Thunderbirds (Part I)

For several hundred years, people have told stories of giant birds who have wing spans of over thirty feet that are able to whisk away animals in an instant. These large birds have been called “Thunderbirds” by some Native Americans because the wings of these large birds are said to make a thunderous crack as they stir the air. In conjunction with these stories, the Native Americans also have plenty of stories of young children being carried away by these giant birds; but, they’re not the only ones who have stories of these Thunderbirds.

French explorer Pere Marquette made note of a petroglyph near Alton, Illinois depicting an indian warrior who had successfully slain one of these large beats, known as Piasa or “bird that devours man” in that area of Illinois. Marquette described this petroglyph in journal entries from 1673. These historic sightings aren’t the only known records of such large birds. Some of these Thunderbird sightings have been as recent as 2002.

On Wednesday, October 16, 2002 a story in the Anchorage Daily News reported sightings of a bird that was approximately the size of a small airplane. The bird was seen near Manokotak, Alaska by Moses Coupchiak, who “thought it was one of those old-time Otter planes” before the beast banked left and he could see it wasn’t an airplane. The bird was also seen by Pilot John Bouker and the passengers of the Cessna 207 which he was flying at the time of the sighting. It was approximately one thousand feet away from the plane and appeared to have a similar wingspan as the plane– approximately 4.3 meters (14 feet). Despite multiple witnesses who had observed this abnormally large bird, raptor specialist Phil Schemf is skeptical of the multiple eye-witness reports. His theory was that the bird was a Steller’s sea eagle, which have been known to live in the area surrounding the alleged Thunderbird sightings and have a wingspan of up to 2.4 meters (8 feet). Could the eye-witnesses have seen a Steller’s sea eagle or is the specialist neglecting to account for the possibility that they may have truly seen a large avian with an approximate wing span of fourteen feet?

Argintavis Magnificences (Aka-Teratorn)

Dr. Kenneth E. Campbell stands in front of the display for Argintavis Magnificences (aka Teratorn) at the Natural History Museum, Los Angeles. Dr. Campbell and Eduardo P. Tonni were instrumental in the discovery of this species of extinct bird. Dr. Campbell currently works as Curator of Ornithology in the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles.

Whether or not you believe in their existence or not, scientists have discovered birds of such exceptionally large size. Thought to be extinct, fossils of Argentavis Magnificens or “Teratorn” as it has also been called have been discovered in central and northwestern Argentina. One of the discoverers of the species, Dr. Kenneth E Campbell, was able to bring the Argentavis Magnificens to the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, California. The bird exhibits a wing span of 7.6 meters (25 feet). The feather size from a bird this size is estimated to have been 1.5 meters (5 feet) long and 20 centimeters (8 inches) wide. While there will be continued disagreements as to whether or not the bird seen in Alaska really was a Steller’s sea eagle or the thought-to-be-extinct Argentavis Magnificens, we do know that such a large bird did at one time exist. Now, the question remains as to whether or not a bird this size would actually be capable of snatching up a small child. The answer to this question lies in a story dating back to the evening of July 25, 1977 in a Lawndale, Illinois neighborhood.

Over three hundred years after Pere Marquette recorded his thunderbird sighting in Illinois, two giant birds soared through the skys of Lawndale, Illinois. They were seen by several people, who noted the gargantuan size of the birds.

On the ground, playing in the back yard of Jake and Ruth Lowe, three unsuspecting boys were noticed by the birds. In seconds, the birds dove into the yard. Travis Goodwin, the first child to be targeted by the birds managed to evade the birds by jumping into the swimming pool. Marlon Lowe, the second child, wasn’t as fast and he was snatched up by the large talons of the giant, feathered beast.

Marlon kicked and screamed as the bird carried his 65 pound, ten year old frame 40 feet through the air from the backyard to the front yard. Fearing her son was in trouble, Ruth Lowe ran outside and witnessed the blood curdling sight of her son being carried away by a giant, black bird. Luckily, the bird soon released its prey. Marlon was relatively unscathed, though he had been frightened and scratched by the bird’s talons.

The birds, as described by several onlookers were black with white bands around the neck. They had long, curved beaks and, according to the Lowes, closely resembled an Andean Condor which do not live in North America. The next closest bird would be the California Condor, which is smaller than the Andean Condor. However, neither of those species of Condor would be capable of grabbing, lifting, and transporting a 65 pound boy. This bird had to be something different– but what?

Sightings of giant birds continued to be reported in this area of Illinois in 1977. Three days later, a McLean County farmer spotted a large bird. Not long after that, mailman James Majors saw two large, black birds with huge wingspans as he was driving between Armington and Delevan. The next sighting was on July 28th as Lisa Montgomery of Tremont, Illinois was washing her car. Dennis Turner and several friends from Downs, Illinois saw a gigantic bird perched atop a telephone pole around 2am on Saturday, July 30. Later that same day, while fishing at Lake Shelbyville around 10am, Chief A. John Huffer filmed two giant birds. (You can view a selection of this video over at the History Channel’s website by clicking here.)

The final sighting of these birds was in December 1977. Loren Coleman fainted after seeing what she thought to be “a man standing in the road with something over its arms.” Upon hearing Coleman’s story, several men went to the spot, where they discovered and killed a large bird. Fearing ridicule, they burned the bird’s body. Sightings of the giant birds ceased after December 1977.

Illinois seems to be rife with stories of Thunderbirds– Another series of stories occurred in Belvidere, Illinois on April 9, 1948– but they don’t own a monopoly on the strange stories associated with sightings of these large birds. Probably the most bizarre and intriguing story associated with Thunderbirds is in connection with an 1890 newspaper article and a mysterious, missing photograph…

* “Birdzilla and Flying Creatures.” History Channel: Monster Quest (Video)
* “Spotting the Birdzilla.” History Channel: Monster Quest (Video)