Thursday, 7 April 2016

Big Birds Do Fly

     I am gradually coming round to the idea that there is something in the legends of avian giants ("thunderbirds") flying over North America. They were easy to ignore when they just amounted to a bird "the size of a small aeroplane" framed against the sky, because how can you judge the size of anything against the backdrop of the sky? It is a different matter when trees, houses, and roads provide a frame of reference. So, for example, I placed an article on big birds in my Anomalies blog, because two of the three sounded somehow paranormal, but the middle one seems honest-to-goodness flesh and feathers. You can find additional reports of thunderbirds in this article. Jonathan D. Stiffy also wrote an article about thunderbirds in Pennsylvania for the third volume of the Journal of Cryptozoology, which I reviewed here. The reports derive solely from North America, as far as I am aware, and as no nests or eggs have been discovered, it is assumed they represent an uncommon migratory species which breeds in some obscure region of the north. In any case, since one of the functions of this blog is to rescue reports from journals and books which others may not have seen, I shall add a few more.
     I'm assuming that the series of publications entitled It Happened To Me! are not in most people's libraries. They should be - if the people concerned are interested in anomalies. They are, to quote the title page, "Ordinary people's extraordinary stories from the pages of Fortean Times." I reviewed one volume here.
     Well, on pp 87-88 of volume 1 we have the account by Robin Swope, which he e-mailed to Fortean Times in 2001, of what he saw on 6 July 2001. In other words, his memory would not have had much time to go stale. It was about 3 pm, and he was mowing the upper 20 acres of the Erie County Memorial Gardens, a graveyard in north-western Pennsylvania (the same area covered by Stiffy's article). The cemetery bordered hundreds of acres of woods.
Out from the brush of small trees directly north of the mausoleum a large bird flew into the air. I have seen many large birds in the area, but this one was enormous. As it passed by the high tension wires I estimated that its wingspan was between 15 and 17 ft (4.6 -5.2 m). It was dark grey with little or no neck, and a circle of black under its head. Its beak was very thin and long, about a foot in length.
     A more detailed account by a Mike Richards appears on pp 70-72 of volume 4. Unfortunately, the time interval was much greater in this instance. He wrote it in 2010, but the event took place in the summer of 1990, or thereabouts. He, his wife, and a friend were setting out on a camping excursion in South Carolina. It was just before sunrise, with just enough light to see by. He was driving and the other two were asleep, when they rounded a  slight curve, and he saw something up ahead which he initially took for a man or a deer, so he slowed down.
At this moment it looked up and straight at me. It was a great bird, dark brown to charcoal grey in colour, with yellow eyes and a very large yellow beak. It was very much like a Golden Eagle except for its tremendous size - between 6ft and 7ft (1.8 - 2m) tall. Its wingspan was wider than the highway lane, and about 60 to 70 per cent of the overall width of the entire road: I would say about 16ft - 18 ft (4.9 - 5.5 m). The wings themselves appeared to be about 4 - 5 ft (1.2 - 1.5m) from leading edge to trailing edge, but this was more difficult to gauge. Its feet were about three times as large as my hands and easily visible.
     He began frantically, but unsuccessfully, trying to wake up the others. Meanwhile, the bird turned around about 180 degrees, then flew up, carrying with it a carcass of a deer on which it had been standing. He said that it took just a couple of flaps of its wings to clear the treetops, and he could actually see the wind created by its wings moving the grass and bushes by the side of the road. With a background of a lifetime of hunting and fishing in South Carolina, and having seen many deer in many conditions, he estimated that this one weighed about 50 lb (23kg). It was youngish, with a few faint fawn spots, and he could clearly see that its neck was broken, with its tongue hanging out and dripping saliva. He estimated that the encounter lasted 15 to 20 seconds.
     What can we make of this? Its value is diminished by the brevity of the sighting, the low level of light, and the 20 year interval before reporting it. On the other hand, we have his experience in the wilderness, and the fact that this was a "flashbulb" experience: a brief, vivid, high emotion one etched on his memory. Such memories are more likely to be stable, but it does not follow that the original "etching" was completely accurate. For a start, I wonder how he could be sure its eyes were yellow. There is also the tendency, under the effects of such strong emotion, to overestimate size. On the other hand, he was familiar enough with the golden eagle to distinguish it on size. The wingspan of the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) averages 6ft 8in, or just over 2 metres.
     In the past, up to the period of the great megafauna extinction ie about 10,000 years ago, North America did host birds of this size: the teratorns. The wingspan of Teratornis merriami stretched to 12½ feet (3.8 m), the less common T. woodburnensis was slightly larger, while Aiolornis incredibilis, which may have become extinct a bit earlier, had a wingspan of 17 feet (5.2 m). Jonathan Stiffy, in the abovementioned paper, suggested the sightings in Pennsylvania were consistent with extant teratorns.
     It sounds all so straightforward, but the fly in the ointment is the deer. Even if its weight were greatly exaggerated, a teratorn could not have carried it off. Like their relatives, the storks and the New World vultures, they possessed weak feet, poorly adapted for a life of snatching live prey. That is the province of the accipitrids: the eagles, hawks, and Old World vultures.
    Dr Karl Shuker has devoted a section of his book, In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995) to this issue. Two incontravertible instances exist of eagles carrying off children of a similar weight to the deer - albeit, it was obviously close to the limits of their physical strength. The first was 4-year-old Svanhild Hansen of Norway who, in 1932, was carried off by a white-tailed sea eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla. Despite the fact that she was carried over a mile, her weight of 42 lb (19 kg) was too much for the eagle to deposit her precisely in its nest. It dropped her on a ledge some distance below, whence she was eventually rescued. She must have weighed well over twice as much as even an oversized member of that species.
     The second instance was of 10-year-old Marlon Lowe of Illinois who, in 1977, was snatched by one of a pair of black birds and, despite his weight of 65 lb (29½ kg), was carried a couple of feet off the ground for 10 or more yards. The birds were of an unknown species described as vulturine in shape, with large curved beaks, white ruffs around their long necks, and estimated wingspans of 8 to 10 ft (2.4 to 3 metres).
     Dr Shuker makes the obvious point that it is theoretically possible that non-native birds, likely illegally kept, had escaped or been released, to ultimately contribute to the thunderbird legend. Just the same, I doubt if there would be any breeding colony. As far as Marlon Lowe's attackers were concerned, the only possible contender he could suggest would be the griffon vulture, Gryps fulvus. It is about the right size, with the right type of neck, although it is brown rather than black. Also, the fact that there were two of them lowers the identification to my mind.
     The only other candidate he could make was an large, unknown accipitrid ie a giant eagle. His main reason for doubting such an identification was the absence of any fossil record. Perhaps, however, this view should be reconsidered in the wake of Mr Richards' testimony.
     Dr Shuker also relates - I don't know on what authority - the story of a huge bird captured by a farmer near Centerville, Kansas. Arch. Akeley, who saw it in a cage in 1898 described it as being 4-6 feet tall when standing upright, with grey plumage, a feathered head and neck without a ruff, and a wingspan of more than 16 feet. Sounds a bit like what Mss Swope and Richards saw, doesn't it?

1 comment:

  1. Just writing to say that I love this blog. It's entertaining, informative and full of material I didn't know about. Keep it up!


The Possum Book

I am pleased to provide a link to a website of a friend of mine, Robyn Tracey, who has written a fascinating story about her dealings with brush-tailed possums in the outer suburbs of Sydney. You can download the book for free, or read it on the site. Go to: The Possum Book.