Copyright © 1997 Gerald MusinskyGerald Musinsky
Is the "thunderbird" a spirit or prehistoric survivor? Most Native American legends present it as a nature spirit, not flesh and blood, while other pre-colonial narratives pertain to an enormous bird of prey possessing an appetite for human flesh.
On a bluff long since quarried away, the Piasa petroglyphs were visible from the Mississippi near present day Alton, Illinois. First recorded by Jacques Marquette in 1673, later accounts vary but there were at least two distinct carvings. Piasa "is said to mean in the Illini language; `Bird that devours Man'... cognate with the Cree `Piyesiw' referring to an imaginary bird, a name of the thunderbird. ...with the Chippewa `Binessi'; `a large bird'" (Means, Ruth, "The Devil Among Us." The Piasa 4). The piasa was powerful enough to carry away full grown deer and in spite of its size, could quickly surprise and bear a hunter aloft to devour him in its cave (Means 6).
One legend tells of a great inter-tribal battle occurred where "...two huge monsters, with the body and claws of an alligator, wings of an eagle, but ten times larger; horns of an elk or deer, ears of a fox, face of a man, mouth, teeth and beard of a tiger, and tail of a serpent or fish, made their homes... ...that they were of sufficient strength to pick up and carry off a young buffalo..." (Armstrong, P. A. "The Miami Tradition of the Piasa". The Piasa 12).
As the battle favored the Miami, the creatures seized and carried two Miami chieftains away. The remaining Miami were driven into the river and drowned. A later war between the Miami and Illini ended with a Miami victory. After returning to their territory, the Illini found the first petroglyph carved into the limestone bluff.
The second petroglyph commemorates Chief Ouatogo. Before the settlers "there existed a bird of such dimensions that he could easily carry off in his talons a full grown deer. Having obtained a taste of human flesh from that time on would prey upon nothing else" (Russell, John "An Indian Tradition of Illinois." The Piasa 18). Unable to kill the beast, entire Illini villages were decimated by the winged menace. Through a dream Ouatago found the solution. He selected twenty braves and concealed them while he stood in open view. When the bird attacked, the warriors shot poisoned arrows destroying the piasa without harming Ouatogo. "In memory of this event the image of the Piasa was engraved on the face of the bluff" (Russell 19).
The Piasa legends are not of a benevolent nature spirit, but regard it as some form of bird, much like the Hu-huk, a Pawnee mythical bird of prey said to devour hunters (Curtis, Natalie. THE INDIANS BOOK: Songs & Legends of the American Indian 258). Described as cannibalistic it is similar to the piasa; having tasted human flesh preferred it to deer. Based on a particular migration narrative, the Creek were ravaged by the Gigantic Blue Bird was eventually done away with by ritual magic and a change of geographic location (Negg, Joe, A Guide To The Imaginary Birds of the World 11).
Of course, more contemporary accounts of giant birds seizing human prey irritate avian conservationists who fear unwarranted attacks on endangered raptorial species. But these stories tend to substantiate Native American tales of immense avian carnivores lingering from a neolithic past which might still exist in the most remote parts of North America and elsewhere.
While playing in the Swiss Alps, 5 year old Marie Delex was taken by a giant eagle. Although the immediate search proved fruitless, her "frightfully mutilated body was discovered two months later by a shepherd" (Pouchet, F. A. The Universe 255). As a footnote to the Scribner's edition, the translator included an 1868 incident occurring in Tippah County, Mississippi. "During recess 8 year old Jemmie Kenney was seized by a large eagle while playing in the school yard. The eagle consequently dropped the child, whose imminent death was due to either the high fall or the severity of the talon wounds" (Pouchet 255. Also Bord, Janet and Colin. Alien Animals 114). Both birds were identified as eagles of extraordinary dimensions yet no specific species was mentioned, if known.
In February of 1895 more dramatic accounts occurred in Addison, West Virginia. The tragic events were foreshadowed by the disappearance of young goats and sheep. On the 7th, ten year old Landy Junkins failed to return home from a neighbor's farm. Only her tracks in the recent snow were found running from the path to stop suddenly in a circle. A week later a county Sheriff and son witnessed a losing battle between a doe protecting her fawn from a bird with a 15 to 18 foot wing span. Also bear hunter, Peter Swadely, was seriously injured warding off an attack relinquished after the giant bird took his dog ("A Modern Roc." St. Louis Globe Democrat 7). 70 years later, in November and December of 1966, people reported human sized birds in rural areas from Point Pleasant, West Virginia to Lowell, Ohio (White, Helen M. "Do Birds Really Get This Big?" FATE March 1967).
In 1977 Ruth Lowe of Lawndale, Illinois, watched helplessly as her son, Marlon, age 10, was seized by one of two large birds and carried two feet high over thirty feet before he was dropped. The black birds' wings were an estimated eight feet and declared by a conservation officer to be "King vultures or California condors" ("King Vultures Attack Boy." The Daily Pantograph. 27 July A-11). In a later article reporting subsequent sightings claimed "Experts in ornithology have said no birds are strong enough to lift such a weight [i. e. Marlon Lowe, 70 lbs.]" (The Daily Pantograph. 30 July A-3).
True, no known bird can. Unless these reports indicate an unknown avian species not currently recognized by the scientific community. Reasonable and preposterous solutions are publicized and sometimes, hostile ridicule, to inhibit additional reports.
In Pennsylvania's Black Forest region, avian giants called "thunderbirds" have been reported for over a 150 years. In his letter-to-the-editor in FATE (March, 1966), Hiram Cranmer claimed fifty people a year fall prey to "thunderbirds" . "According to Indian legends the thunderbird flew down, seized a victim by the shoulders, and carried the prey to a barren mountain top where it was devoured. First the belly was ripped open, while the victim was still alive, and then the insides were eaten. Lastly, it picked a hole in the skull and ate the brain" (Cranmer. Also Lyman, Sr. Robert R. Amazing Indeed, Strange Events in the Black Forest 93).
This "thunderbird" is unlike others mentioned in the majority of Native American narratives.
Tales of Thunder Bird subsisting on human flesh are rare. Evidently, not a nature spirit but a temporal antagonist is described by Lyman; one more like the Piasa or Hu-Huk, or another "bird that devours men." Most transcriptions assume the Thunder Bird is a common eagle, yet the Indian tales are quite indefinite regarding a specific species (Hodge, Frederick Webb, Handbook of American Indians 747).
The "living" folklore describes specific locales where sightings occur. Determining environmental factors might help identify the bird, primarily where terrain, weather conditions, flora and fauna are similar. Regardless, giant bird stories are dismissed. Most zoologists attribute mis-identification, embellished or falsified reports, hoaxes or tall tales. More diligent scrutiny of the phenomena might reveal an avis of such proportions could exist. Error in scientific paradigms and excessive skepticism of traditional and living folklore have obscured many zoological discoveries in modern times.
"All too often zoologists make the mistake of underestimating ancient or primitive art as a source of information" (Heuvelmans, Bernard, On the Track of Unknown Animals 18). This happened to Waller's
Gazelle (Litocranius walleri), but the ignorance of western science never reached the African natives. "The natives call it gerenuk and have known it since time immemorial."
Most "thunderbird" details are consistent except for the estimated wing widths: ranging from an incredible 70 feet to a mere 9 feet. Most estimates average 10 to 18 feet with a few exceptions. All the dimensions exceed any known bird in North America. The immense wing spans are so incredulous ornithologists dismiss the sightings. Size is the most exclusive factor against a bona fide "thunderbird". But the remaining features should identify a known raptor. Appearance, behavior, prey, time, location, and weather are collectively indicated within the reports. Certain birds should become more apparent than others.
"A number of species have been named as possible solutions to the `big bird' mystery, including Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, Marabou Stork, Marabou Stork, Great Blue Heron, Sandhill Crane and Whooping Cranes, Albatross, and Turkey Vulture. (Though the first three are not native to the United States). We would add the Black Vulture and the Wood Stork. However, we would be wary of dismissing all the `big Birds' as specimens from this list, because many of the descriptions do not fit any of these birds, and because none of them is as huge as the witnesses claim" (Bord. Alien Animals 142-43).
The Wandering Albatross, not a likely menacing bird, is the world's largest petrel, has an 11 foot wingspan, lives on fish, travels over open water in the South Seas due to the strong lateral wind. It does not travel far inland (Terres, John K., Flashing Wings: The drama of bird flight 14).
By most accounts, the "thunderbird" resembles a diurnal rapacious hunter. It's feeding on live mammals and carrion eliminates storks, cranes, Albatross, and Great White Pelican. Eagles, condors
and vultures remain. The most reported colors are: black or blackish brown; and dark gray. Height ranges between 4 to 6 feet, short neck more often than long, big beak (ugly often added), long, thick legs, sighted eating medium to large mammals carrion but seizing live prey has also been reported. Soars
during daylight on level wings, sluggish or graceful wing beats, seen in open areas near thick woods surrounded by high hills and swamps, seen soaring and perched. Except for the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), currently regarded extinct in the wild, the largest North American birds are Bald and Golden eagles, averaging 6 to 7 foot wing spreads and 35-38" in length (Whetmore, Alexander "The Eagles, Hawks, and Vultures," The Book of Birds 167).
The Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus leucocephalus), is a sea eagle; eats mainly fish, carrion and mammals. Females are larger than males and the Alaskan Bald (H. leucocephalus alascanus) is larger than southern species. Eagles are larger in northern latitudes and higher altitudes (Whetmore 167). Unmistakable with its white head and tail, the Bald eagle is not large enough to be the "thunderbird".
The Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos canadensis) dwells in mountain ranges of the north temperate zone and has a 32 to 37 inch body length, is feathered to the toes where the Bald is not (Whetmore 16) and has diet of mammals, birds and carrion. The adult Golden eagle has the "golden" nape, faded by the sun, and a distinctive `S' bend in the wing. But when the nape is not present the immature bird is hard to distinguish (Todd, W. E. Clyde. Birds of Western Pennsylvania 10). Also the Golden "hunts its prey by flying close to the ground surprising its victim by striking without warning,... Sometimes attacks by plummeting from the sky seizing its prey by the head or back... killing it with its sharp beak..." (Hanzak, Jan The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Birds 107). Aside from the bright russet plumage, "golden nape", and "noble countenance" A. chrysaetos and the "thunderbird" are similar except for the extraordinary size. Even methods of attack. But gray plumage, "ugly" beak and size do not indicate an adult Golden eagle.
The very powerful Steller's sea eagle (H. pelagicus), the third largest eagle in the world, averages an 8 foot wing spread and nests on the Asiatic side of the Bearing Sea (Brown, Leslie, Eagles 24). An infrequent visitor to Alaska, the Steller has noticeable white wing marks and white belly, (an immature
has less white), a dark beak, eats fish, inhabits arctic coasts, and is an Accidental monotype. Kim Foley
and Shane Fisher noted similarities of their "thunderbird" with the Steller: large beak and rough feathered head (Musinsky, Gerald, "Return of the Thunderbird" 1-3]. The Steller's ungainly beak is unlike other any other. Might the Steller have a land based subspecies with a greater wing span for soaring over vast tracts of land instead of open water? Winds at sea are progressively more prevalent at higher altitudes than on land (Terres 14).
The White Tailed (H. albicilla), almost as big as a Steller's, lacks the pronounced beak. Faded by prolonged exposure to the sun the Gray sea eagle (H. albicinus) was claimed to have taken Svanhilde Hansen of Norway when she was three, although it does not normally dine on mammals (Love, John A. The Return of the Sea Eagle 7). She was rescued after the eagle dropped her.
After ruling out sea eagles because of habitat, prominent white patches, and fish diet; no other known eagle in the North America can possibly be the "thunderbird".
In 1896 John Whitehead discovered a large crested harpy eagle with a beak used for dismembering monkeys, Pithecophaga jeffreyi (Heuvelmans 20). "Jeffrey's monkey-eater" was known to the Samar natives for centuries but only recognized less than a hundred years ago. The idea of a large bird preying on monkeys in a habitat so remote was questionable. But the folklore of the surrounding islands indicated otherwise.
"While the Waitaha tribe of the South Island of New Zealand has long been extinct, one of their legends relating to man-eating bird survives. This Poua-kai has its nest on the spur of a
mountain called Tawera, from whence it darted down, seizing and carrying off men, women, and children as food for itself and its young." (Anderson, Johannes A. Myths and Legends of the Polynesians 129). A story from Fiji recounts "accompanying her husband to the reef on a fishing excursion, the wife was seized by a giant bird and carried off. This bird was to some known as Ngani-vatu, to others as
Ngutu-lei" (Anderson 129).
The world's largest eagle, the Harpy (Harpia harpyia) inhabits mountainous tropical forests in South America, feeds on monkeys and can take sloth out of a trees (Hanzak 13), has a recorded wing span of 10 feet, and is most capable of seizing a small child (Brown 7). Although adorned with colorful plumage, the ruffled neck and feather-horns of the Harpy and Monkey-eater bear striking similarities to the Piasa petroglyphs. Perhaps a distant relative is responsible?
Besides the range of reported wing spans, another distinction is color variance. Plumage color is an unreliable identity indicator for birds of prey. Eagles generally change from immature to sub-adult to mature. Feathers, usually reported dark, could appear brown, black, gray, or even whitish depending on light conditions and age.
If the "thunderbird" were only an exceptionally large eagle, observers would provide details identifying that particular species. Instead, the appearance confuses observers implicating certain features shared by eagles and vultures (or condors); "buzzard looking" [Colloquially "buzzard" refers to vultures which do not resemble buteos]. Known as Cathartidae, vultures are not birds of prey. The Yellow-headed (Cathartes urubu), Turkey (C. aura), and Black (Coragyps atratus) vultures are smaller than eagles. King vultures (Sarcoramphus papa), the largest, resemble Old World vultures, and are brightly colored. Although known to attack helpless prey, they lack the strength to carry it (Van Tyne, Josselyn and Andrew John Berger, Fundamentals of Ornithology 162-65), yet this vulture was suggested responsible for the attack on Marlon Lowe.
Largest of all known raptors, the South American Condor (Vultur gryphus), is restricted by range. A gray cousin to the California condor, it is larger having "an incredible wingspan of ten feet. Though not as wide as the Wandering Albatross, the total wing area is greater (Smith, Dick, Condor Journal 10). "Like other vultures they probably have weak legs and little strength for clutching and these characteristics are not needed as their habit is to feed on relatively large carrion on the ground" (Smith 123-24).
The California condor (G. californianus) has "the largest wingspread of any North American land bird (Koford, Carl B., The California Condor 4)." The average California Condor weighed about 20-25 pounds and had a wing spread of 9 to 9.5 feet (Koford 3). Strictly carrion eaters, some might have had 14 foot wings (Smith 85). But even condors are subjects of tall tales. Larger condors might have existed earlier, but possessing such strength to fly away with nine pound rabbits or the flanks of a deer is not true. "There are no substantiated accounts of condors flying off with anything (Smith 83)." But the California Condor might have been responsible for many of the Indian myths of the Pacific West regarding the Thunder Bird (Smith 73).
Currently regarded extinct in the wild, the last surviving condor was captured in 1987, "a seven year old male called AC-9 was... last of the wild condors" (Di Silvestro, Roger L. "Saga of AC-9, The Last Free Condor." Audubon l2).
In North America, the California Condor was considered only a western scavenger, but fossil remains were found in Genesee County, New York. These "first condor remains ever found in the northeast-- raises two provocative possibilities. One, the California condor's range was probably much greater than previously suspected; and two, the bird's decline toward extinction may have begun a good 10,000 years ago" (Audubon, May 1987, 14). Forty years earlier Hiram Cranmer believed this same area to home for the hypothetical Eastern Condor (Gymnogyps pennsylvanianus). Although descriptions might
identify a condor, "thunderbird" behavior does not. Live prey and vicious attacks on humans indicates an aggressive rapacious hunter. Perhaps one from the past.
Complete fossil birds are rare in comparison to mammals or reptiles. Avian skeletal structures are hollow, decompose quickly, and are dragged off by other animals or washed away by the elements (Van Tyne 8). During the early Jurassic, about 180 million years ago, flying reptiles emerged distinct from their land based relatives. The Pterosaurs. Essentially all had pneumatic bones, large wing
membranes, hurled themselves off cliffs into favorable winds, and displayed varied degrees of specialization (Van Tyne). 150 million years ago, Archaeopteryx, considered the earliest bird, had teeth, non-pneumatic bones and a reptilian tail. The raven sized Archaeopteryx was no flying giant. But evidence of large free-flying birds has been found.
Teratonithidae: The teratorns. Teratornis: Greek for "wonder" (terat) "bird" (ornis); of which four species are known. Teratorns survived until about 10,000 years ago, in North America (Van Tyne 17). T. merriami weighed about 36 pounds with a 12 foot wing span. T. incredibilis and Carthartornis qracilis were identified by only a bone, but T. incredibilis was 40% larger than T. merriami, while Carthartornis was slightly smaller (Campbell, Kenneth E. "The World's Largest Flying Bird." Terra 20). The largest teratorn is the 8 million year old Argentavis maqnificens, which stood 5 to 6 feet tall, weighed about 160 pounds or more, with a 25 foot wing span (Campbell). Teratorns were more reptile like than eagles, the mandible was designed to swallow live prey not dismember it. Teratorn feeding was probably more stork like and the talons were not designed to seize prey.
Although large enough to accomplish feats attributed to the "thunderbird" A. magnificens lacked the required physical structure, and was extant only in South America (Campbell).
"Teratorns probably used their sharp hooked beaks to catch their prey because their feet were not the type found in hawks, eagles, or owls; ...And since the jaw bones of teratorns were to weak to kill large prey by biting, and also too weak to tear large prey into pieces small enough to swallow, they must have fed on small animals, swallowing them hole (Campbell)." Argentavis was predatory but not like modern rapacious hunters.
Perhaps one was sighted in April, 1868 when miners observed a strange bird near Copiapo, Chili, "Its immense wings were clothed with a grayish plumage, its monstrous head was like that of a locust, ... it seemed to be covered with something resembling thick and stout bristles... (Anon. The Zoologist,
July 1868 1295)." And in 1947 J. Harrison, while navigating an estuary of the Amazon, sighted five birds with 12 foot wingspans flying in formation (Mitchell, R. Living Wonders 54).
But reliable witnesses have reported unusual observations regarding condors carrying prey considered held too large by most ornithologists. "One helicopter pilot said he had watched a condor as it went past carrying a small lamb and another story from a mining engineer followed the same pattern...," nature videographer, Tony Morrison affirmed in Land Above the Clouds, "I have never seen a condor carry anything away (124)." Could these reports be caused by a rapacious hunter resembling a condor? Teratorns share these traits but also lack the ability to grasp prey. Both legend and observer testimony suggest a bird resembling a condor but behaving like an eagle might actually exist. Without evidence, an actual specimen, what ornithologist would accept these reports?
In 1835 settlers of the Red Hills in Oklahoma melted down silver for bullets to rid themselves of a "ha'rnt" [haint: haunt] a spirit which took "the form of a man sized bird and walking upright on the ground." (Kildare, Maurice. "Winged Terror of the Oklahoma Hills." True Frontier. October 1972 29-53). It was said, "Each of the wings, when extended, was said to be fully eight feet in length (Kildare)."
Instances of close mortal combat with what the hill folk believed to be a supernatural creature, rather than an unknown avian species, were detailed. "They did not believe a huge bird was capable of carrying off a grown man, but that if killed, the man would be eaten on the spot. The rushing bird with the huge wing spread knocked Landers from his saddle....To his surprise the huge bird went to the ground and walked forward trying to get at Landers who was prone on the ground (Kildare 53)." Grandpa Landers related the incredible tale, handed down many decades and declared it was the exact truth (Kildare).
If so, the manner of attack is not common to condors or eagles, the "haint" maneuvered like a teratorn.
"The morphology of their leg bones and pelvis suggests that teratorns may have been capable of extended walking and were more agile on the ground than are condors," (Campbell, Kenneth, E. Jr. and Tonni, Eduardo P. "Size and Locomotion in Teratorns (Aves Teratornithidae)" The Auk, 100: 390-403, 399).
Could a teratorn have survived into pre-civil war Oklahoma? Could this bird have been the same that carried off Jemmie Kinny and Landy Junkins? The size, ten inch beak and manner of locomotion fit that of Argentavis Magnifcens. Could there have been Americavis Magnificens? Perhaps one more "eagle-like"? Various avian species have been suspected as the illusive Thunderbird, but no culprit has yet been identified. If not a condor or an eagle, maybe the "thunderbird" is a spirit and only appears to certain people? If only a "shade" then what significance might its visage carry? Spirit myth or living fossil? An abhorrent species? Condors mated with eagles is unacceptable because this would be a union of two distinctly different Families.
Whether the "thunderbird" exists or not, the following postulates must be considered regarding this avian enigma:
1. Certain reports are reliable.
2. People are seeing a rare bird.
3. Sightings reveal a correlation with environment.
4. An unknown species eludes discovery by seldom deviating
from the remote biomes where it has been observed.
5. The size is larger than any known species.
The Black Forest sightings, compared with others, could provide data regarding behavioral and environmental characteristics revealing a known or an unknown species from the prehistoric past.
Perhaps when ancestral eagles and teratorns competed with each other, a specialized species evolved which might continue to exist. Not a teratorn, nor condor, not quite eagle, but a primitive bird of prey sharing attributes of the other species.
If the fossil is alive, old habits are hard to break. The Thunderbird's habitat is confined to the most remote areas remaining in North America, where it continues a way of life since the Pleistocene, ironically protected by scientific paradigms and relentless skepticism. The folklore survives with or with out the fossil fuel. Until tangible evidence is discovered, "thunderbirds" will continue to be shadows in the storm.
End Part II
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