American Monsters: A History of Monster Lore, Legends, and Sightings in America384
American Monsters: A History of Monster Lore, Legends, and Sightings in America384
Bigfoot, the chupacabra, and thunderbirds aren’t just figments of our overactive imaginations—according to thousands of eyewitnesses, they exist, in every corner of the United States. Throughout America’s history, shocked onlookers have seen unbelievable creatures of every stripe—from sea serpents to apelike beings, giant bats to monkeymen—in every region.
Author, investigator, and creature expert Linda S. Godfrey brings the same fearless reporting she lent to Real Wolfmen to this essential guide, using historical record, present-day news reports, and eyewitness interviews to examine this hidden menagerie of America’s homegrown beasts.
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Read an Excerpt
Fear of winged creatures swooping at our vulnerable heads is an instinct most humans will admit having experienced. Who hasn’t ducked at the approach of a fluttering bat, or started at the sudden aerial dive of a red-tailed hawk or a great horned owl? Keeping an eye on the sky is not an irrational habit; the human race has been forced from its beginnings to contend with attacks from predators lurking overhead. And if many eyewitnesses are to be believed, there’s still good reason to keep looking up. Consider one harrowing incident from America’s heartland.
Eyewitness sketch by John Bolduan of the great bird he sighted in northern Wisconsin. (Used with permission.)
At about 11 a.m. on a bright, warm day in June 2005, Minnesota light-fixture retailer John Bolduan decided to enjoy a bike ride on a country road while on vacation near Webb Lake in northwestern Wisconsin. The family cabin where he was staying was part of a private resort and vacation-home development with very little noise or traffic, an ideal environment for bicycling and observing the local wildlife such as deer and grouse.
Bolduan didn’t know it, but he was about to encounter something far wilder. As the six-foot-two, forty-five-year-old man pedaled leisurely past a grassy meadow about three-quarters of a mile from the development’s golf course and clubhouse, he spied what looked like a very large bird—larger than any bird he had ever seen—picking its way through the field. Bolduan estimated the feathered behemoth stood only about fifty yards away as he braked to a stop, transfixed.
“I didn’t know what it was, so I stopped for a closer look,” said Bolduan. “At first I thought it was an emu, an Australian bird that can get up to six or seven feet tall that some farmers in the area were raising, but as I got closer, I knew it wasn’t an emu.”
Using the height of the grass to compare his own size with that of the bird, he discovered that the bird stood significantly taller than he did—at least seven feet tall, perhaps eight. Its huge body was entirely visible above the grass, and Bolduan guessed that the body length was between five and six feet long, not counting the neck. The body appeared “very bulky,” he added. Bolduan’s mind raced as he tried to classify the bird as some known animal: Its head, neck, and beak reminded him vaguely of a sandhill crane, but he knew at the same time that the enormous avian was much larger than the cranes that migrate to the area for Wisconsin’s milder seasons.
Eyewitness John Bolduan next to the field where he observed the huge bird. (Photo by author.)
The bird seemed unaware of his presence, and he quietly continued to inspect it. It was covered uniformly in silvery-gray feathers with no visible markings, but its unbelievable size was what made him want an even closer look. He kept one careful eye on the bird as he slipped off his bike and waded into the field as quietly as he could. He estimates that he was within about seventy-five feet of the creature when it finally “spooked” and took to the air, an action that appeared to require some real effort on the creature’s part.
“The size was then truly apparent as it flew away,” said Bolduan. “The wingspan I estimate must’ve been eighteen feet. It was at least three times as large as any large eagle I had ever seen. It was so gawky as it flew away, the flapping of those huge wings was slow and seemingly laborious. The wings seemed to roll as they flapped, like dropping a big rock in water and seeing the waves roll from it. It was not graceful.”
Bolduan confirmed the length of that wingspan when I visited the site with him in June 2013. When the bird flew away, there was a short period where he could observe it flying over the road. He noticed that the wingspan was at least as large as the twenty-foot-wide country lane, which we remeasured to make sure.
“Not only was the wingspan large,” he continued, “but the wing itself must’ve been two feet wide as it flopped over the horizon. It almost looked like the size of a small airplane or ultralight aircraft—in fact, there is a small airstrip there where small planes take off and land, and this bird was the size of a Piper Cub as it flew over the trees.” The bird then headed off above an adjacent farm and flew toward the airstrip, he said.
John watched the bird disappear into the distance, as the rolling, wave-like motion of its wings again convinced him that he was, in fact, watching a live animal and not some type of aircraft. “I know it was an actual animal,” he said. He added that he thought briefly of running to the exact spot in the field where the bird had stood to see if it had left any evidence but was afraid that it may have been tending a nest and that disturbing the area might cause the creature to rush back and attack him.
Eyewitness John Bolduan points out the road flown over by the huge bird as he watched. (Photo by author.)
“I regret the way I approached the bird,” he said. “I should have stayed behind the trees and observed it instead of clumsily walking onto the field and scaring it away. It was a rare opportunity of detailed discovery blown. Because I did not know about such large birds, I took no care that day, thinking it was something known. I assumed the world around me was explained completely, but I found out that it’s not. I’ll probably never see it again; I hope someone else does . . . and reports it!”
He remained adamant that the bird appeared entirely physical and was not any sort of paranormal phenomenon. He decided for his own peace of mind that it must have been some sort of “mutant” crane or stork that had somehow grown incredibly larger than any others of its species. “I just told myself that’s what it was,” he said, “because I didn’t know what else to think.” But deep down he believed that wasn’t true, John told me.
“From what I see online, there should be no storks in our area and they don’t get this big. Is it an undiscovered North American stork of very large size? I don’t know.”
There was one more aspect, nearly mystical, to Bolduan’s unusual experience. Almost immediately, he found himself dealing with profound changes and unexpected developments in many areas of his business and personal life. Even though he did not believe the bird was any sort of phantom or “spirit” creature, it has occurred to him that perhaps his sighting of it took place as either a warning of things to come or as a message of hope and encouragement. He still wonders about that. “Seeing it changed my life,” he added.
I’d have to categorize John’s encounter as one of the strongest eyewitness accounts of anomalous, large birds that I’ve seen anywhere. Most such reports describe only creatures already airborne, usually at a height that prevents the witness from seeing details like feathers or markings. It’s also difficult to accurately estimate the size of any object that’s observed only in the sky because there are seldom any adjacent objects for comparison. John was able to figure out the bird’s size while it was still on the ground. He also had the rare opportunity to watch the giant bird take flight, which allowed him to make a wide range of observations about the creature.
Why would such an unusual beast decide to set down in a rural area of Wisconsin? Like any bird, it was probably searching for habitat to meet its physical needs: water, food, and a private place to rest. One glance at an aerial map reveals why wading birds would enjoy John Bolduan’s favorite vacation spot as much as he did—the town of Webb Lake in Burnett County is almost completely surrounded by small lakes and marshes. In fact, the nearby town of Grantsburg is home to a famous wildlife and bird sanctuary known as Crex Meadows.
But what would attract such a massive specimen? The area’s sparse human population might provide one advantage for an elusive creature. The area is also about fifty miles south of the shores of Lake Superior, with its rocky, often desolate coast and wind drafts that could help support the wings of a bird too big for its britches. Beyond Superior, of course, lies Canada, with even more lakes and vast acres of wilderness. The big bird may have simply been headed for its summer home.
John’s conclusion that this was no ordinary wading bird seems reasonable, since no crane or stork of that size is known to exist in this day and age. It’s true that Wisconsin is home to ordinary sandhill and whooping cranes, but both species feature distinctive head markings that John should easily have noticed. In flight, the whooping crane can be identified by its striking black wing tips, and John did not see these markings, either.
The size of these known cranes doesn’t measure up, for that matter. The whooping crane is the taller of the two known birds—the tallest bird in North America, in fact—and stands about five feet tall at most. Its wingspan, however, measures only seven and one-half feet and its plumage is mostly white with a bright red crown. On the plus side, if we are rooting for cranes as possible explanations, cranes do have the rectangular wing configuration that Bolduan particularly noticed and emphasized in his sketch (reproduced on page 8) of the bird that he saw.
There are really few other viable candidates. The trumpeter swan, one of the largest living water birds in the world, beats either type of crane size-wise, since the very largest of them can sometimes reach a body length of five to six feet and a wingspan of up to ten feet. It still falls short of the eighteen-foot wingspan described by Bolduan, however, and while its all-white plumage might be mistaken for a “silvery sheen,” it has a very recognizable black face and bill that most people would have no problem identifying as the mug of a swan. Its wing configuration is also quite different from the elongated rectangles shown in the eyewitness sketch.
Bolduan told me he has spent countless hours poring over books and online images of large birds and has never found any depiction that matches the size and other characteristics of the one he followed into that grassy meadow. Whatever it was, and despite the fact that it seemed to be doing nothing other than catching a few rays and minding its own business, its astonishing size makes it technically—in my book, at least—a monster of sorts. And even though this giant bird behaved itself quite nicely, there are numerous examples of other flying gargantuans from prehistoric times to the present about which the same could not be said. Some may be no more than ancient myth, but others are modern reports from eyewitnesses every bit as credible as John Bolduan.
His story, then, provides the perfect launching point for our aerial survey of things that come from the sky. Let’s hope for safe landings.
It may be hard to swallow the idea that seven-foot-tall cranes with bodies as large as a human’s and a wingspan the size of a small airplane’s really exist, but archaeological evidence shows that people have either observed or at least contemplated similar beasts—and myriad variations—around the planet for millennia. Often these birds were thought to be spiritual beings. Religions worldwide echo the Native American beliefs explained by Michael Edmonds in a 2000 issue ofWisconsin Magazine of History:
Because some birds—notably waterfowl, cranes, and raptors—could fly high out of sight into the heavens, which were the domain of powerful spirits, they were considered particularly effectual spiritual agents.1
It seems natural that people would want to identify themselves with these impressive creatures. And the human obsession with powerful birds evidently began early in the development of civilization. In early January 2013, a group of British archaeologists announced their discovery of a huge cache of clay figurines in a Greek Stone Age site believed to be at least seven thousand years old. Among the figures were unmistakable representations of human-bird hybrids!2 The exact purpose of these little sculptures found amid equally recognizable human figurines isn’t known. They might have symbolized deities or served other cultural purposes now obscure to us—or perhaps, as I like to speculate, they were actually depicting a creature that these people knew all too well from personal encounters.
While most of the giant, winged predators that actually existed in prehistoric times are now believed extinct, there are a few actual mega-avians left in remote corners of the world—the Peruvian or Andean condor with its ten-foot wingspan, for example, or the not-long-gone Washington’s eagle, which has been thought extinct for only a little more than a century. (More about that one later.) There were many other big birds that we know of through fossil records and early historical sources, making it likely that our distant ancestors may have had run-ins with birds large enough to inspire legends and even belief in their divinity.
The relative handful of endangered, geographically isolated species that remain to this day, however, cannot begin to explain the hundreds of reports of huge, unknown flying creatures seen across the Americas over the past several centuries. We may consider that these sightings are not merely the invention of fanciful, uneducated early settlers or inebriated woodsmen because similar descriptions of giant birds show up in Native American legends that predate European settlement. The winged things come in a great variety of shapes and sizes, from undead ringers for leathery, prehistoric pterosaurs to enormous, carnivorous bat-like beasts. They all come and go as they please, leaving us to wonder—as we hide the small children and pets.
As I’ve already noted, the very same monstrosities—differing only in name and detail—flutter through ancient legends worldwide. There are numerous references to fantastic flyers in the New World, both from Native American tradition and from Old World legends brought by immigrants. One example made popular and disseminated by the writings of thirteenth-century explorer Marco Polo is the huge creature called the roc or rukh in Middle Eastern folklore. While many New World cultures came up with their own wholly indigenous avian gods and monsters, the Middle Eastern roc contains many core elements of the widespread legends.
The mythical bird was so large that it blocked the sun as it flew in the daytime and was said to attack people by dropping large boulders from its talons. Some researchers believe the legend may be based on an actual giant bird—even though that actual bird couldn’t fly—that once lived on islands south of Madagascar. Although this flightless bird is now generally accepted as extinct, a live specimen of Aepyornis maximus was seen as late as 1658 by a French admiral. Researcher Roy Mackal notes that the Arabs were familiar with these isles long before Columbus and thus would have known about the ten-foot-tall birds in time to have incorporated them—and their huge, football-sized eggs—into Arabic folklore.3
These bygone creatures of Madagascar are also known as the great elephant birds, and their skeletal remnants resemble something like a giant emu. Mackal says that native inhabitants of these islands claim the great elephant bird survived into the mid-1800s and possibly even to present times.4
The ancient Middle East may seem a very long way from modern North and South America, and it is, geographically. It’s doubtful that a flightless bird could have made it from Madagascar to the Americas. And while a bird big enough to blot out old Sol sounds implausible at best, a mid-nineteenth-century New World appearance of a bird that was anything but flightless brought these old legends to life.
In 1868, a crew of Chilean workmen reported seeing a huge flying creature whose vast proportions darkened the sky as they took a dinner break outdoors one afternoon near Copiapó. The men at first assumed the bird was a massive cloud as it approached them in a strangely direct flight path. By the time the men realized it was a living thing, they could also see it had gray feathered wings, a long body covered in shiny scales, and large, reflective eyes. Its head was covered with bristles, perhaps some type of stiffened plumage.
The fearsome creature sailed far above the terrified men, evidently not finding them interesting enough to merit a closer swoop. We know about the incident only because an anonymous reporter contributed his account of it to a July 1868 issue of the journal The Zoologist.5 As in all types of cryptid sightings, a creature this large may also have been seen by other people, but no one else dared to report it.
Although John Bolduan had a much better basis of comparison by which to judge the bird’s size than do most witnesses, and therefore might be considered a very credible judge regarding the gigantic size of the Webb Lake bird, skeptics still may insist that his sighting was merely a misidentification of some large species, perhaps a nonnative variety that lost its way or was out of place for other reasons.
Exotic bird species in both public and private collections do manage to fly away from their keepers now and then. At least one such escapee, an African marabou stork, took a powder from the rhino yard at the Brookfield Zoo on July 30, 1977, after keepers failed to properly clip its wings. The stork had been brought to the zoo about fifteen miles west of Chicago, Illinois, from Kenya only two weeks earlier. On its home turf in Africa, it survived by scavenging carrion alongside of vultures.
The marabou is the largest African stork, can stand up to five feet tall, and boasts a maximum wingspan of about twelve feet. This zoo specimen was a little smaller, standing four and one-half feet on stilt-like three-foot legs, and with a wingspan of seven to eight feet, depending on the newspaper account. The marabou is nicknamed “the undertaker stork” due to its cloak-like black wings, white belly, and fuzzy topknot on a bare head and neck. It has the long pointed bill common to the stork family. All of these features—the size, coloring, and huge bill—made the Brookfield stork very easy to spot.
It enjoyed a wide tour of the area; a superintendent at the Brookfield Zoo told Milwaukee Sentinel reporter William Janz that he received at least fifty calls from people who had seen the bird flying over Indiana, Illinois, and northern Wisconsin.6 Some people even claimed it was snatching small children, although no one had any proof and it’s likely that people were confusing the big stork with several other great bird appearances the previous week in the same area. It’s possible that the stork flew other places, too, where the residents didn’t think of reporting it to a zoo in Chicago.
The wandering stork finally landed a good seventy miles away in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where it settled to roost seventy feet up in a dead oak tree in a field. The bird was described as being shy of nets, so authorities shot it down with a tranquilizer gun. The poor thing broke its wing in the fall. Despite treatment with antishock medication and antibiotics, it died soon after its return to the Brookfield Zoo. (A media spokesperson for the zoo told me that this event would have been handled much differently had it happened today.)
Although the final outcome was tragic, the reports prove that the big stork was on the wing and covering at least a tri-state area from Saturday until Sunday evening, when it first landed on the dead oak. Could it also have flapped as far as Tennessee?
Someone did report a giant bird in the summer of 1977 (although the witness allows that it possibly may have been 1978) flying near Interstate 81 between Bristol and Knoxville, Tennessee. The bird was headed in a northwest direction—perhaps deciding it had gone too far south and was trying to get back to regular meals—at a level lower than the treetops. Researcher Scott Maruna published the account in the blog Biofort in 2006.7
The witness wrote Maruna that the bird’s wingspan was at least double that of an eagle’s, and added that although he was familiar with eagles, herons, buzzards, and large owls, this bird resembled none of those. He pulled off the road to watch it, as did a number of other cars drivers who spotted the giant bird, but no one could identify the creature. The writer added that it was definitely not a prehistoric or “reptilian” type of flyer. He did not mention its color or any markings that might have nailed its identity. But perhaps that missing marabou took an even bigger vacation than anyone guessed. In my own opinion, we humans tend to underestimate the vitality, perseverance, and stamina of all members of the animal kingdom. Read on for more examples of oversized flyers that left human observers scratching, and in some cases covering, their heads.
The year 1977 was great for great birds. Although we’ll never know for sure whether the Brookfield stork was the same bird spotted in Tennessee, we can pretty much rule it out as the culprit in several other scary appearances in central Illinois that July. These appearances occurred mostly in the weeks preceding the marabou’s daring escape, but because the stork’s adventures were chronicled in many newspapers in the eastern half of the country, it was blamed for all sorts of things it couldn’t have done—such as snatching away children—in its short window of freedom. Also, many of these appearances involved not one but two large, unidentified birds that became known by the collective nickname Bigclaw.
Bigclaw drew national publicity after a horrific encounter that would give any parent nightmares. On July 25, 1977, residents of the little burg of Lawndale, Illinois, noticed two unusual and very large birds menacing their skies. The birds evidently had their eyes on three children playing in the backyard of one Lawndale home and eventually they descended for an attack. One of the birds latched on to ten-year-old Marlon Lowe and began to flap away with the fifty-six-pound (some sources say seventy-pound) boy clutched in its talons as his terrified mother, Ruth Lowe, chased after them, shrieking at the bird. Little Marlon was also screaming at the top of his lungs, and the bird finally dropped the boy after a short flight of about ten yards. Luckily, it hadn’t been able to lift him more than a few feet off the ground and Marlon was not seriously hurt.
Marlon’s mother was not the only adult to witness the attack. At least four neighbors had scrambled to the yard and were able to agree on a description of the birds. The marauding avians had ten-foot wingspans, white neck rings, and long beaks. Their wings and bodies were black, with an estimated body length of five to six feet.
The same description was offered by a person who wrote to the Phantoms & Monsters Web site on June 19, 2012. He claimed to have seen the two birds when he was a child, the day before Marlon was grabbed, as he and several young companions hiked along Spring Creek near Lawndale. The birds were following them closely, he said, dipping as low as ten feet above their heads. “I have never disclosed this story publicly,” he said, “but I feel it should be known after seeing the shows on the TV and the ridicule endured by Marlon and his family.”8
Authorities tried to convince the family that the birds were turkey vultures, but neither the description nor their size estimates match those of this smaller, common scavenger bird. The wingspan of turkey vultures averages between five and six feet and they weigh in at little more than five pounds. They lack the distinctive white neck ring observed by witnesses and feature bald red heads that would certainly have been noticed. They also sport gray wing tips and so would not have appeared solid black. This incident undoubtedly spurred some of the previously mentioned phone calls to the Brookfield Zoo’s bird expert, since the marabou stork escaped less than a week after Marlon’s unexpected ride. And it didn’t help that the two large black birds kept showing up around central Illinois. One was spotted over McLean County on July 28, and a mail carrier reported seeing two large birds he called condors as he drove his daily route between Armington and Delavan on July 29. The carrier, James Majors, said that he watched in disbelief as one of the birds snatched and successfully carried off some hapless creature that it had just grabbed from a field. He claimed the birds had ten-foot wingspans.
The pair of giant birds continued to generate evermore sensational publicity, their wingspan growing to a purported twelve feet in the process. A Tuscola, Illinois, freelance writer for fishing and sporting publications such as Bass Magazine named “Texas John” Huffer, even managed to film the pair as they flew over Lake Shelbyville on July 30, the same day the marabou stork took off near Chicago. Huffer must have discovered the tree where the pair roosted, because he told reporters that he had seen droppings the size of baseballs at the tree’s base.9 He also heard the birds make a weird cry he described as a clacking noise that struck him as “primeval,” even though the birds did not look prehistoric to him.10 Even with Huffer’s ample film footage to examine, however, local officials and experts clung to their statements, that the birds were nothing more than normal-sized turkey vultures.
“The turkey vultures are around Lake Shelbyville all year round,” said veterinary student Kent Froberg in an article in a Bloomington-Normal newspaper, the Daily Pantagraph.11 In the same article, however, Froberg sounded less than certain about the turkey vulture identification when he added, “And, it’s always conceivable that somebody has illegally imported a bird that got away from him. Of course they wouldn’t report it. There are any number of big birds throughout the world.”
Bigclaw remained unfazed by its star treatment and swooped over Bloomington the afternoon of Sunday, July 31. Mrs. Albert Dunham glimpsed one of the pair from her rural home after first mistaking it for an airplane. Her description tallied very well with that of the Lawndale residents: black body, white neck ring, long bill, and giant size. Since she viewed it from the upper story of her house, it was only about twenty feet above her, she said, so that she was sure of what she saw.
Her husband, Albert, and a neighbor gave chase. The neighbor tried to shoot it with a tranquilizer gun but missed, and Albert Dunham followed it to a landfill, where they were joined by a photographer from the Daily Pantograph. The newspaper’s August 1 article quoted on page 23 noted ruefully that the story’s lack of accompanying photograph showed that the bird eluded capture on film.12
A local radio station, WJBC-WBNQ, offered a $500 award for the physical capture of one of the freaky flyers, stipulating that the bird had to be a real, living specimen with a wingspan of seven feet or more, and that the bird must not be hurt in the capture. There was also a photo contest with a top prize of fifty bucks. The contest deadline was August 4, and the station’s plan was to display the bird at the McLean County Fair. Not surprisingly, no Bigclaw was displayed.
There have been so many sightings of large, unidentifiable feathered birds in the Americas that to describe them all would fill a separate book. This section, therefore, will have to look at a mere sample from a variety of states. And to give the reader fair warning, we haven’t even started on the other varieties of monstrous flyers. But consider these encounters:
Greenville, Pennsylvania, is a small town set in the northwestern part of the state where several riverways merge. In June 2001, a Greenville man claimed that a bird with a fifteen-foot wingspan made a stopover at a pond near his house, according to an article by Brian and Terrie Seech in Mysterious Mercer County.13The man reported that the bird he saw was covered in brownish-black feathers and did not resemble the eagles, vultures, or storks that often flew around his property. The bird had perched itself a few hundred yards away from the man’s house, and he was able to observe it for around a quarter of an hour. He also said that a neighbor saw a huge unknown bird in the same area the day after his sighting.
South Greensburg, also with “green” in its name but located in an urban setting just southeast of Pittsburgh, had a sighting of a similar creature a few months later, on September 5, 2001. A man driving on Route 119 heard very loud flapping overhead. According to longtime Pennsylvania researcher of the strange, Stan Gordon, the witness reported that he looked up to see what was making this noise and saw a huge, dark, giant bird with a ten- to fifteen-foot wingspan flying fifty to sixty feet above the highway.14
South Greensburg can boast an even more recent sighting—and possibly two. On August 26, 2010, just a few minutes past 8 p.m., in waning daylight, four people enjoying the hospitality of a friend’s patio heard a loud swooshing sound that one of them interpreted as a gust of air aimed straight down at them. According to Stan Gordon in The Gate to Strange Phenomena, one witness shouted, “What the hell was that?”15
The bird was only thirty to forty feet overhead, and it was still light enough for the four people to see it clearly as it veered toward the road in front of the house and then just kept going. The witnesses said that it had a wingspan of ten feet or more, and that its massive wings displayed a rolling motion as they flapped up and down. It flew with its short beak and oval head pointed downward as if scrutinizing the ground below, and its bulky body looked as if it would stand about five feet tall when perched. Its feathers were a uniform dark brown or black, and it had a two-foot-long pointed tail. The stunned witnesses said they were too amazed and fascinated by the sight to take a picture, even though they all had cell phones with cameras.
Something very similar revisited the South Greensburg area on New Year’s Day 2013, according to Stan Gordon’s UFO Anomalies Web site.16 The incident occurred in full daylight at around 3 p.m. as two women and a boy took an afternoon walk through some snowy woods. The three had noticed one tree that seemed to have a lot of foliage left. They were walking toward it and were within about twenty to twenty-five feet of it when the two women saw what looked like a very large bird unfolding and flapping its huge, black-and-gray wings with a sinuous rolling motion as it walked behind the tree. (The boy was looking elsewhere and did not see it.) They estimated its wingspan as between six and seven feet. But in the few seconds that it took for them to reach the tree, the creature seemed to disappear! It was simply gone, and it left no tracks.
The witnesses were baffled. The trees were not dense enough to have hidden it, said the women, and they were sure they would’ve seen it fly away. They drew a sketch of a huge, feathery wing with a blue-tinged, dark hue. A local game warden speculated that it may have been a great blue heron or a sandhill crane, although neither of those birds have much of a liking for snow. The wildlife expert also admitted that it was strange that the women would not have recognized one of those birds at such close range and that it left no tracks and was not seen flying away.
Was it a real creature? Many wild animals are experts at quickly removing themselves from view, and it’s marginally possible that the bird was somehow hovering just enough above the snow when it was spotted so that it would not have left tracks. If only one woman had seen it, perhaps the idea that her eyes were playing tricks on her might be the most logical explanation. Two people, however, were unlikely to have seen exactly the same light trick. Gordon mentioned the word “phantom” in his headline for this article,17 and that designation opens up a world of other possibilities for this creature’s origin.
Is there some open gateway to an unknown realm of spirit birds in Pennsylvania? According to Mysterious Mercer County, Pennsylvanians have encountered giant birds in a plethora of counties, including Clinton, Potter, Lycoming, Tioga, Cameron, McKean, Westmoreland, and Erie. The creatures must be coming from somewhere, and their sheer numbers are enough to make anyone open to the idea begin to wonder if somewhere there is a hidden world where giant birds crowd the skies and occasionally cross into our space. Or perhaps they’re just on a flyover from a distant state known for its large species of wildlife, as in the next example.
Alaska is a very big state, and many of its fauna are a bit oversized, too. In October 2002, however, a creature deemed startlingly large even by Alaskan standards terrorized citizens and stumped scientists in the state’s southwest region.
Although the bird was described as looking more like a humongous eagle than a flying reptile, a Reuters story on CNN.com18 said villagers in Manokotak and Togiak still compared it to the flying creatures in the 1993 film about resurrected dinosaurs, Jurassic Park. Others mistook it for a small airplane at first. Local authorities began telling residents to keep their children indoors.
Area pilot and air service company owner John Bouker spotted the bird while he was flying at a level of about one thousand feet. “He’s huge, he’s huge, he’s really, really big. You wouldn’t want to have your children out,” said Bouker, according to an article on Uncoveror.com.19 He added that his passengers had seen the creature as well.
The consensus among local biologists and bird experts seemed to be that this bird with a fourteen-foot wingspan was actually just a specimen of the Steller’s sea eagle. The sea eagle would have had to have flown from its native habitat in Japan, a feat judged not impossible by the scientists. Its wingspan reaches only up to eight feet, however, and it bears very distinctive black-and-white plumage that was not mentioned by any of the witnesses. I find this conclusion unsupported by the witness description, and I believe this case should remain in the unsolved mystery file.
In 1975, two years before the big bird flaps in Illinois, newspaper headlines declared that a giant bird was terrorizing the southern part of another big state, Texas. Sightings stretched from San Benito to Brownsville. The sky invasion was in full swing by the time newspapers began to break their stories.
The 1970s Texas big bird flap actually began in November 1974, when students at an elementary school playground in Robstown, Texas, saw a giant bird the size of a car surveying them silently as it swooped overhead. The local media jumped in to report the event with gusto, as KRIO radio in McAllen borrowed a page from central Illinois radio programs and offered $1,000 to anyone who could bring in the big bird.20
The first sightings around San Benito came in late November and early December 1974, starting with a self-declared sober citizen who told police chief Ted Cortez that he and two youths had witnessed a supersized bird.
Not long after, two San Benito policemen, Arturo Padilla and Homero Galvan, witnessed the creature separately while they were driving in squad cars. Both officers estimated the bird’s wingspan at around fifteen feet. Padilla told a UPI reporter that the white bird looked like some sort of giant stork or pelican, and added that although he was a hunter he had never seen anything like it.21 A TV station in nearby Harlingen provided possible proof when they aired footage showing twelve-inch-long, three-toed prints resembling bird tracks found by an area resident in a farm field.
San Benito has a history of large, anomalous birds. Texas author Ken Gerhard noted in Big Bird!: Modern Sightings of Flying Monsters that since 1945, three decades before the 1970s sightings, there have been numerous sightings of an even larger bird with a wingspan of twenty feet. This older San Benito bird boasts truly weird characteristics: a beakless, cat-like face with prominent eyes and dark plumage with a white belly.22
Gerhard goes on to list no fewer than twenty separate incidents of big bird sightings (including those already mentioned) that occurred across the state of Texas during the 1970s. Descriptions vary quite widely, from an enormous eagle-like bird to something that looked part avian, part human. Perhaps Texas really was the source of some of the oddities glimpsed farther north, but that shaky conclusion still begs the question: Where did all the Texas sky strangeness originate?
The most logical course would be to keep looking southward to the coastal shores of South America, the mountain cliffs of the Andes, and what remains of the Amazon rain forest. Interestingly, the year that the Trans-Amazon Highway opened was 1972! This paving of a wide swath of rain forest land is widely regarded as the landmark event that started the ongoing deforestation of the Amazon. It made formerly pristine areas accessible to hunters, ranchers, and other developers and greatly disturbed wildlife populations. One study found that as few as six passing vehicles per day on a given stretch of road were enough to cause birds to alter their normal flight paths.23
Keep in mind that Brazil harbors around 15 percent of all of the plants and animals on Earth. It contains the world’s largest wetland and is home to many diverse species of flora and fauna, huge numbers of which have yet to be discovered by modern science. If there was a perfect homeland for huge birds anywhere on the planet, Brazil and the Amazon rain forest would probably be it.
I’m only speculating here, but it doesn’t seem such a large stretch to wonder if, when the big highway slashed through the rain forest ecosystem in the early 1970s, the disruption may have spurred a few flying creatures to head north in search of quieter surroundings. The fact that the sudden, large-scale displacement of South American wildlife (logically including birds) was followed almost immediately by the appearance of all sorts of unknown, giant flying creatures over Texas and other parts of the United States seems like the sort of coincidence that might be ripe for further study.
Kentucky author and researcher B. M. Nunnelly reveals in his book Mysterious Kentucky that his home state is a haven for not only champion racehorses but also other creatures less well-known. On a windy day in mid-October 2005, says Nunnelly, a Bullitt County resident and two passengers in his car all saw a massive bird standing in a cow pasture. Because the bird was standing next to an Angus bull of known size, they felt they were very accurate in their estimation that the bird stood between four and one-half to five feet tall. As the three people watched, the creature took advantage of a strong wind gust to launch itself back into the sky. The witness told Nunnelly that when the bird spread its wings it was twice the width of the seven-foot-long bull, giving it a wingspan of fourteen to sixteen feet.
The witness also said that the bird’s head resembled that of a falcon and that the bird was covered with feathers: black on its back and wings, and brown on its belly, with a white tail and wing tips. The witness added, “The talons were very dark and I didn’t look at them very well, but the wings were just like a predatory birds, not a scavenger’s—as if made for speed. They were in a triangle, unlike the box [shape] that vultures’ wings form.”24
Interestingly, Mysterious Kentucky also notes a newspaper article from the Cincinnati Enquirer in early September 1977—the same year that Bigclaw appeared over Illinois—detailing an attack on a five-pound puppy in Burlington, Kentucky. The puppy managed to get away after a large bird dropped it in a pond, but it suffered very serious wounds made by what appeared to be large talons. Unfortunately, the only witness to the event was a seven-year-old boy who described the little beagle’s assailant simply as a big bird.25
Area wildlife experts thought that the culprit may have been a bald eagle, but it sounds very reminiscent of incidents involving large birds in Illinois that same year. While Burlington is just south of Cincinnati, Kentucky also shares a border with southern Illinois. As I’ve often observed, unknown creatures seem oblivious to the imaginary lines that divide our states and countries.
Big birds, just like their smaller cousins, evidently enjoy a southern vacation now and then. Another of those giant, black-winged birds showed up north of Tampa Bay in the early 1990s with the same telltale white ring around its neck as the Lawndale, Illinois, child snatcher.
A young boy was involved in this incident, too, but this time the eyewitness rode safely on a school bus rather than clutched in giant talons, and he observed the big bird from the bus window instead of from direct contact with the bird itself. The boy said that he was very familiar with vultures and that this bird was quite different, particularly since he estimated its wingspan at ten feet. This account came from Scott Marlowe’s The Cryptid Creatures of Florida.26
There are many other states whose citizens have, from time to time, glimpsed giant stork-like or predatory birds, and we’ll be discussing more of these and other types as well. There are some indications in the lore of our native people that similar creatures have been around since very ancient times past.
Bigclaw, giant storks, and other feathered monsters of the Americas may claim prehistoric precedent in a famous piece of Native American rock art found on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River near Alton, Illinois. Carved into the rock by the Illini people is a depiction of the flying creature they called the Piasa. The name translates roughly to “the bird that devours men.”
The rock art, which has been reconstructed on the face of a nearby bluff after limestone quarrying chopped away the original in the mid-1800s, shows a scowling creature reminiscent of the griffins and sphinxes of the ancient Middle East. It combines great feathered wings with a long, snake-like body, giant talons, and a human head topped by antlers. This fanciful combination means that it’s unlikely to be a realistic rendering of an actual predatory animal. In fact, it probably resembles a dragon more closely than it does a bird, but its varied features were sure to have carried great significance to its makers.
The original petroglyph actually included two separate renditions of the creature and dates back to at least 1675, when explorers Marquette and Joliet wrote about seeing it on their river journey. A later explorer, John Russell, wrote about his own, 1836 discovery of a cavern very close to the art site, which he said was filled with a jumble of ancient human bones.27 He suggested that the cave had been the lair of the unknown, monstrous bird and that the bones were those of its victims. According to the native tradition, the Piasa was large enough to haul away a deer, but it developed a taste for human flesh and began to devour entire villages until a heroic chief found a way to defeat it.
The most interesting connection between the Piasa and the giant birds of present-day America, in my view, lies not in the similarities of its appearance but in its location. In many cases, the common denominator seems to be the proximity to the Mississippi River. Alton, Illinois, lies along the Mississippi, and so do locations of a number of the other giant bird sightings:
The first encounter discussed in this book was John Bolduan’s sighting not far from the Mississippi in northern Wisconsin. Then there was the incident in Lawndale, Illinois, where a young boy was almost carried away by a big, winged thing just a few miles east of that mighty river. Travel a little farther south and you come to yet another big bird–related place: Cahokia, the site of a large, prehistoric metropolis of a sophisticated people known today as the Mississippians.
The Mississippians were skilled and prolific artists, and birdmen were amply represented among their creations. The birdman, in fact, is used as Cahokia’s official emblem by its present-day site administrators. It’s likely that the Mississippians would have approved that logo since there is evidence that the falcon was associated with the highest dignitaries of these people. In 1967, excavation of a large mound in Cahokia revealed the remains of a man whose corpse had been draped with twenty thousand seashells at burial. Archaeologists deduced that the shells had once been sewn to heavy fabric cut in the shape of a falcon whose head and body were fitted precisely over the corresponding areas of the man’s body. His burial mound was also crammed with the skeletons of scores of ceremonially killed people, leaving no doubt as to the importance of this man who was so strongly associated with a giant bird of prey.28
The Mississippi connection is not limited to giant raptors, however. Yet another mysterious flying thing (covered in chapter 2) showed up in 2006 near the Mississippi River community of La Crosse, Wisconsin, located between the Illinois sightings and Bolduan’s. Why does the Mississippi River seem to be a locus of both new and ancient big bird sightings? It may be something as simple as the fact that large birds of prey often perch on high cliffs or bluffs, the better to spot their meal tickets, and this river is lined with such formations. Large rivers are also attractive migratory routes for, say, something making a yearly trip from South America to Canada. Birds that look like giant waterfowl would naturally gravitate to the best water sources.
That would be a tidy explanation if we were indeed dealing with mere, known birds of prey. The Illini people’s Piasa, however, along with the falcon burial at Cahokia and the growing number of present-day sightings of unexplainable avians, suggest that something truly mysterious and awe-inspiring may long have haunted these riverbanks. Perhaps there is something in the water.
The roc and Piasa birds, with their flashing eyes and dragon-like features, may sound ludicrous to modern ears, but Native American lore is rich in large, legendary birds. The most widely known of these homegrown horrors is the Thunderbird, whose eyes shoot lightning bolts and whose flapping wings boom like cracks of thunder with each mighty flap. The Thunderbird is especially central to many culture stories of Wisconsin’s indigenous people.
According to Michael Edmonds, the Ojibwe made offerings to this often beneficial creature to ask for good weather and to protect them from storms. The Lakota believed that the Thunderbird orchestrated the weather from beyond the setting sun, and the Ho-Chunk counted on the Thunderbird for battlefield success.29 A “good spirit” in the form of a big bird was also described by the famous Sauk warrior Black Hawk, said Edmonds. Black Hawk stated that his people often had seen this creature, which had wings like those of a swan but ten times larger.30
The Thunderbirds of native lore usually bore a close resemblance to eagles and other modern feathered birds of prey. We know this both from historical descriptions like Chief Black Hawk’s and from petroglyphs, figurines, effigy mounds, and other artistic depictions by indigenous people of North and South America that clearly refer to the Thunderbird legend.
Although some investigators have portrayed Thunderbirds as resembling survivors of supposedly extinct species such as the smooth-skinned, hammer-crested pterodactyl, the overwhelming number of Native American Thunderbird depictions, from the Southwest’s Navajo people to the Passamaquoddy of New England, show a raptor-like bird with feathers, a formidable tail, and a short but curved and sharp beak. The main difference between the Thunderbird and known birds, though, is the Thunderbird’s unthinkable size. Its massive dimensions, however, are appropriate to its huge role in Native American mythology.
The Lakota of the Black Hills, for instance, call them Thunder Beings, or Wakinyan, to emphasize their divine nature as givers of life and governors of the weather. Their reputation is double-edged, however. They’re revered for the belief that they bring spring and healing rain, but feared for the death-wielding power of their great talons and beaks, and for the dangerous thunderstorms they can whip up.
Researcher Steve Mizrach believes that in many tribes the Thunderbird was also seen as a sort of trickster spirit, since it was equally able to send gentle rains or destructive storms. In addition, says Mizrach, “Some Indians claim that there are good and bad Thunderbirds and that these beings are at war with each other. Others claim that the large predatory birds [that] are said to kidnap hunters and livestock are not Thunderbirds at all.”31
Mizrach also notes that most Native American people “describe the Thunderbird as a spiritual, not just physical, being. It is not seen as just a large, predatory bird that inspires stories. Rather, it’s an integral part of the Plains Indians’ religion and ritual.”32 Thinking of the Thunderbird as a spiritual being, of course, leaves a lot more leeway in the interpretation of its appearance. A somewhat similar big bird, the culloo, may be found in the lore of some northern tribes.
In the tale that follows there figures a remarkable bird, a monster in size, into the form of which certain sanguinary chiefs, who are wizards, powwows and cannibals, are able to transform themselves, retaining their intelligence, and able at will again to resume the shape of men. The tradition of such a bird is not a fable, though the bird itself is fabulous.33
Excerpted from "American Monsters"
Copyright © 2014 Linda S. Godfrey.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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