For many years there have been reports of gigantic flying birds seen in the skies over the U.S.A. In some cases, the birds were seen to snatch up animals like pigs and sheep, and in a couple cases, children. This would mean they are hunters and would be classified as raptors. Eagles, hawks, owls, and falcons are other examples of raptors.
Could there be any truth in these sightings? Are people really seeing some extraordinary species of bird that science hasn’t yet identified? Or are the culprits all too familiar? Let’s start by reviewing a small list of very large birds from history through today.
Part of the family Teratorns, Argentavis magnificens (magnificent Argentine bird) is so named because of its size and huge wingspan. Now extinct, this fascinating bird is reportedly the largest bird ever discovered. Many good samples of its fossils have been found in central and northwestern Argentina. The photo to the right shows a model of what one would look like in the sky as a silhouette.
Wingspan: 23-25 feet (7m)
Wing area: 87.3 feet (nearly 9m)
Body Length: about 4 feet (1.26 m)
Height: 5.6-6.6 feet (1.7-2 m)
Weight/Mass : 154-171 lb (70-78 kg)
That is one big bird! To give you an idea how large that is, see the picture to the left for a comparison of this bird to a school bus and to a grown man.
Fossils of this Teratorn have been found throughout the desert southwest including Nevada, the Anza-Borrego Desert in California, and the Arizona Strip. They’ve also been found in Oregon and as far east as Florida!
Meanwhile in upper New York state, the former presence of California Condors have been confirmed by Richard Laub of the Buffalo Museum of Science and David Stedman of the New York State Museum. The condor bones were found in an Ice Age layer at the Hiscock Site in Genessee County, NY. The assumption then is since Teratorns and condors have shared habitats throughout ancient history, so it’s possible that Teratorns also found their way as far north of NY state.
Science tells us that today, the bird that comes closest to Argentavis magnificens’ size is the Wandering Albatross. The albatross wingspan is only 12 feet (3.65 m). The Andean Condor is another living candidate which is actually related to the A. magnificens, but its wingspan is only 10 ft wide (3.2 m) and these condors only weigh up to 33 lbs (15 kg).
The heaviest bird known today is the kori bustard and that heavyweight can tip the scales at 44 pounds (20kg) which is still a long way off from the 150+ range of Argentavis magnificens.
Most people think of pterodactyls when they think of prehistoric flying animals, but they are just part of a family of pterosaurs that filled the skies back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Actually pterodactyls never actually existed. The term came to refer to pterodacytlus and pteranondon together.
Pteranondon was the giant of this family with a wingspan up to 30 feet. Pterodactylus was small with a wingspan of only 8 feet. However, recently a new genus of pterosaur has been discovered and named Quetzalcoatlus, a monster from the late Cretaceous era. Its wingspan was about 40 feet. Yes, it was named after the flying, feathered god of the Aztecs.
Pteranondon was actually toothless so scientists think they flew the coastlines feeding on fish. Pterodactylus had small teeth, but nothing especially ferocious about them.
Finally none of the pterosaurs had feathers and the giant birds being seen today definitely are all described as having feathers. So it’s probably safe to say, what people are seeing these days are not pterosaurs.
That said, pterosaurs may have been hanging around at least until 1944, deep in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. Check out this video. I find the witness completely believable. That still doesn’t alter the fact that the birds being seen today, are feathered, and pterosaurs are not.
Native American legend gives us the Thunderbirds who got their name from the sound their wings make and the belief that lightning flashed from their eyes. They were believed to live on mountain tops. Some people think the legend of the thunderbird was born from huge flying birds that the people were really seeing.
The description of the thunderbirds more closely resembles the sightings of giant birds being seen today. One thing is clear, in all descriptions and depictions, thunderbirds were feathered. So I’m going to hold out the possibility that these birds may have been based on some real life sightings of the same sort being seen today – large flying raptors.
Let’s look at some of these stories.
1868, Missouri: According to author Troy Taylor, this report is the earliest account of someone being attacked by a giant bird. The incident occurred in Tippah County, MO. An eight-year-old boy was snatched up by what his teacher described as an “eagle” during school one day. The teacher stated that “a sad tragedy occurred at my school a few days ago.” He continued to describe how “eagles” had been troublesome in the neighborhood lately, and had carried off pigs and lambs. Then one afternoon one of the birds swept down and picked up a boy named Jemmie Kenney and flew off with him. The teacher ran outside, but the bird had carried the child off by then. All they could hear was Jemmie’s screams. The bird dropped the boy, but he later died from the fall and the talon injuries on his shoulders.
According to reknowned zoologist Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans, even the strongest eagle can’t lift much more than a rabbit or lamb. The experts seem to agree that no eagle or bird of prey can carry off a small child. Yet the evidence seems to contradict that. Jemmie Kenney was snatched, then dropped, and died of his injuries.
April 1890 Arizona: Two cowboys reportedly killed a giant “birdlike creature” with a huge wingspan. Reports said it had smooth skin, featherless wings like a bat and a face that resembled an alligator. They supposedly dragged it back to town where they pinned its wings across the length of a barn. This sounds like a pterosaur at first, but it could also have been a molting or diseased bird. Without feathers, birds look kind of freaky.
July 25, 1977 Illinois: This is the famous Lawndale Illinois case. Around 9 pm three boys were playing in the backyard of Ruth and Jake Lowe. Two large birds came close and chased the boys. Two escaped unharmed, but ten year old Marlon Lowe didn’t. One bird clamped onto his shoulders with its claws, lifted him about 3 feet off the ground and carried him about 35 feet. He cried for help and his mother came running. She said she saw the bird lift Marlon off the ground into the air. She screamed and the bird released the child.
Mrs. Lowe said she was sure if she hadn’t intervened that the bird would have carried off her son. From what she saw it was more than capable of doing so. She also said as it carried Marlon, the bird was bending down trying to peck at the boy. This is highly indicative of raptor behavior. They try to snap the neck of their prey so it dies immediately and is easier to carry. Fortunately for Marlon, it didn’t succeed.
Everyone described the birds as black with bands of white around their necks. They had long, curved beaks and the wingspan was estimated at around 10 feet. The birds were last seen flying toward trees near Kickapoo Creek.
Investigator Jerry Coleman was able to interview the Lowe family (see photo to left of Mrs. Lowe and Marlon) and other witnesses shortly after the incident. He returned to Lawndale with his brother two years later to speak with the Lowes and was dismayed to find the family had been harassed and bothered by media attention and by locals in the community. They often found dead birds placed on their doorstep by pranksters.
Marlon Lowe had trouble coping with the ordeal. His bright red hair turned gray for a time until it grew out. Mrs. Lowe spent years trying to identify the birds she had seen nearly abscond with her son. She told investigators, “I was standing at the door and all I saw was Marlon’s feet dangling in the air. There aren’t any birds around here that can lift him up like that.”
Animal experts tell us that there aren’t any birds on the North American continent that are capable of doing so, yet something clearly happened to the Lowe family right in Lawndale, Illinois. I believe the witnesses are credible and this case disturbs me the most.
July 28, 1977 Illinois: McLean County farmer, Stanley Thompson, spotted a bird flying over his farm. This bird matched the description of what the Lowe family saw three days earlier. Mr. Thompson and his wife and several friends had been watching radio controlled airplanes when they saw the bird fly close to the model planes. He estimated the bird’s wingspan to be about 10 feet across. He said it dwarfed the small planes buzzing around it.
McLean Country Sheriff’s Sergeant Robert Boyd reported that the witnesses said the bird’s body was about 6 feet long with a wingspan of 9-10 feet. Sgt. Boyd said that Mr. Thompson was a credible witness.
The Sergeant received other reports of the bird sightings, but only investigated Mr. Thompson’s sighting due to his credibility in the community.
Next, mail truck driver James Majors spotted two birds near Bloomington. Mr. Majors was driving from Armington to Delevan when he saw the birds on the side of the highway. One dropped down into a field and snatched up a small animal. His first thought was that they were condors, but they had a 10 foot wingspan, something that condors do not have. The other bird flew into another field and picked up what Mr. Majors thought was a small pig. The sightings upset Mr. Majors and he quickly drove to the next town where he stopped to smoke 4 cigarettes until he regained his composure.
Also on the same day, Lisa Montgomery of Tremont was washing her car when she glanced up and saw a large bird crossing the sky overhead. She described it as black with a low tail and estimated the wingspan was 7 feet. The last she saw of it, it was flying towards Pekin.
July 30, 1977 Illinois: Around 2 am near Downs, Illinois, Dennis Turner and some friends reported a huge bird perched on a telephone pole. Mr. Turner said the bird had dropped something near the base of the pole. Police officers arrived to investigate and they found a huge rat near the base of the telephone pole. Several residents of Waynesville also reported seeing a black bird with an 8 foot wingspan later that same day.
Reports continued throughout the day from Bloomington and the north central Illinois area, then from further south, near Decatur, Macon, and Sullivan. One witness, who reportedly got some footage of the bird(s) that he later sold to a Champaign television station, estimated the bird’s wingspan to be over 12 feet.
Officials from the Department of Conservation insisted the birds were turkey vultures and nothing out of the ordinary. But wildlife experts (and cryptozoologists) countered that turkey vultures were significantly smaller than the birds reported around the area on the 30th of July.
July 31, 1977 Illinois: Again from Bloomington, Mrs. Albert Dunham reported that she was on the second story of her home when she a large dark shadow pass by her window. She quickly realized it was one of the giant birds being seen throughout the area. She described it as large with a white ring around its neck. Her son chased the bird to a landfill nearby where it thereafter vanished.
August 11, 1977 Illinois: Odin residents John and Wanda Chappell saw a giant bird land in a tree near their home. They described it as gray-black with an estimated wingspan of 12 feet. Mr. Chappell said it looked like a “prehistoric” bird and he figured it could have carried off his small daughter if it got the chance. Mrs. Chappell said they almost didn’t report the sighting for fear of what people might say about them.
Soon after, the general population decided people must have been seeing turkey vultures and no one reported anymore sightings. However, people did continue to have sightings, through at least 2002, but they didn’t report them anymore. The last report received from 1977 was by a witness near Herrick who said he saw two giant birds in a forest outside of town. He estimated the wingspans to be at least 10 feet across. He followed them to an abandoned barn at the edge of a field where they perched for a few minutes. Then they vanished into the sky heading towards Taylorville.
As recently as 2002, there have been big bird sightings in the last wilderness in America – Alaska. In an article published in the Anchorage Daily October 16, 2002, a report surfaced that said, “a giant winged creature like something out of “Jurassic Park” [was] sighted several times in Southwest Alaska. A pilot that spotted the creature while flying passengers to Manokotak, Alaska, calculated its wingspan matched the length of a wing on one side of his Cessna 207, about 14 feet. Other people have put the wingspan in a similar range.” (Photo to the right is a Stellar Sea Eagle which some claim is what people are actually seeing. However, note the distinctive yellow beak and yellow feet!)
The Associated Press reported a similar story stating, “Villagers in Togiak and Manokotak say the huge bird has a wingspan of about 14 feet – the size of a small plane.” Included in the article was the report of a sighting from a few days earlier, October 10, 2002. A heavy equipment operator named Moses Coupchiak saw the bird flying toward him from about two miles away as he worked his tractor. “At first I thought it was one of those old-time Otter planes,” Coupchiak said. “Instead of continuing toward me, it banked to the left and that’s when I noticed it wasn’t a plane.”
Is it possible these birds sought refuge in the last great refuge in North America? There are plenty of mountains for them to hide in, plenty of food for them to forage.
It’s hard to say what’s really going on. Were pterosaurs seen as long ago as 1944 in the jungle of Papua New Guinea? What else could nature be hiding from us? Based on eye witness accounts, the birds being seen in the latter part of the 20th century were all feathered, so that rules out pterosaurs.
But what could these feathered giants be? As per usual in the cryptozoological world, it’s going to take a body to really know for sure. People haven’t even found so much as a feather in these hot spot areas, much less a carcass of the giant raptors. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if anyone finds any evidence. Until then, keep an eye on the sky when you can, and your camera handy.
If you have cats and small dogs, keep an eye out for regular old hawks. I have a friend in northern California whose darling kitty was almost killed by a garden variety hawk. Hawks, owls, falcons, condors, and vultures are all smaller cousins of whatever these giant flying predators are, and given a chance, they’ll attack your little pets.
Til the next time!