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?