Large Bird of North America, similar to the legendary Thunderbird .
Etymology: Descriptive, though partially inspired by the character "Big Bird" on the U.S. television series Sesame Street (1969- ).
Variant names: Giant Owl, Giasticutus (in the Ozark Mountains), MotHMAN, Piasa, Tacuache (Spanish, "opossum"), thunderbird, Thunderbird (Pennsylvania).
Physical description: Length, 3-8 feet standing upright. Black, gray, or brown plumage. Head and short neck, either feathered and eaglelike or bald and vulturelike. Long, curved beak. Wingspan, 8-30 feet. Narrow wings. White wing tips. Short legs.
Behavior: Soars with wings level, using sluggish or graceful wing beats. Possibly migrates from the Pacific Northwest to the southern United States in the winter; its northward return in spring coincides with the rainy season. In the Midwest, it may migrate to the Ozark Mountains in July and fly north to Wisconsin in April. Call is "whoo whoo whoo." Feeds on
live mammals and carrion. Nests on cliffs. Attempts to abduct human children have been reported.
Tracks: Three-toed. Length, 12 inches. Width, 7 inches. Baseball-sized droppings.
Habitat: Mountain ranges along most of its migration path.
Distribution: A partial list of places where Big birds have been reported follows:
Alberta, Canada—Lake Louise.
Florida—Matheson Hammock Park, Sand Key, Tamiami Trail.
Illinois—Alton, Bloomington, Caledonia, Covell, Downs, Freeport, Glendale, Keeneyville, Lawndale, Lincoln, Odin, Shelbyville Lake, Tremont, Waynesville.
Kentucky—Johnson County, Lee County, Rabbit Hash, Stanford.
Missouri—Overland, Richmond Heights, St. Louis, West Plains.
New Jersey—Carteret, Great Notch.
New York—Elizabethtown, Hudson River, New Rochelle, Rome.
Ohio—Gallipolis, Lowell, Nelsonville.
Puerto Rico—Bayamon, Naranjito.
Texas—Amarillo, Bethel, Brownsville, Catfish Creek, Donna, Harlingen, Laredo, Los Fresnos, Montalba, Nueces, Olmito, Palestine, Possum Kingdom Dam, Poteet, Rio Grande City, Rob-stown, San Antonio, San Benito.
Utah—Salt Lake City.
West Virginia—Bergoo, Oceana, Point Pleasant, Webster Springs.
Significant sightings: Eagles have occasionally been reported to carry off children in their talons, though even the largest can only lift a few pounds. The most often cited cases were in Valais, Switzerland, in 1838 when five-year-old Marie Delex was carried off and eaten by a Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos); and in the fall of 1868 in Tippah County, Mississippi, when eight-year-old Jemmie Kenney was grabbed and dropped from a height sufficient to kill him. Another incident may have occurred in January 1895 near Bergoo, West Virginia, when ten-year-old Landy Junkins disappeared in the woods and locals began reporting a huge eagle that was nesting on nearby Snaggle Tooth Knob.
Numerous reports of a bird the size of a Piper Cub airplane came from St. Louis, Missouri, and adjoining areas of Illinois in April 1948. On April 26, St. Louis chiropractor Kristine Dolezal saw it nearly collide with a plane, but the animal flapped its grayish-black wings and flew off into the clouds. She could discern ridges across the wings when they were outspread.
On February 27, 1954, Gladie M. Bills and her daughter saw what she at first thought were six jets moving in circles, diving, and playing around at a high altitude near Hillsboro, Oregon. She looked at them through a telescope and saw they were birds with glossy white wings.
David St. Albans saw a large, black bird flying over a cornfield in Keeneyville, Illinois, in July 1968. It had a tuft of white feathers at the base of its neck, but the head and neck were bare.
On January 1, 1976, a black bird more than 5 feet long, with dark-red eyes and a thick, 6-inch beak, was seen standing in a plowed field 100 yards away by two children near Harlingen, Texas. Sightings continued in the Rio Grande Valley for two months. On January 7, Alverico Guajardo went out to see what had collided with his trailer home near Brownsville and saw a 4-foot-tall, winged creature with a long beak and covered in black feathers; it shrieked as Guajardo ran next door. On February 24, three schoolteachers driving to work near San Antonio saw a bird with a 15- to 20-foot wingspan gliding above their cars. They said it looked like a pteranodon, an extinct flying reptile. Further reports took place in December 1976.
On July 25, 1977, in Lawndale, Illinois, ten-year-old Marlon Lowe was picked up by his shirt by one of two large birds that came soaring in from the south. He screamed and punched at the bird until it dropped him after carrying him 30-40 feet. His parents and two other friends ran outside and saw the birds as they flew away. Marlon later picked out photos of California condors as the bird that attacked him. Over the next two weeks, there were at least eight other reports of similar birds in central Illinois.
Paramedic James Thompson saw a pterodactyl-like bird, with a 5- to 6-foot wingspan, gliding through the air early in the morning of September 14, 1982, east of Los Fresnos, Texas. It had a hump on its back and a pouch on its neck.
Reynaldo Ortega saw a giant bird standing on the roof of his house in Naranjito, Puerto Rico, on April 23, 1995. It was black and eaglelike, 3-4 feet tall, with a thick neck and piercing eyes. He thought it had a wolflike muzzle instead of a beak.
(1) The Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), though all New World vultures and condors are incapable of gripping prey with their feet. This bird is widespread in the southeastern United States all year and is common through most of the rest of the country in the summer. Its wingspan is nearly 6 feet. Length, more than 2 feet. It has a distinctive, bare red head.
(2) The Black vulture (Coragyps atratus) is widespread in the southeastern United States and has been slowly expanding its range to the northeast. Its wingspan is nearly 5 feet. Length, 2 feet. The bare head is gray.
(3) The King vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) is a rain forest carrion feeder found from southern Mexico to Argentina. It has a brightly colored bald head, broad wings, and a short tail. It is also thought to prey on small reptiles and young mammals, though it lacks the strength to carry them. Length, 2 feet 6 inches.
(4) The Andean condor (Vulturgryphus), the world's largest bird of prey, is over 4 feet long with a wingspan up to 10 feet 6 inches, though the average is 9 feet 3 inches for males. It weighs 23-25 pounds. The color is shiny black with white patches on the wings, a white ring on the neck, and a bare, gray-red head. It soars effortlessly without flapping its wings. Carrion is its normal diet, supplemented with seabird eggs. It will occasionally attack calves, fawns, or beached whales. It is often seen along the South American Pacific coast but returns to the Andes Mountains to roost. In 1992, some female Andean condors were introduced in Los Padres National Forest, California, as a test release for California condors, but they were all recaptured later.
(5) The California condor (Gymnogyps cali-fornianus) is the largest U.S. vulture, reaching a length of 4 feet, a wingspan of 9 feet 4 inches, and a weight of 20-25 pounds. Unsubstantiated wingspans up to 11 feet 3 inches have been claimed. The bird is black with white wing linings and has a naked, red-orange head that changes color with its mood. In 1987, the few remaining wild birds were caught for a captive breeding program; reintroduction began in 1992 in remote sites of Los Padres National Forest, California. Pleistocene fossil remains of this bird have been found in New York and Florida, as well as Arizona and New Mexico. There is evidence that these condors returned to the Southwest sporadically as early as the 1700s in response to the introduction of large herds of cattle, horses, and sheep that replaced the extinct Pleistocene megafauna as a source of carrion.
(6) The Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is the largest eagle in the United States and Europe, with a wingspan of 7 feet. Though it winters in eastern states, it is fairly scarce. It soars with wings upcurved and takes prey (small mammals) opportunistically with outstretched talons. It has a golden-bronze nape. There is some evidence in New Mexico and Oregon that it has attacked calves weighing over 200 pounds. The white head of the Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) makes it almost too recognizable to be misidentified. Both eagles grow larger in northern latitudes and higher altitudes.
(7) The Harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) is the dominant bird of prey in Central and South America. Its massive feet can pick up monkeys, sloths, opossums, and snakes. It has a crest of dark feathers on its head and a wingspan of nearly 10 feet. Length, more than 3 feet. The Monkey-eating eagle (Pithe-cophaga jefferyi) of the Philippines is smaller. The rare Solitary eagle (Harpyhaliaetus solitarios) of Mexico is 2 feet 6 inches long but has never been reported north of Sonora.
(8) The Crowned hawk-eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus) of Africa preys on small antelopes. It has a wingspan up to 6 feet 9 inches. There is some evidence from Zimbabwe and Zambia that it will occasionally attack a child.
(9) Steller's sea eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus) averages an 8-foot wingspan and nests on the Asiatic side of the Bering Sea. It has a huge, orange-yellow bill and white shoulders and makes occasional visits to Alaska. The White-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) is smaller, less distinctive, and an even rarer visitant to the Aleutians.
(10) The Common black-hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus) has a wingspan greater than 4 feet and is found in cottonwood groves in Arizona.
(11) The Crested caracara (Caracara cheri-way), a black-crested, white-necked falcon, is fairly common in southern Texas and southern Arizona. Its wingspan is more than 4 feet.
(12) The Griffon vulture (Gyps fuivus) is a large, brown-winged carrion feeder with a wingspan of 9 feet and a length of nearly 4 feet. It breeds in Spain, several locations in North Africa, the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, the Caucasus, Israel, and eastward to Central Asia.
(13) The White-backed vulture (Gyps africanus), with a wingspan of 7 feet 10 inches, is Africa's commonest large vulture. A juvenile specimen was apparently responsible for a Big bird report in Ohio in 1972.
(14) The Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) is common in North American wetlands and reaches a length of nearly 4 feet.
(15) The Southern ground hornbill (Bu-corvus cafer), the largest hornbill, is native to Central and South Africa. It attains a length of 3 feet 6 inches.
(16) The Marabou stork (Leptoptilos cru-meniferus) grows to nearly 5 feet in length and is identifiable by its huge throat wattle and massive, wedge-shaped bill. Its range is limited to sub-Saharan Africa.
(17) The Sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) is about the size of a great blue heron but is gray, mottled with rust stains. It has a wingspan up to 6 feet 5 inches.
(18) The Whooping crane (Grus americana) is a rare and unusual sight, as it is limited to about 100 birds wintering in coastal Texas. Its length is 4 feet 4 inches, with a wingspan of 7 feet 3 inches. Males are white, with black primary feathers. Its migration path is from northern Alberta to south Texas.
(19) The Black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) is rarely seen over land although a fair number of these birds are seen over the Pacific Ocean in the spring and summer. Mostly dark gray, with a wingspan of over
(20) The Wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) has a wingspan around 9 feet 9 inches, but this is primarily an Antarctic bird, with Peru as its farthest extension north. It rarely travels any distance inland.
(21) The Wood stork (Mycteria americana) is found in Florida and the Gulf Coast. White with a dark head and neck, it reaches a length of 3 feet 4 inches and has a wingspan over 5 feet.
(22) The Jabiru (Jabiru mycteria) is a tropical, white, black-headed stork with a roseate neck that is only occasionally seen in Texas. Its length is 4 feet 4 inches.
(23) The American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) has a wingspan up to 9 feet. Its black flight feathers are distinctive when it is soaring.
(24) A surviving Teratorn (Teratornithinae), a member of a subfamily of predatory vultures that resembled reptiles in some ways. Their jaws were designed to swallow living prey, though their talons were not designed for seizing. They probably used their sharp, hooked beaks to catch animals. The largest known flying bird, Argentavis magnificens, weighed 158 pounds, stood 5—6 feet tall, and had a wingspan of 23—25 feet. It lived in Argentina in the Late Miocene, 8-5 million years ago. In North America, Teratornis merriami weighed about 36 pounds and had an 11 foot 6 inch-12 foot 6 inch wingspan, while T. incredibilis of Nevada and California lived in the Pleistocene and had a wingspan of 17-19 feet.
(25) A surviving pterosaur, a fossil Flying Reptile that supposedly died out at the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago.
(26) A surviving La Brea condor (Breagyps clarki), a slightly smaller bird than the California condor with a long, slender beak, known from Pleistocene fossils in Nevada and southern California.
(27) An unknown species of giant bat, suggested by Mark A. Hall for the Rio Grande Valley sightings of 1976.
Sources: Fel ix-Archimede Pouchet, The Universe: Or, The Wonders of Creation, the Infinitely Great and the Infinitely Little (Portland, Maine: H. Hallett, 1883), pp. 236-239; "A Modern Roc: West Virginia Mountaineers Terrorized by a Giant Bird," St. Louis (Mo.) Globe-Democrat, February 25, 1895, p. 7; Vance Randolph, We Always Lie to Strangers (New York: Col umbia Universit y Press, 1951), pp. 63-66; Gladie M. Bills, "Bird Like UFO's," Fate 7 (December 1954): 128-129; Jerome Clark and Loren Coleman, "Winged Weirdies," Fate 25 (March 1972): 80-89; Maurice Kil dare, "Winged Terror of the Oklahoma Hills," True Frontier, Oct ober 1972, pp. 29-30, 50-53; Jerome Clark, "Unidentified Flapping Objects," Oui, October 1976, pp. 94-100, 105-106; Bloomington (Ill.) Daily Pantograph, July 27, 1977, p. A-11; Chicago Daily News, July 27, 1977, p. 18; Jerome Clark and Loren Col eman, Creatures of the Outer Edge (New York: Warner, 1978), pp. 165-188, 190-194, 225-227; Mark A. Hall, Thunderbirds! The Living Legend of Giant Birds (B1 oomingt on,
Minn.: Mark A. Hall, 1988); Magdalena del Amo-Freixedo, "Current Happenings on Puert o Rico," Flying Saucer Review 36, no. 4 (Winter 1991): 19; Jorge J. Martin, "Tambien animal es imposibl es: ¿Que ocurre en Puert o Rico?" Evidencia OVNI, no. 6 (1995): 32-33; Geral d Musinsky, The Thunderbird: Living Fossil or Living Folklore, 1997, http// members.aol .com/_ht _a/mokel e/ crypt ozool ogical real ms/ht ml _3.2/engl ish/ refl ect ions/fossil .ht ml.
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