Giant Black birds are soaring through the skies over Alabama, puzzling the locals who have never seen such huge creatures. Do we have a new cryptid species invading the area, or has some other mystery bird evolved and taken its place in the food chain? CryptoVille investigates!
Since I wrote my first article on the giant black birds seen in the skies over our country, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from readers who witnessed seeing these birds themselves. But as always, with these cryptid type creatures, it’s hard to determine anything without a good photograph. (Photo top right of street art in New Zealand by D.A. Least.)
Now we have them! Thanks to CryptoVille reader Carol “Cat” Turner who shared her wonderful photos on CryptoVille’s Facebook page. You can see our exchange in the ‘Visitor Posts’ column on the left side of that page.
Carol was visiting the Cheaha State Park in Alabama with friends last August 14, 2015. She got these photos from the area known as Bald Rock. She said she was able to see this huge bird for a short while so was able to get the good photos.
Carol gave me permission to share her 6 photos here. (The following photos by Carol are Photo © Copyright 2015 Carol Cat Turner.)
Aren’t they amazing? They’re so clear that we really get a good idea what this creature looks like. What a nice change in the cryptid world!! (They look a little dark here, but I think if you click on them they’ll open up bigger.)
Still, I had to wonder, how do we get a really good idea of its size? What can we measure it against? An important clue lies in the tree canopy beneath this bird. What can we tell from that?
First I had to determine what kind of foliage grows in Cheaha State Park which is east of Birmingham, heading towards the Georgia border. I was able to determine that this region is part of the ecological region known as the Piedmont. From there I looked up what trees grow in the Piedmont.
According to the Native Trees of the Southeast Identification Guide, in the Piedmont we find mountainous terrain and trees such as “hickories, shortleaf pine, loblolly pine, white oak, and post oak.”
I compared the leaves in Carol’s photos to the photos in the book and I think it is safe to say (at least in the first photo taken by Carol) that the bird is flying over a variety of hickory tree.
There are several varieties of hickory trees that live in the Piedmont area. It’s hard to say exactly which variety is below the bird in the photo because we can’t see the bark, which is a distinctive feature of most trees.
Regardless, all the hickory trees in the area reach between 70 – 90 feet tall and they have large canopies, as you can see in the photo. Another source reports that hickory canopies in general can reach between 50 to 70 feet wide.
Look at the bird again. It seems to dwarf the branches below it, doesn’t it? Now if I had to guess based on this data alone, I would say that wing span looks like 8-10 feet across. But I’d still be a bit unsure. (Photo below of Cheaha State Park from Mt. Cheaha.)
When in Doubt, Ask a Professor
I finally found a scientist at the University of Florida, Gainesville, who specializes in Avian ecology and who agreed to look at the photos, Professor Scott Robinson.
He immediately identified the bird as a California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus). I almost fell off my chair. What is a California Condor doing over Alabama?
The professor expressed his puzzlement and surprise at this news too. He explained that California Condors (photo right) had been taken into captivity (in the late 80s) because they were almost extinct at that point. Through captive breeding and relocating them to safe areas in southern California and Arizona, their numbers are growing again.
But still, scientists don’t seem to have realized that now at least one of them is cruising over Alabama.
If you are seeing these birds over Alabama or elsewhere in the country, here are some pictures from Google to help you identify them:
Their wingspan is between 8 feet 2 inches to 9 feet 7 inches across and they weigh between 17-29 pounds as adults. (Photo above, on lower right by Gregory Smith.) In many photos of these birds, you’ll see tags on their wings. That’s from the breeding and relocation programs they have come from.
I wanted to share this graphic with you. “BP” stands for “Before Present.” Although California Condors aren’t usually seen in Alabama today, historically, they were a long long time ago:
Please note: I am not implying here that every large black bird seen in Alabama has been the California Condor (G. californianus). In fact, one couple, Bill and Jean Summers, believe they saw a female frigatebird from Central America flying overhead in Alabama.
According to the site CarolinaBirds.org, “Frigatebirds are large, with iridescent black feathers (the females have a white underbelly), with long wings and deeply-forked tails. The males have inflatable red-colored throat pouches which they inflate to attract females during the mating season. Frigatebirds are found over tropical oceans and ride warm updrafts. These birds do not swim and cannot walk well, and cannot take off from a flat surface. Having the largest wingspan to body weight ratio of any bird, they are essentially aerial, able to stay aloft for more than a week, landing only to roost or breed on trees or cliffs.” (Photo above left of male frigatebird over the Galapagos Islands.)
Interesting, isn’t it? They ride warm updrafts over tropical oceans. I have to think some of those updrafts pass over Alabama’s Gulf coast right up the state at least from time to time. That’s probably how the frigatebirds get there.
Also note they cannot take off from a flat surface. So wouldn’t mountainous areas look very attractive to them, such as found in the Piedmont area of Alabama northwards?
Frigatebirds are quite distinctive, though. I think the easiest part to identify is the tail which can be seen held together or splayed. See the photo below.
I wanted to mention these huge birds again because I touched on them in my first article. Could they ever “blow in” from the south and be seen in places like Alabama?
According to Birdlife.org, “Vultur gryphus occurs throughout the Andes, in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay south to Argentina and Chile (Houston 1994). It is threatened mostly in the north of its range, and is exceedingly rare in Venezuela and Colombia, where a re-introduction programme using captive-bred individuals is in operation (Hilty and Brown 1986, Houston 1994). A similar project is under way in Argentina (J.C. Chebez in litt. 1999).”
But their size is spot-on for being larger than anything we’ve seen here in the states. According to the Peregrine Fund site, V. gryphus has a wingspan up to 10.5 feet long while another report stated this number could reach 12 feet long. Their bodies average around 3-4 feet long and they weigh between 17-33 pounds as adults.
I will say this, though. If California Condors have found their way to Alabama and the Appalachian mountain range, then why couldn’t an occasional rogue Andean Condor ride the thermals up to Alabama as well?
Before you say impossible, remember the manatee that took a trip one summer up to the cold waters off of Cape Cod? Prior to that, science would have said, impossible.
Here is another photo of the Andean Condor to help you identify one if the need arises:
Most Important Factor
The most important factor in identifying these birds is to get a good, clear photograph of them. If Carol Turner hadn’t gotten such good photos, we wouldn’t even be talking about the birds in this article today.
So let me know what you think about all this. Have you seen anything strange in the skies overhead? If so, please note the time, date, and location so we can help you solve the mystery.
Kirkman, Katherine L., Brown, Claud L., and Leopold, Donald J. Native Trees of the Southeast: An Identification Guide. Oregon and London, Timber Press, 2007, Paperback.