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The Thunderbird – Ornithology


The other day as I savored my morning bowl of Cheerios, I caught something out of the corner of my eye. It was a Turkey Vulture, common around my house, but unusually close to the windows because the house is surrounded by trees. For some reason the vulture decided to swoop down to take a closer look. I was a bit taken aback because I rarely see large birds that close, although I have handled hawks, owls, eagles, herons, and pelicans. They are big birds, the size of which you don’t typically notice because they are soaring or sitting in a tree or on the ground, so it is hard to have a frame of reference. When the average person gets a close-up look at an eagle or the prehistoric looking Great Blue Heron or Turkey Vulture, it can be a bit shocking.

Every once in a while, I get an email from someone who claims to have seen some giant bird. Recently someone from Texas wrote (“Three years ago I seen (sic) a giant owl.”) According to him the owl was as big as a man, had a 20-foot wingspan, and lived in a cave. Of course, he had no proof, which was also not available to support his claim of also seeing an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. (I earlier wrote a blog about the guy who six years ago saw three giant birds, one of which he said carried off a deer. Why do these guys wait years to tell me of their sightings?)

The other day, a woman who apparently saw a Pileated Woodpecker disagreed with my identification because “a zoologist told me it was a Giant Red-Headed Wood Pecker”

And then there’s the Native American myth of the Thunderbird (no, not the Air Force acrobatic team or the car, a giant bird). After a report of a Thunderbird trying to carry off a 56-pound child, some self-described “expert photographer” filmed Thunderbirds in flight. There are lots of apparent sightings of these supposed creatures, but just look at this video about the Thunderbirds in Illinois. Turkey Vultures. But that doesn’t stop these cryptozoologists. You can read more stories in the Pennsylvania Rambler. Search the web and you’ll find even more sightings of Thunderbirds as well as other flying behemoths.

Years ago, in the 60s and 70s, there were lots of UFO sightings, the pictures of which often were fuzzy photographs of weather balloons, clouds, or just quirks of lighting or other camera-induced artifacts. For the past two decades or so just about everyone has been carrying around a high- quality camera on their phone, so one would guess that we would now have all kinds of good photos of these supposed alien craft. But no. The same with giant birds or claims of Ivory-bill sightings. Why aren’t there photos – clear, unambiguous photos? Because – and I hedge my bets just a little here because I am a scientist- it’s very highly unlikely that giant birds, the Ivory-bill, or alien spacecraft on earth exist.

Remember Carl Sagan’s words – “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

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