While you read this, I shall be in London, doing my bit to further the onwards march of the art world, so once again it is Guest Blogger time for Richard Freeman again.
This time we are publishing an unprinted article from a few years ago on the contentious subject of Thunderbirds - those enormous avians from Native American mythology. Could there be any truth behind the legends?
Have you ever been walking in the countryside on a warm summer’s day and the wind suddenly whips up sending clouds hurtling across the sky? The great dark shadow sweeps over the land and you find yourself freezing like a rat in the shadow of an eagle. Strange, as there is no living bird large enough to carry off a full grown human. Or is there?
Across the USA and Canada Indian tribes tell stories of gigantic birds. They go by many names. The Lakota call them Wakinyan, the Ojibwa knew them as Animikii, and to the Illinois it was the Piasa, the bird that fed on men.
These giant birds were said to be so vast that the sound of their beating wings caused thunder and lighting flashed from their eyes. They are associated with rain fall and storms much like dragons in the Orient. The likeness of these monster birds graces totem poles of the tribes of the Pacific north-west. Rock art often depicts them shooting forth lightning in the form of zig-zag lines. Thunderbirds were said to be so huge that they could feed on whales. Some legends tell of how thunderbirds were perpetualy at war with giant, horned water serpents (strikingly like sea and lake monsters reported from the continent today).
So much for ancient legend; but thunderbirds, or something very like them, are still being reported in modern times.
Claude Schaeffer in the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences ecords several accounts of Blackfoot indians seeing thunderbirds in the 19th century. In 1879, the daughter of Red Paint, Mary Jane and her white husband saw four giant birds at Chief Mountain, Glacier National Park, Montana. Big Crow (fitting name) saw a giant bird with a bald head and a feathered ruff about the neck in the southern section of the Blackfoot reserve in 1897.
Another hotspot is Pennsylvania. In 1940 Robert L Lyman saw a thunderbird standing in the middle of Sheldon Road near Coudersport. It took to the air when he got within 150 feet of it showing a 25 foot wingspan.
In March 1957 Hiram M Cranmer watched a thunderbird flying at a hight of 500 feet around Renovo. It’s wingspan was 25-30 feet. Sightings continued in the area for three weeks.
The most infamous encounter with a thunderbird occurred at 8.30 pm on July 25 1977 in a suburban garden in Lawndale, Illinois. Ten year old Marlon Lowe and his friend Travis Goodwin were playing in the Lowe family’s garden when two huge black bird swooped down and attacked the pair. Travis escaped by leaping into a swimming pool but one of the birds grabbed the 65lb Marlon and carried him at a hight of ten feet. His screams alerted his mother who saw her son spiritedly punching at his attacker untill it finaly let go. Marlon’s mother, father and two family friends all witnessed the attack. The birds resembled giant condors. The attack turned Marlon’s ginger hair grey.
Other victims might not have been so lucky. In Febuary of 1895 10 year old Landy Junkins of Webster County, West Verginia was sent on an errand to a neighbour’s house. She never arrived. Her foot prints were found in the snow. They ran off the path and into a field as if she was being chased by something. In the field her tracks seemed to show that she was running in circles as if to avoid something. Then they just ended as if she had been lifted from the ground. No trace of her was ever found.
A few days later bear hunter Peter Swadley was attacked by a bird the size of a man with an 18 foot wingspan. The monster sunk its talons into his back. He was saved by his gallant dog who attacked the bird. The monster turned on the dog and ripped the brave animal appart before flying off with the carcass.
In Tippah County Missouri in 1878 Jemmie Kenny an 8 year old boy was snatched by a huge ‘eagle’ whilst he was plaing marbles. The creature drpped the boy when adults shouted at it but the deep wounds and fall proved fatal to the child.
In 1947 there was an outbreak of livestock killings on farms around Ramore, Ontario, Canada. The culprit was a monster bird with a hooked beak, huge talons and eyes the size of silver dollars.
By 1948 the action had switched to Illinois were 12 year old James Trares reported a grey bird the size of a B-52. If the word of a boy was not good enough, how about a former army colonel. Walter Siegmund saw something very similar on April 4th of that year and conclude that ‘it could only be a bird of some tremendous size’.
These huge birds are oftern mistaken for aeroplanes. In 1948 at Overland Illinois Clyde Smith, his wife, and their friend Les Bacon saw a huge shape in the sky they assumed was a plane untill it began to flap its wings! Then they realized they were observing a bird with a wingspan of over 20 feet. Other witnesses included policemen and flying instructors. Clive Dunn saw the giant bird on 30th April and said that it was as big as a piper club plane.
In May 1961 a New York buissnesman was piloting his light aircraft over the Hudson river when he was buzzed by a bird of stupendous size. He described the encounter in a local news paper as like a fighter plane making a pass.
What could be behind these stories? In the fossil record of the Americas there are a group of gigantic new world vultures known as teratorns. These giant birds evolved to feed on the carcasses of the now extinct mega-fauna of the new world. The largest of them Argentavis magnificens had a 25 foot wingspan. The last of this group of astounding birds supposedly died out around 10,000 years ago along with the mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths and giant cameles on which they fed. But could one species have survived perhapes switching to bison carcasses and the odd human as a food source?
There is a problem with this hypothosis. Teratorns, like all new world vultures, are not closly related to other birds of prey such as eagles and old world vultures. They are actualy more akin to storks! Their feet are not adapted for grasping and killing like those of the thunderbird. In fact, their feet are rather like chicken’s feet!
Maybe we are dealing with an unknown form of giant eagle or perhaps freakishly large individuals of known species. One theory of mine is that known species can, on occation, for reasons that are as yet unclear, throw up giants. Recently a six-foot long panther-like cat was shot in the Australian outback. DNA analysis showed it was a feral domestic cat! For years I have been convinced that many lake monsters are mutant strains of the common eel but grown to 25-30 feet long. If I am correct them perhaps some birds may exhibit this ‘goliath gene’ as well. Only time will tell.