Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Of Washington Eagles, Ivory-bills and "Thunderbird" Sightings

In my last entry, I introduced a controversial bird known as the Washington eagle. Endowed with wingspans eclipsing ten feet, this giant bird species was at population levels near extinction when it was first “discovered” and first described by John J. Audubon in the early part of the 19th century. The 1861 edition of the New American Cyclopedia, under the heading of “eagle”, lists three North American varieties: the white-headed (bald), the golden and the “Bird of Washington”, the Washington eagle. Since Audubon’s death in 1851, though, the very existence of the species has been vehemently contested and as a result, it is almost universally accepted today that this magnificent creature was a simple case of misidentification with immature bald eagles.

My research, recently published in two ornithological journals, suggests otherwise. The species was real, was really rare and was really big! I stand fully behind my scientific research.

However, what follows here is, I will admit, hypothetical speculation, but perhaps conjecturization (my own word) here is quite justified. Could this extremely rare bird species have survived the last century and a half in a very isolated area in absolute minimal numbers until modern day, or at least until a few decades ago? Could these few birds be the source of the numerous giant bird sightings that have originated from the Black Forest of Pennsylvania? The species was originally native to the Great Lakes area north of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Only, how could such a spectacular bird go unnoticed for 150 years? Perhaps the answer to that can be found in the ivory-billed woodpecker, a species that remained unnoticed by mankind for approximately half that long. How could such a spectacular and large avian species go unnoticed for three-quarters of a century?

The first and most obvious answer to that is that it didn’t! Sightings were made of the ivory-bill in almost every decade of its “disappearance”, but these sightings were dismissed by academic ornithologists. Using the ivory-bill as a guide, I present my three-fold list of Factors Necessary for a Spectacular Species to Remain “Hidden” from Science.

1) The species must live in a very sparsely populated area. Encounters with mankind must be so infrequent that any chance, quality sighting would be generally ignored due to its singularity. The ivory-bills’ Big Woods of Ark. and the Choctawhatchee River region of Fla., along with the W.E.’s possible depths of Pennsylvania’s Black Forest meet this criteria nicely.

2) The species should be stunningly large, such that accurate sightings will be written off as exaggerations. For their respective taxonomic families, the ivory-bill and the “Bird of Washington” were giants.

3) Most importantly, the species must have a significant superficial similarity to a smaller, not-uncommon species within the region. This allows for all sightings of the “hidden species” to be dismissed as honest misidentifications. For the ivory-bill, this was the pileated woodpecker. The immature stages of the bald eagle and an occasional golden eagle fill this role perfectly for the Washington eagle.

People spotted the ivory-billed woodpecker sporadically throughout its “extinction”, and enough people knew about the species to insist that these were what they saw. Due to the three factors listed above, they were not believed. Likewise, the Washington eagle has perhaps been spotted sporadically throughout its “extinction”/”non-existence”, only, so very few individuals were familiar with the natural history of this giant bird that they, for the lack of a better title, insisted that they saw a “Thunderbird”. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if perhaps—just perhaps—in some cases, reports of “Thunderbirds” have been reports of Washington eagles?


Doug Stych said...

Peope also have a powerful ability to see what they are expecting to see. So there are often many "sightings" after a well publicised sighting, no surprise since the media has primed them to do just that. I hope you're right, I would like nothing better than for the Ivory Bill or the Washington Sea Eagle to return from the grave. In the modern day however with the plethora of photographic tools available, including trap cameras, the physical existence of such cryptids is becoming very difficult to swallow.


Harpo said...

Living in the Great Lakes region, I've really enjoyed the entries on Washington Eagles. Any chance of including a visual? Do any drawings exist? Anyway, thanks for the great blog!

Anonymous said...

I once saw a great gray owl in New Hampshire, got a good look at it, so as to identify its field marks clearly, was able to verify scale, and had another witness along with me. Still, this would probably have been dismissed as a misidentification, since it is out of range, except for the fact that it had been already well documented by hundreds of birders about a hundred miles or so to the south a week earlier.

Time will tell with many cryptids.

Anonymous said...

I have seen your postings and have continiously searched for answers myself to what I witnessed in 1978 as a twelve year old boy raised in the south and familiar with many species of flora and fauna as it was natural for children to play in the nearby woods back then. I had a sighting that to this day I can't explain. I didn't call it a "Thunderbird", as I wasn't familiar with the name. I have noticed a pattern in the sightings and the wing span this bird had was enormous - greater than 10ft. more like 14 or 15ft. There are similarities in these sightings from distinctly different areas. Do they or did they exist? Yea, what I saw was real and my sighting in published in a book by Loren Coleman, a well known crypto-zoologist. Once you see a creature that modern science says shouldn't exist it tends to change your perspective on life. MH

Scott Jackson said...

Just today I saw a very large bird that looked like a big juvenile bald eagle. I'm no bird watcher or ornathologist, but here in south central Iowa I see turkey vultures about every day in the summer and I've seen plenty of bald eagles, blue herons, and what not. I live on a farm where I raise buffalo with my dad (I'm 27)and we have many ponds. I've seen an osprey stop by our pond near our house and a couple cormorants. This bird today I saw from about 40-50ft away and it was far bigger than any eagle or turkey vulture I've seen. It had a wingspan of about 8-10ft. It was completely dark brown or black and flew a lot like an eagle. I dismissed it as a freakishly large juvenile bald eagle but it had no mottled markings and it was frankly too big. I still don't know if I believe in the whole thunderbird thing, but this was something like I've never seen before and doubt I ever will. I was driving a tractor and it flew across my path and straight west (I was driving south). Less than a minute after that I saw a lot of canadian geese on our largest pond (which some flew away as I got closer) and I can say none of them were more than half the size of this other bird I just saw.

Anonymous said...

A friend & I saw an eagle, in 2004, that was the largest thing I had ever seen. It was in the valley between Duvall and Monroe, WA. We were speechless and watched this bird for over a half an hour rummaging in the grasses 100 yards off the road, and eventually followed it, by car, till it settled in an old tree by the highway. We stood underneath it and neither of us could believe the size of this thing. If you would like to hear more of this contact me at Kris@Blarg.Net. I have been trying to verify what I saw since then and this is the first post I have seen on the Internet giving any credence whatsoever to what we saw.

dan said...

Good article.

Pretty obvious that it wasn't an accidental misidentification.

But, the three factors you list are also the same three things it would take to make a brilliant, well executed hoax that will last a long time. And if Audubon was going to make up a bird, wouldn't he make up the coolest bird he could?

Unknown said...

I made an observation a long time ago that might be instructive for whoever becomes convinced having seen something unusual, especially if said person is chasing the unusual or the rare or the extraordinary which will make him/her famous .... for a moment at least. I was doing some intensive birdwatching at the rather young and impetuous age of 13 or 14 - a devouring passion for me which I developed before I started paying more attention to the females of my own species :-)

And I also had this urge that avid birdwatchers inevitably develop at one moment or another: recording that seriously RARE BIRD which will make fellow birders salivate or get jealous, but at the very least: pay attention to you!

So one sunny HOT summer afternoon, as my young 14-ish self was watching a hummingbird perched in a bush in a Quebec City suburb, I suddenly get an adrenaline rush: the hummingbird's throat was not red, but bright blue!!! Oh my God, I told myself, that has to be only one possibility: the Blue-throated Hummingbird which inhabits southwestern US and even so, rather uncommon. But the BTH is much larger than the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, for one thing, and the bird in question did not strike me first as being larger than expected. I had seen dozens of RTH before (the only hummingbird species ever recorded at the time in Quebec) and except for the blue throat, it had all the characteristics expected from the common RTH.

But I was convinced that it had a bright blue throat and I started convincing myself that the size could have been larger (after all, what standard could I use for comparison, since the bird was sitting alone on a twig?

So after a while, I sent a note to the Ornithology Club about my observation of a probable Blue-Throated Hummingbird. But instead of receiving the interest and being taken seriously, the reception was rather lukewarm, and I quickly lost my juvenile enthusiasm... and got back to reality fast and solid. I realized that depending on the angle of vision and time of the day, the metallic tinge of a RTH's throat can look bluish to the observer, and that was that! Although nobody ever challenged me openly, I accepted their scepticism as a lesson for myself. One observer must always exert caution about how one interprets what his/her own senses perceives, because the normal self-criticism (=objectivity) that anyone should always observe regarding our daily experience in all areas of observation and knowledge can sometimes be affected by a perfectly natural quest for the unusual, for the "weird or what?" effect...

I'm glad for having had not-so-gullible fellow birders at the time, because this taught me a precious life lesson.

Yet, the unusual sometimes IS really for real :-), but this is another story :-)

Dan Neville said...

I saw a large grey bird with about a 25 ft. wing span fly overhead about 30 years ago in the darington/arlington area in washington state. I could hear the wind from its wings as it passed. All the hair on my body stood up. I was not drunk, I was not on drugs. I will never forget that sight.

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Anonymous said...

I seen a large black bird in a acient part of forest by cispus in randle wa on the river hanging out on a 300 year old tree its wingspan took up the whole river the river was in the gifford park the yellowjack i think. i was pretty deep in the forest doing research for cispus and psms. This is not a lie i have 100s of hours searching acient groves in washington and other then hearing sounds of smashing wood together this is by far the only thing that has scared me other then the periotic marmotts poping out to scare you i have been chased by bear couarger you name it but that bird was the biggest animal i have ever seen. The sound from the flapping of its wings and the wind it put of was amazing. It made a condor look small