it could not be sequenced.
The researchers were successful, and the museum announced the findings on July 14th, 2016. Results showed that the DNA contained only male sex chromosomes, in the case of eagles, Z chromosomes, and no female W chromosomes. So, the controversy is over, the mystery has been solved, and Old Abe won’t have to change his name.