WORMWOOD FILES: "Flying Freaks, Part 2"

By Dr. Abner Mality

Regular readers of the Wormwood Files may recall a previous installment entitled "It's Not a Bird, It's Not A Plane", which was about the multitude of  bizarre man-like beings seen flying all over the world. At that time, I said I'd be back with another edition, this time looking at monstrous bird-like beasts. Well, bunky, strap those parachutes on, because we are finally ready to head back into the Wild Blue Yonder in search of more flying freaks.

Human mythology has always been full of tales of giant birds and flying monsters. Sinbad the Sailor ran afoul of the titanic rocs, birds so big that they could carry elephants into the sky. It's hard to find a primitive culture that doesn't have giant birds in it...American Indian folklore, in particular, is full of such creatures. The tribes of the Great Plains believed implicitly in Thunderbirds...mighty avians that seemed to follow powerful thunderstorms.

Great birds are so common in all mythologies that they must be based on memories of real creatures. In prehistoric times, there were monster raptors known as teratorns that had incredible wingspans...the largest of these, native to Argentina, had wings extending an incredible 25 feet across. These teratorns were also rapacious predators and certainly would have been capable of attacking and killing a human being. The mighty teratorns would have haunted the dreams of many a primitive man and could have easily etched themselves into legends handed down through the millenia.

But the question arises: have all the teratorns disappeared? Did they live far past their Ice Age extinction date....in fact, are they still being seen in modern times? A surprising amount of reports suggest that these monsters of the sky may still exist.

Some bush pilots in modern day Alaska would agree. In 2002, there were multiple sightings of huge birds made by small plane pilots working the Alaskan coast. One report that got national attention was made by a pilot who flew alongside an enormous brownish-whitish bird whose wingspan seemed to match that of his plane. Some have said this pilot exaggerated the size of a Stellar's Sea Eagle, a truly impressive raptor that has an 8 foot wingspan. It's true, judging the size of a bird in flight can be tricky, but an experienced bush pilot would likely have seen a Stellar's Sea Eagle before. And many people in the area of Manakotak, where the pilot saw the monster, had been seeing a huge flying creature for weeks.

Thunderbird sightings have taken place almost everywhere in the US but two states stand out in terms of frequent encounters: Illinois and Pennsylvania. If thunderbirds have a "home", it would be these states. One of my former addresses was the small town of Caledonia, IL...which had a notorious "big bird" sighting in 1948. In fact, the whole state had a rash of Thunderbird sightings in April of that year. In the Caledonia case,  farmer Robert Price and his family were out working on April 9 when they were amazed to see an enormous bird flying over their property. The bird was described as being like a vulture or condor (this is how a teratorn would be described) and even larger than a small airplane. The witnesses said they feared that either they or their livestock might fall prey to the huge beast.

The very same day, a truck driver in Freeport, about forty miles to the West, also saw a gigantic bird. This flying giant certainly got around...he was spotted in downstate Alton on April 4 by several witnesses, including a respected military man. The monster bird was also spotted on April 10 in Overland, Illinois by a Mr. Les Bacon and Mr. and Mrs. Clyde Smith. The descriptions tallied so well, there was little doubt it was the same individual being seen.

The most notorious giant bird incident in Illinois history...and probably the U.S. as a whole...took place in 1977 in the tiny
McLean county village of Lawndale. On a pleasant summer evening in July, three young children were playing in the backyard of Jake and Ruth Lowe. The sun was preparing to set in a clear sky when Ruth Lowe heard her 10 year old son Marlon scream. She could not believe what she saw next...Marlon was being lifted into the air by a gigantic bird resembling a vulture! The creature grasped the boy's upper arms and shoulders tightly with its talons and actually had him off the ground.

Ruth let out a shriek and combined with Marlon's struggles, the thunderbird dropped the boy to the ground. Mrs. Lowe maintains to this day that if she had not been present, Marlon may have been pulled dangerously high into the air. As for the terrified child, his shirt was torn and there were scratches on his arms, but he was otherwise uninjured. Several other adults were drawn to the scene by the commotion and they all testified they saw two enormous raptors with curved beaks, black feathers and white ruffs around their neck flying away. Even now, many years later, Ruth and Marlon Lowe staunchly stick to their story. The giant birds were seen in McLean county several times during 1977.

The birds matched the description of condors. The only condor native to North America is the California condor, which is almost extinct in the wild. The California condor is one of the hugest known birds but would still be incapable of lifting a 65 lb child into the air. The Andean condor is larger yet, but has never been seen in North America. Suggestions that the marauder was a turkey vulture or eagle were quickly shot down. The best solution was seemingly impossible: the giant bird was a teratorn, supposedly extinct for thousands of years.

It is worth noting that many Illinois thunderbird sightings have taken place in the vicinity of Alton, Illinois. Alton is also the home of the famous "Piasa Monster" painting...an ancient Indian depiction of a ferocious winged monster painted onto the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River near Alton. As Indian lore had it, a cave amongst the bluffs was home to the ravenous flying Piasa monster, which terrorized the local tribes for years until a brave warrior managed to kill it. Is it possible the Alton area has always been a lair for predatory thunderbirds, with one particularly dangerous individual forming the basis for the Piasa?

Pennsylvania has also been the site of many thunderbird encounters. It seems that the giant avians may nest there. Sightings have been frequent, especially in the Western part of the state, from the 19th century right up until the present day. Unlike other paranormal or cryptozoological creatures where there are numerous "spikes" in sightings, eyewitness reports of Pennsylvania thunderbirds remain very steady and the physical description of the birds rarely vary. Greensville, Erie, Beaver Falls and Sunderlinville are just a few of the many towns where the birds have been spotted. The frequency and consistency of the sightings is an indication to many that the thunderbird phenomenon is a real one, not just misidentifications of known birds like blue herons and sandhill cranes.

Have photographs ever been taken of thunderbirds or other flying monsters? On Youtube, one can find several purported videos of giant creatures in flight, but invariably the videos are vague and lack nearby objects for easy size comparison. Has there ever been a picture of a giant bird dead or at rest? The answer is clouded by controversy and accusations of hoax.

There have been many tales of an old picture taken in the 1800's of a dead thunderbird of massive size. It was shot and killed by a hunting party and then stretched out for the photo with members of the hunting party standing next to it. Six men stood behind the monster and the wingspan seemed to stretch out further than their combined reach. But confusion reigns when various descriptions of the picture come up. Some said the picture was taken in Tombstone, AZ, others that it was shot by Civil War soldiers in a southern battlefield. Most descriptions were those of a giant raptor like bird, but in a few cases, the creature was described as a leather-winged pterodactyal. The monster was either laying on the ground or nailed to the side of a barn.

Lots of supposed pictures fitting this description have circulated around cryptozoology sites on the web. You see some here. In each case, they have been debunked as fakes. One was actually a convincing publicity photo done for a science fiction TV series. The general feeling is that all existing photos are hoaxes or perhaps recreations of the original event. Many people recall seeing an actual photo in old textbooks and memorabilia and swear that the event actually took place. There is an ongoing search for the "true" thunderbird photo, if one exists. I wonder if it is really so hard to believe a last few teratorns lurking in the lonelier parts of the Great Plains. Maybe the last one was shot over a hundred years ago...or maybe they still exist. Ask Marlon Lowe about that!

So far, we've talked about "birds"...feathered, beaked variations of the same twittering creatures we throw popcorn and seeds to. But there are other flying creatures haunting the skies that are NOT birds. Some seem to be gigantic bats...or even survivors from the age of the dinosaurs.

South Texas has been the home of numerous sightings of leathery-winged, featherless flying creatures. The most infamous flap (pardon the pun) took place in 1976 when two policemen, Arturo Padilla and Homer Galvan, spotted a huge flying animal near San Benito. Both insisted the monster just glided along without flapping its wings and that it had "a face like a gorilla". This last description could fit certain species of bats but bats do not glide. When looking for pictures that resembled what they saw, both Padilla and Galvan identified a pterosaur...a flying reptile extinct for millions of years.

The policemen were not the only ones to see the prehistoric relic. Several school teachers also swore they saw a pterosaur in the Brownsville area...a man named Alverico Guajardo actually said he saw the creature standing upright in his front yard, with its wings wrapped around its body. To this day, occasional sightings of a pterosaur-like creatures are made along the Texas-Mexico border. Anybody who has seen the fantasy film "Valley of Gwangi" about a hidden valley of dinosaurs in the Old West almost has to wonder...does such a place exist?

If there was truly a "lost world" out there, it just might be in the impenetrable swamps and jungles of Africa. And it is from places like the Congo, Angola and Zambia that reports of the mysterious Kongamato, the most well-known pterosaur-like creature, have come. These leather-winged, toothy-mouthed flying beasts have been known to native peoples of the region for millenia but it was in 1923 that reports of the Kongamato reached Western civilization. Explorer Frank Melland devoted a fair amount of space to describing it in his book "In Witch-Bound Africa". The name "Kongamato" translates as "breaker of boats" and refers to a flying animal with a wingspan of four to seven feet. The animal is described as having red, leathery skin and no feathers. It has a long pointed beak full of sharp teeth, which automatically disqualifies it as being a bird, since birds have no teeth. It is also said to have a long, thin tail and sometimes a bony crest on the head.

The Kongamato are quite vicious and seem to have a special hatred for anybody on a boat, diving and snapping at such people. When Western explorers showed pictures of various birds and flying creatures to the natives, they always identified a pterosaur as being a Kongamato...particularly one particular kind of pterosaur called a rhamphorynchus, which is an almost exact match. When shown pictures of other flying creatures like vultures, storks and eagles, the natives said they were nothing like the Kongamato.

The Congo has long been a hotbed of "dinosaur sightings"...natives also claim to have seen the giant mokele m'bembe, which resembles a sauropod dinosaur, as well as the stegosaur-like mbielu-mbielu-mbielu and the mysterious, horned emela-ntouka. If any place on Earth was suitable for surviving dinosaurs, it would be the hellish morass of the Conglese swamps, some of which even natives find impossible to navigate.

Other cryptozoologists have theorized that the Kongamato could be a gigantic, unknown type of bat. The hammerhead bat is known to be quite large but it would be wildly out of character for it to attack boats in broad daylight, which the Kongamato is known to do. Numerous expeditions into the heart of Kongamato territory have failed to yield any concrete results, though a couple of inconclusive videos of flying creatures have been made. Yet the animal continues to be seen and taking into account how remote and inaccessible its domain is, the Kongamato may be safe from man for some time to come.

A giant bat would seem to be the likely explanation for the creature known as the Ahool, which lives in the dense forests of Java. First mentioned by Dr. Ernest Bartels, the Ahool is named for its eerie cry and is described as having an ape-like face, black leathery wings and grayish fur. The famous cryptozoologist Ivan Sanderson claims he was attacked by a dive-bombing Ahool while on the hunt for rare fruit bats. He was certain the creature was a gigantic bat. However, it's worth pointing out that the rare Javan Wood Owl resembles descriptions of the Ahool and is known to be aggressive in defending its territory. With the Javan forests now under full assault from encroaching bulldozers, the Ahool mystery may be solved soon.

I've just scratched the surface on the enigmatic living creatures that have been seen soaring through the skies. When you add UFO's and strange lights, it seems that instead of being peaceful and serene, the skies are teeming with things we barely understand. Can they all be cases of mistaken identity and hoax? It seems highly unlikely.

So I will once again leave you with the same quote I used to close the previous Wormwood Files on flying anomalies: "Watch the skies! Keep watching the skies!"

This is Dr. Abner Mality, turning out the lights...