Flying CreaturesA belief once widespread among North American Indian tribes held that giant supernatural flying creatures, known as Thunderbirds, cause thunder and lightning. They accomplish the former by the flapping of wings, the latter by the closing of eyes. Thunderbirds also war with other supernatural entities and sometimes grant favors to human beings. They are frequently depicted on totem poles.
The link between these mythological beasts and the "real" giant birds of modern reports is problematical, but there is no doubt that if it means nothing else for anomalists, the tradition has provided a name for what people long have claimed to see in the heavily forested Allegheny Plateau of northcentral Pennsylvania.
"Thunderbirds are not a thing of the past," Pennsylvania writer Robert R. Lyman declared in 1973. "They are with us today, but few will believe it except those who see them. Their present home is in the southern edge of the Black Forest, north of the Susquehanna River, between Pine Creek at the east and Kettle Creek at the west. All reports for the past 20 years have come from that area."
Lyman himself claimed to have seen one of the birds in the early 1940s. When first observed, it was sitting on a road north of Coudersport. It then rose a few feet into the air, spreading wings which measured at least 20 feet, then flew into-not above the dense woods lining the highway. It negotiated the dense second-growth timber with "no trouble," according to Lyman. In common with nearly everyone who reports seeing a thunderbird Lyman thought it looked like a "very large vulture," brown, with short neck and eyes and with "very narrow" wings.
The witness had the impression that this specimen was a young representative of the species. In 1969 the wife of Clinton County sheriff John Bovle, while sitting in front of the couple's cabin in remote Little Pine Creek, saw an enormous gray-colored bird land in the middle of the creek. A few moments later it rose to fly away, and "its wingspread," she said, "appeared to be as wide as the streambed, which I would say was about 75 feet--making the creature truly otherworldly. That same summer three men claimed to have seen a thunderbird snatch up a 15-pound fawn near Kettle Creek.
Over in the Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, area, just east of Clinton County, numerous reports of thunderbirds have been logged over the years. On October 28, 1970, several persons driving west of town saw what one of them, Judith Dingler, described as a "gigantic winged creature soaring towards Jersey Shore. It was dark colored, and its wingspread was almost like [that of] an airplane."
Pennsylvania's thunderbird stories have been traced well into the nineteenth century. Unfortunately no comprehensive account of their history has been published, and so far printed material on what should be a tradition of much interest to both folklorists and anomalists is spotty, confined mostly to short (and usually unsatisfactory) accounts in local newspapers.
Yet reports of thunderbirds, sometimes described as giant vultures or eagles, are a nationwide phenomenon, and the descriptions are so similar that Mark A. Hall, the leading authority on the question, offers this general description based on eyewitness testimony:
The bird is distinguished by its size and lifting capabilities exceeding those of any known bird living today anywhere in the world. Wingspan estimates are necessarily all guesswork. But observers sometimes have had the benefit of a measurable object for comparison or the benefit of time to observe a resting bird. The results most often provide sizes of 15 to 20 feet.... The bird at rest or on the ground appears to be four to eight feet ... tall.... Typically the coloring of the birds overall is dark: a brown, a gray, or black.
Attack of the Giant VulturesIn July 1925 two visitors to Consolation Valley in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta spotted what they thought was at an eagle at sonic considerable altitude. As it approached the Tower of Babel, a 7500-foot-high eak within the range, they noticed that it was huge and brown and, even more startlingly, carried a large animal in its talons. Shouts from the observers caused it to drop the animal, which turned out to be a 15-pound mule-deer fawn.
All conventional ornithological knowledge tells us that such reports-the two we have seen are only two of many and not, as we shall see, even the most fantastic-describe the impossible. The largest predatory birds such as the eagle attack only "small mammals, reptiles, fish, and, perhaps, some other birds," according to wildlife authority Roger A. Caras. The largest American birds, the rare and endangered California condors, have a wingspan of slightly over 10 feet, though one captured specimen early in the century was measured at 11 feet, four inches. Even so, their weak feet do not permit them to carry their prey; instead they feed on carrion.
Here are some representative sightings of the vulture variety of thunderbird:
Kentucky, 1870: A "monster bird, something like the condor of Sinbad the Sailor," landed on a barn owned by James Pepples in rural Stanford. Pepples fired on the creature, wounding it, and took it into captivity. A contemporary press account says, "On measurement, the bird proved to be seven feet from tip to tip. It was of a black color, and both similar and dissimilar in many ways, to an eagle." Nothing is known of its fate. Illinois-Missouri border, 1948: A number of persons told of seeing an immense bird said to be the size of a Piper Cub airplane and to look like a condor. Puerto Rico, 1975: During a spate of unexplained nocturnal killings of farm and domestic animals, owners sometimes reported being awakened by a "loud screech" and hearing the flapping of enormous wings. Several witnesses claimed daylight sightings of what one called a "whitish-colored gigantic condor or vulture." Northern California, October 1975: Residents of a Walnut Creek neighborhood saw an immense bird, over five feet tall with a "head like a vulture" and gray wings, dwarfing a nearby eucalyptus tree. Five minutes later it flew away, revealing a 15-foot wingspan. Around the same time, in nearby East Bay, a number of persons observed the same or a similar bird sitting on a rooftop.
A remarkable series of events which took place in 1977 attracted wide publicity. They began on the evening of July 25 in Lawndale in central Illinois. Three boys, one of them 10-year-old Marlon Lowe, were playing when they saw two large birds come out of the south. They swooped out of the sky toward one boy, who jumped into a swimming pool to escape. They then turned their attention to Marlon, who was grabbed by the straps of his sleeveless shirt and lifted two feet above the ground. As Marlon screamed, his parents Jake and Ruth Lowe and two friends, Jim and Betty Daniels, heard him and witnessed the bizarre sight of the boy held in the talons of a flying bird. Marlon was beating at it with his fists until finally, after carrying him for about 40 feet, it dropped him. By this time Mrs. Lowe, who had headed off in pursuit, was so close to the birds that she had to back up. Then, she said, "the birds just cleared the top of the camper, went beneath some telephone wires and flapped their wings-very gracefully-one more time." They flew off toward the north and in the direction of the tall trees along Kickapoo Creek.
According to the witnesses, the birds were black, with white rings on their long necks. They had curved beaks and eight- to 10-foot wingspreads. They looked, the Lowes decided after consulting books in a library, like condors.
The authorities wasted no time or tact in declaring that all concerned were liars, and the Lowes found themselves at the receiving end of withering ridicule. Marlon himself suffered from nightmares for weeks afterwards, though there were no physical injuries.
The Lowes and their friends were not the only people who reported seeing strange birds in the area. On July 28 a woman driving near Armington, not far from Lawndale, at 5:30 P.M. briefly glimpsed a huge bird flying at rooftop level and larger than the hood of her car. She noticed that it had a ring of white around its neck. Two and a half hours later, at a farm in McLean County, six persons flying model airplanes suddenly noticed an enormous bird about to land atop the barn Their shouts apparently caused it to change its mind, but it circled them and staved in sight for some minutes before heading north in the direction of Bloomington. Its wingspan was estimated to be 10 feet, its body six feet long. The wings had white tips at the ends, and the body was brown.
At 5:30 the following morning, between Armington and Delavan, mail carrier James Majors stopped to watch two large birds in the sky. As one remained behind, another descended until it was just above a corn field. Extending its claws two feet, it closed in on a nearby pig farm. It snatched what Majors thought was a 40 or 50 pound baby pig, passed across the road in front of him within 30 or 40 feet, and joined up with its companion. At this point Majors could hear the flapping of their wings, which made a noise like that of a "jet taking off." These were, in other words, thunderbirds in an almost literal sense. Majors thought they looked like condors, only larger. They had eight-foot wingspans.
Other sightings followed. One of the more interesting ones was also one of the last. It occurred on August 11, on a farm south of Odin, Illinois. At 7 A.m. a large gray-black bird flew out of the northeast and in a circle about 300 feet away, as if looking for a tree big enough to hold it. Finally it landed on one near a small pond close to the house. John and Wanda Chappell were able to watch it closely for five minutes-making theirs the most detailed report of all.
"It looked like a prehistoric bird," Mrs. Chappell said. "It was really fantastic. The head didn't have any feathers, and it had a long neck, crooked, kind of 'S' shaped. The body was covered with feathers.... We couldn't tell much about the feet, but it had long legs." Her husband estimated its wingspan at 10 to 12 feet, she at 14. They agreed, however, that it was four feet high; the distance from the tip of the beak to the back of the neck was eight inches. After a few minutes the bird left in a southwest direction.
Monster Eagles"The stories about eagles carrying off human babies, and even small children, are absolutely endless," Roger Caras writes in Dangerous to Man (1975). "It is pure myth; yet the stories persist."
Still, scientists who have investigated such reports have not always dismissed them as readily as Caras does, though it is certainly true that the capacity of any conventionally sized eagle (which never weighs much over seven pounds) to carry anything but the smallest animals has never been demonstrated. Yet at least one such abduction, however "impossible," is impressively documented.
On June 5,1932, Svanhild Hansen, a 42-pound five-year-old girl, was taken from her parents' Leka, Norway, farm by a huge eagle; the bird transported her more than a mile until it dropped her on a high ledge and continued to circle overhead. When rescuers reached the ledge, the child was asleep and, aside from a few small scratches, unharmed. Zoologist Hartvig Huitfeldt-Kaas, who spent a month investigating the story, pronounced it "completely reliable." The eagle, if that is what it was, was seen on several subsequent occasions.
Other cases, though less richly documented, are just as interesting. All of them do not have happy endings. A nineteenth-century nature encyclopedia (Felix A. Pouchet's The Universe ) tells this sad story from the French Alps, 1838:
A little girl, five years old, called Marie Delex, was playing with one of her companions on a mossy slope of the mountain, when all at once an eagle swooped down upon her and carried her away in spite of the cries and presence of her young friend. Some peasants, hearing the screams, hastened to the spot but sought in vain for the child, for they found nothing but one of her shoes on the edge of a precipice. The child was not carried to the eagle's nest, where only two eaglets were seen surrounded by heaps of goat and sheep bones. It was not until two months later that a shepherd discovered the corpse of Marie Delex, frightfully mutilated, and lying upon a rock half a league from where she had been borne off.
A Tippah County, Mississippi, school teacher recorded the following in the fall of 1868:
A sad casualty occurred at my school a few days ago. The eagles have been very troublesome in the neighborhood for some time past, carrying off pigs, lambs, &c. No one thought that they would attempt to prey upon children; but on Thursday, at recess, the little boys were out some distance from the house, playing marbles, when their sport was interrupted by a large eagle sweeping down and picking up little Jemmie Kenney, a boy of eight years, and when I got out of the house, the eagle was so high that I could just hear the child screaming. The eagle was induced to drop his victim; but his talons had been buried in him so deeply, and the fall was so great, that he was killed-or either would have been fatal.
A tale with a less tragic conclusion goes back to July 12,1763, and the mountains of Germany, where a peasant couple left their three-year-old daughter lying asleep by a stream as they cut grass a short distance away. When they went to check on her, they were horrified to find her missing. A frantic search proved fruitless until a man passing by on the other side of the hill heard a child crying. As he went to investigate, he was startled at the sight of a huge eagle flying up before him. At the spot from which it had ascended, he found the little girl, her arm torn and bruised. When the child was reunited with her parents, they and her rescuer estimated that the bird had carried her well over 1,400 feet.
Twentieth-century zoologist C. H. Keeling characterizes this as the only eagle-abduction story he finds "even remotely convincing"-notwithstanding the "simple and unalterable fact ... that no eagle on earth can carry off more than its own weight."
The problem of ExplanationNo trained ornithologists have ever concerned themselves with the thunderbird phenomenon in its entirety, and few have ever had any participation even in specific reports beyond the rejection of them out of hand. The skepticism is not difficult to understand.
Illinois State University ornithologist Angelo P. Capparella, who harbors a sympathetic interest in cryptozoology, remarks, "The lack of interest of most ornithologists in Thunderbirds is probably due to two factors. First, there is the lack of sightings from the legions of competent amateur birdwatchers....The number of good birdwatchers scanning the skies of the U.S. and Canada is impressive. Every year, surprising observations of birds far from their normal range are documented, often photographically. How have Thunderbirds escaped their roving eyes?" A second reason, Capparella writes, is that such creatures lack an adequate food source in the areas where they have been reported.
In some instances -if not the ones cited here witnesses have mistaken cranes, blue herons, and turkey buzzards for more extraordinary and mysterious birds. In other cases-the ones here, for examle -it is easier to believe in pure invention than in honest misidentification. And indeed hoax is about the only option left to those who believe that if an event is impossible, it cannot happen. Those who believe otherwise are those who believe in a Goblin Universe, which may be the true home of the thunderbird.