At this time of year, many minds and ears turn to tales of ghostly phantoms. Biofort is no exception to this. But before you, my dear reader, believe I have fully scrapped science for the supernatural, consider a new book I recently acquired. Just released and written by Jim Jung, of Carbondale, Illinois, Weird Egypt: The Case for Supernatural Geology, has absolutely fascinated me.
Primarily, it is an exhaustive look at all things unusual and even paranormal within the southern one fifth of the state of Illinois. Even though I do not reside (and actually haven’t even visited) this region, the stories are unique and mesmerizing. I have read extensively on paranormal occurrences in Illinois, but most of these stories are new to me. I didn’t get the book for the sightings of monsters, tales of ghosts or legends of earth structures though…it was Jung’s out-of-the-mainline theory on these occurrences that hooked me.
Jung is a scientific soul and though, like myself, he loves ghost and monster stories, he has looked deeper, beyond the accounts and into the root of them. He is convinced, and has some incriminating evidence to back his belief, that Southern Illinois’ haunts and ‘boogers’ are the direct result of an extensive series of fault lines that subterraneously crisscross the region.
Jung is quick to admit that neither he nor anyone else is exactly sure how the connection between faults and haunts physically and biologically transpires, but the correlation between the two is “striking” and often referred to the TST, the Tectonic Strain Theory.
Jung explains: In brief, the TST states that rocks under compressive stress generate relatively large electromagnetic fields that—when they build to sufficient strength—are released in brief low-level bursts of electromagnetic energy. These fields seem capable of altering the perceptions of human senses.
Recent university studies have somewhat duplicated these results by electrically stimulating certain sections of the brain. Could nature be doing this to us intermittently, creating paranormal experiences and sightings?
In Jung’s book, he superimposes a plot map of paranormal occurrences in Southern Illinois over a map of the regions fault lines. Though not perfect, the proximity relationship is hard to deny.
Jung does acknowledge exceptions to the ghost-origins theory he promotes: 1) His home town of Carbondale IL is home to numerous historical and contemporary haunts and sightings of bizarre creatures even though there are no known faults under the area. Jung points out that the key word in the previous sentence is “known”. 2) There are 2 or 3 cases documented in his book that, he admits, seem to “manifest themselves as the classic demons or evil spirits of worldwide sacred literature.
For readers who enjoy unique local tales and lore and for those looking for a more scientific view of monsters and haunts, I wholly recommend this book. It is available from his website.
Saturday, October 28, 2006
Monday, October 23, 2006
In recent posts, I have introduced the giant, Thunderbird-like Washington eagle and attempted to show how it could have existed in minimal populations undetected by science until modern days. These ideas have prompted a gentleman to finally go public with a giant bird sighting he and his wife shared in 2004. He now wonders if it wasn't a Washington eagle that he witnessed. Here is the email (reproduced with permission) that I recently received from William McManus (All caps left from e-mail):
SIR-- I'VE JUST SEEN YOUR PAGE BY CHANCE. I BELIEVE I MAY HAVE SEEN ONE OF THESE BIRDS AS RECENTLY AS TWO YEARS AGO . THE ILLUSTRATIONS YOU SHOW ARE THE FIRST ONES I'VE SEEN THAT DEPICT THE BIRD WE SAW. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN LATE WINTER, THERE WERE NO LEAVES ON THE TREES, ABOUT 2 1/2 YEARS AGO. WE LIVED IN A SMALL CABIN AT THE POINT WHERE THE APPLE RIVER FLOWS INTO THE ST. CROIX RIVER, ABOUT 15 MILES NORTH OF STILLWATER MN, ON THE WISCONSIN SIDE. THE WEATHER WAS CLEAR, AND WE OBSERVED THE BIRD ACROSS A SMALL MEADOW BETWEEN OUR CABIN AND THE RIVER CHANNEL. THIS IS A TYPE OF DELTA AREA, OF SEVERAL SQUARE MILES, WITH LOTS OF CHANNELS AND ISLANDS AND WIDE MARSHY AREAS, PRETTY MUCH LEFT WILD. THIS BEING ON A MAJOR MIGRATORY FLYWAY, WE ALWAYS CHECKED OUT THE ABUNDANT BIRD TRAFFIC, WHICH INCLUDED ALL KINDS OF MIGRATING WATERFOWL AND RAPTORS. WE WERE VERY FAMILIAR WITH TURKEY VULTURES, OWLS, HAWKS AND EAGLES, ESPECIALLY BALD EAGLES, AND HAD SEVERAL GUIDE BOOKS TO COMPARE TO WHAT VISITED THE NEIGHBORHOOD. MANY MORNINGS WE WOULD WAKE TO THE SIGHT OF SEVERAL BALD EAGLES PERCHED ON HIGH BRANCHES OF COTTONWOODS AND SILVER MAPLE JUST AT THE EDGE OF THE APPLE CHANNEL. ONE MORNING THERE WAS A DIFFERENT MUCH LARGER VISITOR, PERCHED A LITTLE LOWER THAN WE’D SEEN BEFORE, IN A BRANCH PERHAPS 25 FEET FROM THE GROUND IN A DEAD TREE. MY WIFE SAYS THIS WAS NOT THE ONLY VISIT. WE KNEW IMMEDIATELY IT WAS NOT A BALD EAGLE (OR A JUVENILE BALD EAGLE) BECAUSE OF THE SORT OF DARK BRICK RED COLOR. BUT THE TRULY AMAZING THING WAS THE SIZE: IT SEEMED TO BE WELL OVER THREE FEET TALL PERCHED THERE. WE THOUGHT IT COULD HAVE BEEN A GOLDEN EAGLE, BUT IT WAS LARGER AND NOT THE RIGHT COLORING. WE OBSERVED IT FROM A DISTANCE OF MAYBE 60 YARDS FOR AS LONG AS TWO HOURS. I GUESSED IT WAS A CONDOR, AND FINALLY VENTURED OUT TO HAVE A CLOSER LOOK. I DON’T THINK I GOT VERY CLOSE—NOT LESS THAN 50 YARDS— AND MUST HAVE DISTURBED IT, BECAUSE IT TOOK OFF, AND IT CLEARLY WAS NOT A CONDOR BUT SOME KIND OF EAGLE, AND HAD THE HEAD AND BEAK OF AN EAGLE. IT HAD AN ENORMOUS WINGSPAN— FAR LARGER THAN A BALD EAGLE. I WISH I HAD BETTER NOTED THE PARTICULARS. AT THE TIME WE THOUGHT IT WAS JUST SOME EXOTIC OFF COURSE THAT WE DIDN’T HAVE A LISTING FOR. BEST WISHES,
Thursday, October 19, 2006
Just so everyone is aware: There was a technical glitch that was allowing only some people to post comments to Biofort, and not others. This has now been corrected and--I believe--everyone should be now able and invited to comment to this blog. Thanks!
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
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?
Saturday, October 14, 2006
For over one hundred years, ornithologists have been in general consensus that John J. Audubon's enormous (10+ wingspan) "Bird of Washington" (Washington eagle) was a classic case of misidentification. New research now shows that it may have truly existed until modern times.
Firstly, my apologies to those who do not like long blog entries. This is not short. The following entry was a paper I composed that was originally published in two ornithological jounrals, Meadowlark: The Journal of Illinois Birds and The Ohio Cardinal: The Journal of the Ohio Ornithological Society. Only, if you are not a member of either of these ornithological societies, one could not be exposed to the findings. Therefore, I have chosen to finally publish the paper here, as a means of opening it to the public at large for comment and review:
It is widely known that American statesman Benjamin Franklin lobbied for the wild turkey to serve as America’s national bird, but few know which species the great naturalist John James Audubon would have promoted had he had a voice in the matter. His preference can be gleaned from the following excerpt from his early writings, in his Ornithological Biography (1840):
…it is indisputably the noblest bird of its genus that has yet been discovered in the United States, I trust I shall be allowed to honour it with the name of one yet nobler, who was the saviour of his country, and whose name will ever be dear, to it. To those who may be curious to know my reasons, I can only say, that, as the new world gave me birth and liberty, the great man who ensured its independence is next to my heart. He had a nobility of mind, and a generosity of soul, such as are seldom possessed. He was brave, so is the Eagle; like it, too, he was the terror of his foes; and his fame, extending from pole to pole, resembles the majestic soarings of the mightiest of the feathered tribe. If America has reason to be proud of her Washington, so has she to be proud of her great eagle. (Audubon 1999:220)*
Audubon had admired, studied, and painted both bald and golden eagles, but this “great eagle” he lauded as “mightiest of the feathered tribe” was neither of these. North America was once home to no less than seven species of eagles, but the demise of the great mega-fauna that once dominated the New World landscape and the emergence of humans onto the continent had whittled the number of native species to two long before Columbus arrived (Brodkorb 1964, Howard 1930 & 1932). That is, unless one considers certain writings of the early nineteenth century; it is here archivists find Audubon’s (and others’) detailed descriptions of a possible third American eagle species surviving into the modern era: the “great eagle”—the Bird of Washington.
Over many decades, this bird was given several consubstantial names: Washington’s eagle, Washington’s sea-eagle, Washington eagle, and the great sea-eagle. Audubon’s most frequently used appellation was the “Bird of Washington.” For simplicity’s sake, the bird will herein be referred to as the Washington eagle.
This impressive bird was a favorite of Audubon’s, eliciting euphoric expressions of the sentiments inspired by sightings of the species:
It was in the month of February 1814, that I obtained the first sight of this noble bird, and never shall I forget the delight which it gave me. Not even HERSCHEL, when he discovered the planet which bears his name, could have experienced more rapturous feelings (Audubon 1999:217).
Later, upon finally acquiring a specimen, he described himself as filled “with a pride which they alone can feel, who, like me, have devoted themselves from their earliest childhood to such pursuits, and who have derived from them their first pleasures” (Audubon 1999:220).
* All references herein to the writings of Audubon are to C. Irmscher’s superb Library of America edition (1999).
Even as Audubon first published and described the Washington eagle as the ninth and largest of the world’s species of sea-eagles, he recognized the bird as already exceedingly rare and possibly near extinction (Aud.1829:116). Audubon referred to it in correspondence as the “great rara avis” (Rhoads 1903:382). It was popularly accepted as a unique species throughout Audubon’s lifetime, and included as a good species in texts by the most reputable ornithologists (Cassin 1853). It was not long after its inclusion in his Ornithological Biography in 1831, however, that the Washington eagle was labeled as suspect among some naturalists. In 1838, Jared P. Kirtland, in the course of cataloguing Ohio’s birds, hinted at this doubt by using the phrase “if it be a true species” when referring to the Washington eagle. Misgivings he may have harbored did not prevent him from later recording a sighting of a Washington eagle on a Cleveland beach in 1842 (Christy 1936).
Though the great eagle’s rarity and the fact that such an enormous bird had so long escaped description were primary causes for consternation among early critics, the mere fact that it was Audubon who had first encountered it was enough for the most vocal of them. Audubon was never at a loss for detractors of his written and artistic works. Their attacks were most notoriously orchestrated by George Ord and Charles Waterton, and played out in personal correspondence (including a ten-page letter/thesis Ord sent to Waterton, arguing that the Washington eagle could not have been as large as Audubon described) as well as in scathing papers, many of them published in Loudon’s Magazine of Natural History during its early years of publication 1831-1835 (Souder 2004:323, Klauber 1971:493). Audubon seldom replied publicly to such abuse, commenting that “[t]o have enemies is no uncommon thing.” Eventually, these canorous critiques cost Audubon certain impressions of credibility that ultimately hindered the acceptance of his Washington eagle, along with those for other natural phenomena he had witnessed and described.
When Audubon illustrated mockingbirds for his Birds of America, he depicted them defending a nest against a rattlesnake. His enemies and deprecators assailed him on this, arguing that rattlesnakes cannot climb trees (Herrick 1917). Observations in times to come, however, have justified Audubon’s artistic license and showed that rattlesnakes can and do indeed climb trees, though rarely (Klauber 1971:493-494). Likewise, until his death Audubon was accused by botanists of having fabricated the presence of the “yellow water-lily,” which he included in his Birds of American under the name of Nymphaea lutea. Only decades later in 1876 was his defiant refusal to retract his depiction justified by the “rediscovery” of the long-lost plant in the Florida Everglades (Lockwood 1877, Davis 1997).
Following Audubon’s death in 1851, incredulity about the Washington eagle accelerated to the point that a generation later it was said only “amateur ornithologists” still considered it a valid species (Allen 1870:525). When asked to comment on the Washington eagle, the eminent Elliot Coues was quoted as saying, “I wonder how many times the ‘Washington eagle’ must be put down before it will stay down! As a species, it is a myth...” (Gilpin 430).
Today, it is universally believed that the few Washington eagles Audubon and others saw and expounded upon were not members of a previously unidentified eagle species, but were rather a common bird known long to naturalists: the northern subspecies of the bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus alascanus in its immature state of development. In early days, the immature bald eagle was sometimes referred to as a separate species: the brown or sea eagle, Falco ossifragus, but the best early naturalists, Wilson and Audubon among them, soon recognized the true relationship. Critics explain that Audubon was unacquainted with the distributional, developmental, and sexual-dimorphic variations in the bald eagle’s size and the multiple plumages involved during its development to maturity (Durant et al. 1980:61, Allen 1870:525). While it is true that the immature stages of the bald eagle are generally brown, it would be hasty to unquestioningly conjoin the two birds without a thorough discrimination of their traits, and an examination of Audubon’s detailed physical description of a specimen. It would also be unjust to such a noble bird, if it were to have existed, to brush it aside with so little ado.
To make a case for the existence of the Washington eagle and prove that the Washington eagles were not immature bald eagles, it is necessary to rebut historical and contemporary skeptics by demonstrating that the bird’s distribution, morphology, and ethology lay outside the accepted range of variation for the bald eagle, especially those of its juvenal stages.
If indeed the Washington eagles were simply immature northern bald eagles, they should have been seen and noted quite frequently in Audubon’s winter travels along the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri rivers. Indeed, his river journals are replete with sightings of “brown eagles,” but Audubon was aware of Alexander Wilson’s theory that these “brown” and bald eagles were of the same species (Audubon 1999:17), and even noted for the uninformed reader that the term “brown eagle” is used “meaning the White-headed eagle (Falco leucocephalus) in its immature state” (Audubon 1999:218). The sole time within his 1820-21 journal that he references the then-unnamed Washington eagle, the addendum “i.e. S. Eagles” [sea eagles] was added to the label of “brown eagles” to clarify the difference. Here he noted that the “S. Eagles” he had seen previously—the Washington eagles—were “at least ¼ longer” than the bald and brown eagles he was encountering on the lower Ohio River (Audubon 1999:19).
Audubon recorded numerous encounters with the abundant bald/brown eagles in his lifetime, but only five sightings of the Washington eagle. In chronological order, these occurred on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers near the cities of Grand Tower, Illinois; Evansville, Indiana; Henderson, Kentucky; Clarksville, Indiana; and Mound City, Illinois. The five sightings involved ten birds (never more than two adults in any one area), yielded a close observation of a nesting pair complete with two young, and resulted in the acquisition of one spectacular specimen.
Ironically, it was near his residence in Henderson, Kentucky that Audubon, who claimed to always carry a gun, finally managed to bring a Washington eagle down as it scavenged at a pig slaughter. Audubon writes how he, like a schoolboy who stumbled upon a treasure, quickly wrapped the bird up and ran with it to the home of Dr. Adam Rankin. Rankin, a long-time resident on the Ohio River and an experienced hunter, proclaimed of the bird that “he had never before seen or heard of it” (Audubon 1999:220). Together they undertook a meticulous study of the specimen and Audubon recorded the following qualitative description:
The male bird weighs 14 ½ avoirdupois, measures 3 ft. 7 in. in length, and 10 ft. 2 in. in extent. The upper mandible dark bluish black. It is, however, the same colour for half its length, turning into yellow towards the mouth, which is surrounded with a thick yellow skin. Mouth blue; tongue the same; cere greenish-yellow; eye large, of a fine chestnut colour, iris black, the whole protected above by a broad, strong, bony, cartilaginous substance, giving the eye the appearance of being much sunk. Lores lightish blue, with much strong recumbent hair; upper part of the head, neck, back, scapulars, rump, tail coverts, femorals, and tail feathers, dark coppery glossy brown; throat, front of the neck, breast, and belly, rich bright cinnamon colour; the feathers of the whole of which are long, narrow, sharp-pointed, of a hairy texture, each dashed along the center with the brown of the back; the wings, when closed, reach within an inch and a half of the tail feathers, which are very broad next to the body. Lesser coverts rusty iron grey, forming with that colour and elongated oval, reaching from the shoulders to the lower end of the secondaries, gradually changing to the brown of the back as it meets the scapulars. The secondaries of the last middle tint. Primaries brown, darkest in their inner veins, very broad and firm; the outer one 2 ½ in. shorter than the second, the longest 24 in. to its root, about a half an inch in diameter at the barrel. The under wing coverts iron grey, very broad, and forming the same cavity that is apparent in all of this genus with the scapulars, which are also very broad. Legs and feet strong and muscular: the former one and a half inches in diameter; the latter measuring, from the base of the hind claw to that of the middle toe, 6 ½ in. Claws strong, much hooked, the hind one 2 in. long, the inner rather less, all blue black and glossy. Toes warty, with rasp-like advancing hard particles, covered with large scales appearing again on the front of the leg, all of dirty strong yellow. Leg feathers brown cinnamon, pointed backwards.
The following is Audubon’s abbreviated version which he included in his Ornithological Biographies.:
Tarsus and toes uniformly scutellate in their whole length. Bill bluish-black, cere yellowish-brown, feet orange-yellow, claws bluish-black. Upper part of the head, hind neck, back, scapulars, rump, tail-coverts, and posterior tibial feathers blackish-brown, glossed with a coppery tint; throat, fore neck, breast, and belly light brownish-yellow, each feather, with a central blackish-brown streak; wing-coverts light greyish-brown, those next the body becoming darker; primary quills dark brown, deeper on their inner webs; secondaries lighter, and on their outer webs of nearly the same light tint as their coverts; tail uniform dark brown (Audubon 1840:1:56).
Audubon’s description, and the painting that corresponds to it, concern two significant anatomical features that differentiate the specimen from the bald eagle.
1) The Washington eagle’s cere is conformed in a manner unlike any known variation in bald eagles.
2) The uniform scaling found on the Washington eagle’s tarsus is unknown at any stage of bald eagle development (Mengel 1953:145-7, Allen 1970:526).
Regarding the unusual uniform tarsal scutellation, Allen hypothesized that as the
Washington eagle was one of the first figures Audubon published, that this characteristic had not been accurately drawn and that his written description, published years later, was made from his flawed rendering rather from the specimen itself (Allen 1870:526). This hypothesis is nullified though by Audubon’s oft-overlooked earliest published account of his eagle where he noted that his description is “described and faithfully figured from a fresh-killed specimen” (Aud. 1829:120). Though both Allen and Mengel assert that Audubon did not preserve his type specimen, this supposition is dubious as, in an 1838 letter to Edwin Harris, Audubon indicated that he did indeed still possess a Washington eagle specimen (Rhoads 1903:382).
Gilpin, who viewed tarsal scutellation as a valueless specific character of eagles, offered an explanation for the appearance of the unique scales. He asserted that because of Audubon’s choice of angle of view, and the figure’s position atop a rock in the illustration, the eagle’s tarsal and phalangeal scutellation appears continuous and that, in the same position, any bald eagle might present the same appearance (Gilpin 1873:429). This optical illusion theory, however, fails to take into account Audubon’s detailed and corresponding published description. Gilpin was unable to explain either the inscrutable uniform size of the scutellae or the continuity of each as described by Audubon.
Audubon described the Washington eagle as being staggeringly large—three feet seven inches in length, and possessing a wingspan of ten feet two inches—eclipsing any raptor native to North America and matching that of any known worldwide. These stunning dimensions opened a floodgate of criticism of Audubon and his great eagle. Modern commentators accuse Audubon not only of grossly exaggerating or even intentionally falsifying the Washington eagle’s measurements, but also of mis-sexing it (Mengel 1953:149). Again, Audubon refutes this inaccuracy by emphatically noting that the “sex [was] well ascertained at the time the bird was killed” (Aud. 1829:120). Earlier critics were more forgiving, one of them observing for example that “a few grains of allowance must be safely made for slight inaccuracies on the part of its enthusiastic discoverer” (Allen 1870:527).
Evidence, and perhaps proof, of the impressive magnitude of the Washington eagle was provided by the meticulous technique Audubon employed to insure that his paintings for the Birds of America were life-sized. He utilized for each an identical double-grid system—one behind his mount and the other for his folio—to match his image with the specimen. Audubon biographer William Souder provides the following quantitative analysis of Audubon’s paintings of the adult bald eagle, the immature bald eagle, and the Washington eagle made on an original double-elephant folio:
With the postulation that the inner wings are proportionally larger, the Washington eagle’s wingspan, as painted, would exceed the Audubon’s bald eagle by over 55 cm, making Audubon’s measurement of ten feet two inches legitimately possible.
Audubon described the Washington eagle as brown in its plumage—uniformly and without blemish. There are two more or less brown eagles known in America today: the golden eagle and the immature bald eagle. Therefore, some have hypothesized that the birds Audubon identified as Washington eagles were actually oversized golden eagles. That speculation, though, is undermined by the fact that Audubon was quite familiar with the distinguishing extended leg feathers of the golden eagle, which clearly reveal it to be of a different genus from that of the sea eagle. The Washington eagle’s preference for, and skill at, fishing also clearly places it in the genus of sea-eagles rather than with the golden eagles (Audubon 1999:219).
It is worthy of note that in Audubon’s accounts of his five Washington eagle sightings he does not mention any variation in the birds’ appearance or size. Because he penned his Ornithological Biography entry on the bird long after his last sighting, it must be assumed that the eight adult birds he observed were similar to the type specimen he possessed.
Through their first four to five years of life, bald eagles exhibit six distinct plumages. Two of these are poorly differentiated; collectively known as the juvenal plumages, they occur within the first year of life. Immediately following are four distinctive molts in as many consecutive years, culminating in the well-known adult plumage (Gerrard 1978, Harmata 1984).
The only bald eagle developmental stages that demonstrate any degree of superficial affinity to the Washington eagle are the juvenal plumages of the first twelve months of life (Fig. 2). Even Audubon admitted that the juvenile stages of both the bald and Washington eagles resemble each other in outward appearance, but appends this by emphasizing that the size difference is great and that such likenesses cease in mature birds (Aud. 1829:116) Regarding Audubon’s type specimen, Coues insisted that it was “a big, youngish bald eagle—the two-year-olds of which, before getting the white head and tail, are usually larger than the mature birds” (Gilpin 1873:430). Coues was underpinning Gilpin’s assertion that immature balds often exceeded adults in wingspan by more than a foot (Gilpin 1873:430). Reiterating this misunderstanding more than half a century later, T. Gilbert Pearson established “misidentification” as the official Audubon Society stance on the Washington eagle (Pearson 1926:81). Modern published sources do not support Gilpin and Pearson’s claims, however, as the differences between immature and mature bald eagles’ wing spans average only two to five centimeters, depending on the bird’s sex (Harmata 1984, Imler 1955). These differences—primarily in contour wing feather length—are insufficient to account for the size differences measured and observed between the bald and Washington eagles.
Developmentally, several facts argue against the idea that the Washington eagles were oversized first-year bald eagles:
1. All immature bald eagles have some degree of white mottling, markedly at the wing pits (Domazlicky 1992:6, Stalmaster 1987:12). Additionally, first-year bald eagles have nape and contour feathers with white bases, making them appear mottled (McCollough 1989:2-3). The Washington eagle was never described with any white mottling.
2. Audubon observed a breeding pair with nestlings. While it is known that fourth- and rarely third-year bald eagles—the appearances of which are markedly different from the Washington eagle—are occasionally capable of reproduction, only two documented instances in which both partners were immature exist, and both involve a fourth-year individual that would show unmistakable signs of being a bald (Buehner 2000:19, Stalmaster 1987:46, McCollough 1989:6).
Audubon even suspected Wilson of the same misidentification gaffe. Wilson included the Washington eagle in his early works, but Audubon remained certain that Wilson “had confounded [the Washington eagle] with the bald…one of the young of which he has given the figure of, to represent it…I am strongly inclined to believe that he never saw [a Washington eagle]…had he met with it, [he] could hardly have fallen into so great an error” (Aud. 1829:116).
The sheer size of Audubon’s randomly collected specimen places the Washington eagle outside the realm of what is known of bald eagles’ sizes at any stage of development. After a statistical analysis, a frustrated Mengel conceded that the Washington eagle was too large to be considered a bald eagle of either sex of either the southern or northern race (Mengel 1953:148). The most astonishing feature of Audubon’s specimen is that it was a male. With reverse sexual size dimorphism applying to eagles, the measurements of Audubon’s specimen may be presumed smaller than the species’ potential. The difference in size between Audubon’s male and the upper-extreme measurements of female northern bald eagles is significant enough to justify subspecies recognition by most taxonomists (Mengel 1953:147).
Consider the following comparative measures (Washington eagle measurements offered are metric equivalents of those in Audubon’s Ornithological Biography):
1. The Washington eagle, from beak to tail, measured 110 cm. The known range for northern bald eagles is 71-96 cm (Palmer et al. 1988).
2. The Washington eagle’s wingspan of 310 cm surpasses the largest known bald eagle by 66 cm. The wingspan range for northern bald eagles is 200-244 cm (Stalmaster 1987:12).
3. The average length of an adult male northern bald eagle’s hallux is 3.98 cm while the Washington eagle’s measures 6.35 cm (Bartolotti 1984).
4. In northern bald eagles, the range of bill lengths is 4.17-6.06 cm, with a male juvenile mean of 5.04 in length and 3.22 in depth (Bartolotti). The Washington eagle possessed a bill 8.26 cm in length and 4.45 cm in depth.
5. Immature northern bald eagles have wing chords ranging from 54.1-69.2 cm, with northern males averaging 60.1 cm (Bartolotti). The Washington eagle’s wing chord was 79 cm.
Washington eagles nested not in trees, but rather in ground nests built on rocky cliffs adjacent to water (Nuttall 1832). Surveys of 899 bald eagle nest structures east of the Mississippi River revealed no ground nests (Stalmaster 1987:184-5). Ground nests are used by bald eagles only in treeless areas (Buehler 2000:15), which does not describe the lush lower Ohio River valley where Audubon observed breeding Washington eagles.
It was also noted by Audubon that the Washington eagle’s flight was:
…very different from that of the White-headed Eagle. The former encircles a greater space, whilst sailing keeps nearer to the land and the surface of the water, and when about to dive for fish falls in a spiral manner, as if with the intention of checking any retreating movement which its prey might attempt, darting upon it only when a few yards distant. (Audubon 1999:221)
In addition, the Washington eagle did not share the bald eagle’s bullying and piratical behavior towards the osprey (Nuttall 1832).
Mengel argued against the Washington eagle’s existence because there is no fossil record of any other species of Haliaeetus in the United States. His error, though, was referencing only a search of Pleistocene tar pits in Rancho La Brea. This location is some 3000 km from the Washington eagle’s winter habitat, which was described as the northern Great Lakes (year round), with winter visitations to southern Illinois/western Kentucky (Nuttall, 1832).
Many authors imply that Audubon was the sole observer of this species. In fact many others reported having seen one. In 1838, Edward Harris told Audubon he had seen this majestic eagle (Rhoads 1903:382). Kirtland recorded a firsthand sighting in 1842 in Ohio (Christy 1936). Dr. Lemuel Hayward of Boston acquired a live Washington eagle and was said to have kept it for “a considerable time”; while in captivity, he described the bird as being “docile” (Nuttall 1832:71). The bird was eventually delivered to the Linnaean Museum in London. Nuttall mentions having examined a specimen in the New England Museum, as well as another preserved male, as long as and heavier than Audubon's 14.5-lb specimen, displayed at a small museum in Philadelphia (Nuttall 1832: 72). Richard Harlan, the esteemed author of Fauna Americana (1825) wrote to Audubon that he had acquired a specimen from the Brano Museum, where Audubon had earlier examined it and declared it identical to his rendering; Audubon had attempted to purchase the specimen, but could not afford the price asked. Harlan avers he subsequently deposited it in the museum of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (Audubon 1999:221). The whereabouts of this specimen today are unknown. The New England Museum and the Cleveland Academy of Science listed Washington eagle specimens in their catalogs during the nineteenth century. Literature concurrent with Audubon’s implies that multiple birds were known to have been kept and raised in captivity (Nuttall); Mengel, however, insisted that no specimen existed (Mengel 1953:150).
Finally, many current biographers have cited the Washington eagle as but one more proof of Audubon’s self-aggrandizing and over-zealous temperament. An early biographer did not deny these Audubonian traits, but defended him by reminding readers that Audubon did have an occasional weakness for being careless in statements of matters of fact and that this did lead to a pervasive attitude of distrust in even his accurate writings (Burroughs 1902). What Audubon did prove in his lifetime though was that he was definitely not rafinesque.
While few men’s names become adjectives, few men deserved it as much as Audubon’s brilliant but misunderstood 1818 houseguest, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque. In short, he was a naturalist who had come to America to fulfill his obsession: discovering new species. He was convinced that in America they were everywhere. We have an account of one comical scene in which he destroyed Audubon’s violin while using it as a weapon to procure a bat—he was convinced it was an unnamed species—that had flown in through an open window of the guest room. To poke fun at his mania, Audubon fabricated and sketched ten non-existent, fanciful fishes that Rafinesque, to Audubon’s embarrassment, later published in Europe and attributed to him (Rafinesque 1820, Audubon 1999). After having suffered such scorn and scientific discomposure in the 1820s, it is especially doubtful that he would have risked a similar fate a subsequent time by describing such an imposing new species within his area of expertise without being confident of its authenticity.
Audubon’s conviction about the Washington eagle was reinforced in 1820 as he procured, studied, and painted a bald eagle specimen for four straight days, often forsaking sleep. Upon completion of this marathon and the completion of his painting of a juvenile bald eagle (plate CXXVI), he recorded in his journal that he was—as perhaps we today should also be—convinced that the Washington eagle was, at the time, indeed an exceedingly rare and distinctive species (Aud. 1999 Nov. 23).
Today, the “Washington eagle” has become one with the northern bald eagle. By the 1950s, Mengel had pronounced it “virtually forgotten and long buried in the crypts of synonymy.” Modern revisionism has erased this bird from the annals of ornithological history, as exemplified by the replacement of Bowen’s original Washington eagle woodcut with one of a bald eagle in the popular Chamberlain edition (1929) of Nuttall’s Manual, or the Audubon Society’s Baby Elephant Folio edition of 1981, which has banished the name to a footnote.
While morphometrical comparisons reveal that Audubon’s huge eagle was in all likelihood not an immature bald eagle, it is not feasible, without his specimen, to establish exactly what it was. It will only be through a methodical and open-minded examination of the catalogs of nineteenth-century museums and other collections, both here and abroad—one of which must it seems still contain a tagged Washington eagle specimen—and the use of modern DNA analysis that the answer to questions on the validity of Audubon’s enormous eagle will be finally established.
Historical illustrations of Washington eagles can be found here.
I would like to thank Bill Whan and Dr. Angelo Capparella for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
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Audubon, J. J. 1829. Notes on the Bird of Washington (Falco washingtoniana), or Great American Sea Eagle. Magazine of Natural History, 1, p. 115-120.
Audubon, J. J. 1999. John James Audubon: Writings and Drawings. C. Irmscher, editor. New York: Library of America. No 113. 942 pp.
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Audubon, J. J. Letter to Richard Harlan. 28 April 1836.
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Burroughs, John. 1902. John James Audubon. Woodstock NY: Overlook Press.
Cassin, John. 1853. Illustrations of the Birds of California, Texas, Oregon, British and Russian America. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.
Christy, B. H. 1936. Kirtland Marginalia. The Cardinal 4(4):77-89.
Domazlicky, Ida. 1992. The Bald Eagle in Illinois. Wayne City, IL: Illinois Audubon Society.
Durant, M., and M. Harwood. 1980. On the Road with John James Audubon. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. p. 61.
Friedmann, H. 1950. The Birds of North and Middle America. Part 11. Washington D.C.: U.S. National Museum Bulletin 50.
Gerrard, J. M., D. W. A. Whitfield, P. Gerrard, and W. J. Maher. 1978. Migratory movements and plumage of subadult Saskatchewan bald eagles. Canadian Field-Naturalist 92:375-82.
Gilpin, B. 1873. Variations in the Tarsal Envelope of the Bald Eagle. American Naturalist 7:429-430.
Harmata, A. R.1984. Bald eagles of the San Luis Valley, Colorado: Their winter ecology and spring migration. Ph.D. diss. Montana State University, Bozeman. 1984.
Herrick, F. H. 1917. Audubon the Naturalist: A History of his Life and Time. New York: Appleton.
Howard, H. 1930. A Census of the Pleistocene Birds of Rancho La Brea from the Collection of the Los Angeles Museum. Condor 32(2): 81-88.
Howard, H. 1932.“Eagles and eagle-like vultures of the Pleistocene of Rancho La Brea. Contrib. Paleont. Carnegie Inst. Washington 429:1-82.
Imler, R. H., and E. R. Kalmbach. 1955. The bald eagle and its economic status. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Circular No. 30.
Kirtland, J. P. 1838. Report on the Zoology of Ohio. Second Annual Report, Geologic Survey of the State of Ohio. Columbus.
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McCollough, M. A. 1989. Molting sequence and aging of bald eagles. Wilson Bulletin 101:1-10.
Mengel, Robert M. 1953. On the name of the Northern Bald Eagle and the identity of Audubon’s gigantic ‘Bird of Washington.’ Wilson Bulletin 65(3):145-151.
Nuttall, Thomas. 1832. Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and of Canada. Vol. 1, Land Birds. Hilliard and Brown, Cambridge, Mass.
(Nuttall, Thomas). 1929. A Popular Handbook of the Birds of the United States and Canada, by Thomas Nuttall. Revised and annotated edition by Montague Chamberlain. Boston, Little Brown.
Palmer, R. S., J. S. Gerrard, and M. V. Stalmaster. 1988. Bald Eagle. In Handbook of North American Birds, Vol. 4 (R. S. Palmer, ed.). Yale University Press, New Haven CT.
Pearson, T. Gilbert. 1926. Birds of America. Doubleday & Co., Garden City NY.
Rafinesque, C. S. 1820. Ichthyologia ohioensis, or, Natural history of the fishes inhabiting the river Ohio and its tributary streams, Lexington, Ky.
Rhoads, S. N. 1903. Auduboniana. Auk: 20(4):377-383.
Souder, William. 2004. Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America. New York: North Point Press.
Stalmaster, Mark. 1987. The Bald Eagle. New York: Universe Books. Women’s Project of New Jersey, J. Burstyn, ed. 1990. Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women. Syracuse University Press.
Friday, October 13, 2006
It seems that when you start a snowball rolling, that it just gets bigger. Now, I really didn't know I was dealing with a snowball when I announced--in my last entry--that a new 1970's giant bird witness had stepped forward, but the list of witnesses to these magnificient, monstrous birds of days gone by keeps increasing, by one more here because of that entry. Yesterday, I was contacted by a gentleman who has generously allowed me to reproduce his original email here:
This is the first I have ever heard of other people seeing an unexplainable large bird. For me, it happened so long ago that some of the facts of day and year might not be correct, yet I can still see everything in my mind's eye.
I was returning to Nashville, Tennessee, alone from a visit to my parents in New Jersey in either 1977 or 1978. It was between spring and fall because the tress had all there leaves. I was on Interstate 81 southbound between Bristol and Knoxville, TN. It was early morning; the sun had been up for about an hour. There was a very, very slight ground mist, but visibility was at least a couple miles. There were very few vehicles on the highway and we were running in groups. We were all very conscious of the Tennessee State Police who loved to catch their quota of speeders in those early morning hours.
The highway at this point had cut through an old growth forest. So the tall tress created a natural tunnel vision down the highway. In a long, slight downgrade and just as I had hit the low point to a long slight uphill grade, about a half mile in the distance, a very, very large bird flapped once and flew perpendicular across the highway from southeast to northwest just below tree top level. My first thought which I can remember to this day was “What the hell was that.” I remember thinking about all the birds I had ever seen. I grew up in the Virginia Shenandoah Mountains; been all over the country and been in many nature museums. I had seen plenty of eagles, herons, buzzards and large owls. Then I thought about a condor which I have never seen, but the condors are native to the west coast only. This thing was at least twice as big a wingspan as an eagle. I kept replaying the short sequence of events over and over in my mind.
I slowed down to see if I could look off into the woods and see it again. At that point I noticed a tractor trailer in the northbound lane pulled over onto the shoulder, I also noticed the car in front of me and the two tractor trailers behind me pulling over also. By the time I stopped there were four other cars and five trucks pulled over onto the shoulders, doing the same thing I was doing. Everybody that joined our little gathering asked the same thing, “What the hell was that.” I think everybody was at first happy that they were not the only ones to see this thing. We all gathered at the point where it entered the woods. There were comments like “did you see that thing?”, “what do you think it was?” “where did it go?” “how big do you think it was?” “that thing could carry off a full grown man?”. One guy mentioned a condor, but another guy said the same thing that I knew, condors are on the west coast. After a few minutes people started to leave. One truck driver was going to see if he could follow it on foot, but another truck driver cautioned him that this was black bear country and whatever it was it long gone by now. I know for a fact that everybody was nervous and apprehensive and started making silly jokes, but were happy that they were not the only ones to see this thing. I do not know what it was, and can not to this day even speculate. All I can think of is a picture I recently saw about a skeleton of a “Thunder Bird” found near Tombstone, AZ. But the thing I saw was a bird, not at all resembling a prehistoric bird or flying reptile. I can not say if that skeleton was real or faked but this thing I saw was at least that big.
Thank you for letting ramble, but this is the first time I have ever mentioned this event in writing, although I have told very close friends about it.
C. H. [Last name withheld upon request]
The two witnesses I have so far introduced to the Fortean community for the first time have nothing to gain--at all--from their sightings. I am uncertain as to the origin of his reference to a thunderbird skeleton in Arizona. It is possible he is referring to the controversial "lost" thunderbird photo claimed by John Keel and Robert Lyman (or a contemporary reinactment of it), or he could have been referring to the 1975 discovery of a giant pteranodon skeleton in Texas. Either way, he makes his point as to this being a VERY large bird...big enough to cause ten commuters to stop and pull over. It would take quite a sight in this modern world to trigger such a gathering.
Monday, October 09, 2006
I spoke recently with a witness to an Illinois giant bird. She witnessed her spectacle though in 1973, rather than the more sighting-clustered year of 1977.
“I am not crazy and I don’t go around seeing things!” insists Joni Grawe. The problem is that she did see something that to most people would be considered beyond the realms of believability.
Today Grawe, 49, is a group benefits specialist for a paralegal agency out of Illinois and a former realtor, Sunday school teacher and substitute teacher in the public school systems. In 1973 though, she was simply young woman who witnessed a mind-boggling sight.
At this time, Grawe was a typical sixteen-year-old farm girl from El Dara, Illinois in Pike County who enjoyed nature and would often hike the hills and woods of her family’s farmstead. One of these solo treks proved more terrifying than exhilarating though.
“I can remember it so clearly in my mind,” Grawe recalled. “I can still see it all today. It gives me shivers just thinking about it. Even now, I cannot believe what I saw.”
Grawe literally paused for a moment. I could not tell if the memories were overwhelming her or if she was having second thoughts on telling me her 33-year-old story. She assured me that she had never before told anyone outside of her family circle of her encounter.
Thankfully, she continued.
“I was walking down toward Kaiser Creek. It was a beautiful summer day. I would guess mid- to late-July…the beans were up in the fields. I had to walk up this hill and at the top of the hill was a pond—a beautiful, really secluded area. Adjacent to the hill is a ‘holler’ surrounded by trees. When I was nearing the hill, I heard this trumpet-like screech. It was so strange, unlike anything I had ever heard before.”
“And then I saw them, there were three of them, two big ones and a little one. I say ‘little’, but there was nothing little about it! They were the biggest most frightening birds I have ever seen. The big ones were literally as big as a person standing there. Not thin like a stork, but huge—thick as a person. They looked prehistoric. They were all gray colored, wrinkly-skinned and matted. Their beaks were not ridiculously long, not like a heron’s, and somewhat hooked. Their heads were feathered, not bald like a buzzard.”
“The two big ones were smart enough to roost on the ground, but the little one—the child I assume—seemed more naïve. It tried to perch on a tree. This was a thin tree, but it had to be forty feet tall. The tree buckled—completely bent—under the little bird’s weight!”
“I dropped to the ground just shaking in fear and tried to hide in the beans. I guess it worked, because they didn’t act like they saw me. The big ones started flapping their wings and the earth was literally reverberating from it—the beans were waving! The wingspan must have been at least twelve feet. I just started praying ‘Oh my God protect me!’”
Grawe remained in the beans for several more minutes until the three creatures—with mighty, wind-creating flaps of their wings—departed via flight. Grawe ran the whole half of a mile home in shock and terror from what she wad just witnessed. She had just become the area’s first observer of a “bigclaw", a name coined by the Pantagraph newspaper out of Bloomington, Illinois (and a clear play off the term Bigfoot) some four years later.
Just one more affidavit of the enigmatic avian sightings in Illinois...of which I will no longer attempt to speculate upon as to their origin.
Sunday, October 08, 2006
The summer of 1977 was chaotic for central Illinois news media. The most talked about local story was the multiple sightings of giant birds throughout the region. These numerous accounts commenced with the alleged attempted abduction of young 10-year-old Marlon Lowe by one of these birds on July 25th. A black bird with a white neck ring reportedly swooped down on the undersized boy and, grabbing him by his shirt, briefly raised him from the ground before dropping him—ostensibly from a blow from the boy’s flailing hands.
Exactly what type of birds these were has been argued and debated by cryptozoologists and brave ornithologists now for the past almost thirty years. Next summer will mark the three-fold decade anniversary of the sightings.
Some of sightings have been told countless times on paranormal internet websites, while others, such as the fact that one of the birds alighted just outside a softball outfield fence while the game was progressing—the umpire actually stopped play and all the participants gawked and the avian immensity, have remained for whatever reason neglected. One particular contemporary event that has been complete ignored might just hold the clue that could explain the crazy events of that summer.
On July 22th, just three days prior to the now infamous Lawndale incident, a rural New Holland man [New Holland IL is 20 miles from Lawndale] saw an exotic bird on their farm. An account from the Lincoln Courier described it as such:
“It was larger than a turkey,” said Kenneth Knollenburg, describing the bird on his farm. “I’d guess it weighed 25 pounds or so.” He said the bird was a dull gray with a white neck, small beak and a crest of feathers on its head, hee [sic] added. The bird’s wingspan was estimated at four feet.
“It wasn’t afraid of people,” the New Holland farmer explained. “We wondered at the time if it hadn’t escaped from a zoo.”
Knollenberg, who lives tem miles west of Lincoln on Fifth St. Road, said his family first noticed the strange bird at their farm around 7 p.m. Friday. “It was sitting on top of the barn,” he said. The bird was making a “loud, trumpeting noise,” he added.
Knollenberg said the bird, which flew from rooftop to rooftop of his farm buildings, came down to the ground to eat some corn which the family had thrown out for it to eat.
“It acted like it was used to having people around,” the farmer said. “You could walk up to it, within 50 or 60 feet, and it wouldn’t fly away. It wasn’t afraid of people.”
Knollenberg said the bird flew away sometime after nightfall. He and his wife, by looking in the encyclopedia, said the bird closely matched the identity of an African crested crane.
Mrs. Jake Lowe, Marlon’s mother, had likewise insisted that, after extensive library research, the bird that had attacked her son was a California condor.
Talk of thunderbirds aside, this forgotten New Holland account testifies to the fact that exotic birds were on the loose in central Illinois in late July of 1977. Had a dealer in illegal wildlife accidentally (or on purpose) released a number of exotics? Even with new laws enacted in the early 1970s cracking down on the trafficking of wild and exotic animals, such practices were still unfortunately widespread. Another article from 1977, carried by the AP on August 5th, told of a large-scale, exotic reptile smuggling ring being busted. In it, attorney David Marston noted that “the mentality among the zoos in this country…is ‘if you can get an animal, get it.’”
These puzzle pieces seem to infer that perhaps young Marlon was indeed “attacked” by a black market California condor...or an African vulture...or a [insert a large exotic bird of your choice--never underestimate the animal trade black market!]. The “attack” though was far more likely an attempted shoulder landing, modified by a rightfully panicked boy. These huge birds and the African crested crane were perhaps escapees or releasees and—finding themselves in the foreign environment of central Illinois—didn’t live long enough to create but the small collection of sightings we have today from the latter weeks of July 1977.