The Return of the Thunderbird: Avian Mystery of the Black Forest
by Gerald Musinsky
"There are no more conspicuous creatures than birds... Certainly it is very rarely that a large and quite unknown bird is discovered." -- Bernard Heuvelmans
Once known as the Forbidden Land, the Pennsylvania Black Forest region encompasses Clinton, Potter, Lycoming, Tioga, Cameron, and McKean counties. Predominantly sparsely populated state forest and game lands, it has been haunted for centuries by giant aves known as "thunderbirds."
The earliest known account is that of Mrs. Elvira Ellis Coats, who claimed to have seen Thunderbirds in the 1840's (Lyman, Sr., Robert R. Amazing Indeed, Strange Events in the Black Forest vol 2. 94). But even now, people continue to claim having seen this mythical bird.
Inside the Black Forest. Click and drag photo to resize.
Before dusk in July, 1993, Shane Fisher, his mother and father, saw a very large bird flying above the trees on their property near Larry's Creek. "Looked just like a Piper Cub. You could hear the air rush through the wings," Shane Fisher said.
He described the bird as eagle-like with large black eyes, larger beak than an eagle, no light markings, and wings "wider than a cross bar on a telephone pole." His father thought it "had to be some kind of eagle" so he searched through a reference guide for birds of prey, but to no avail.
No hawk or eagle fit the description. Fisher's mother said it was "large enough to carry one of us away."
Early one April evening, Tammy Golder and her two year old son returned home on Beaver Lake Road. As she travelled a steep grade known as Frantz Hill a few miles east of Hughesville, her headlights revealed a very large bird.
"It jumped and circled over the hood, then hit the truck above the windshield on the passenger side and flew off! It wasn't a turkey or a vulture," she said. The bird left a dent the size of an apple in the cab roof. She was traveling about 40 mph when it hit the truck. She couldn't believe it survived and flew away.
In late September, 1992 as Kim Foley drove home late in the afternoon her two year old son, Jayson shouted, "Mommy, look at the puppy!"
What she saw was not a dog, but a large bird hunched over a deer carcass. "I expected to see a dog," she explained. "But it was a very big bird eating a dead deer. It was huge!" she said, "and dark brown, almost black, an ugly beak. Looked right at us in the car, it was that tall."
At the time of the sighting she was near Mt. Zion Church cemetery, south of a marsh near State Game Lands No. 252 and North White Deer Ridge in Lycoming County. Her sighting occurred where a bird of such dimensions would attract the least attention. No houses.
The former dental technician, admits she's not a bird expert but knew it was not an eagle after looking through a field guide. "More powerful, bigger chest and shoulders, and a big, ugly beak,... Something like this," she said pointing to Steller's sea eagle (Haliaeetus Pelagicus), "but not that one. It was much bigger."
Two weeks later near Hyner, in Clinton County, Dave Sims and children, Zach and Casey, saw a large bird. "It flew ahead of the truck and disappeared in the trees," he said. "I know the hawks around here, but I never saw this one before," Sims continued. "I've heard `thunderbird' stories but chalked that up to regional folklore. I don't know if this was or not, but it was a big, dark gray bird, and flew faster than 55 mph."
In June, Todd Hackenberg and Erin Goundie went crawfish hunting in Young Woman's Creek near North Bend. About 4:30 that afternoon while driving parallel to the creek, Goundie pointed to a large bird standing in the shallow water.
"Down from the spillway stood an awfully big, whitish bird," she said, "About five feet tall, had a long beak, thick legs as long as the stocky body. The neck was long. Not skinny, not thick. Didn't look like a bird that belonged around here, it was so big and strange." To get a better look, Hackenberg drove in reverse but lost sight of the bird in the trees.
"The wings were as wide as the creek. Two and half times longer than the body... held straight like an airplane when it flew off," Hackenberg said.
The shoreline is thickly wooded except at the clearing where the sighting occurred less than thirty feet from the observers. Hackenberg is familiar with hawks, vultures, and eagles, but Goundie is not. Both agree the bird was very large and very strange looking.
Later that summer Allison Stearn was hiking near Shingletown when she saw a bird she described, "like a small plane, dark brown or black, and maybe some yellow. I guess it could've been a Golden Eagle. Do they get that big? I mean, it was like an airplane."
On Thanksgiving Day 1989, Shannon Breiner saw what she thought was a deer on her grandmother's farm near Barbours. When she approached, the creature stood up on two legs and ran towards the swamp. Before it was out of sight, she saw it had no arms!
The creature was "a large eagle-like bird." Where she first spotted the bird she saw a mound of grass flattened in the center like a large ground nest. Breiner, a librarian at Pennsylvania State University is an avid raptor enthusiast. "Not a stork or heron, it had a shorter and thicker neck, and broad chest and shoulders. Not a frail bird," she said.
The area around Barbours (not far from Hughesville) has coniferous and deciduous forest, high elevations, swamp and farmland, and is sparsely populated. Ideal for a giant bird of prey.
While solo backpacking the Doughnut Hole Trail in Sproul State Forest in August 1977, Terry McCormick, a science teacher, saw what he thought "was an airplane in trouble because of how low and silent it flew, as if the engine had cut out." As he watched the plane fly near he realized "it was a bird and when it flapped its wings once and flew out of sight."
McCormick described it as dark brownish gray with a large beak and a straight leading wing edge. Certainly larger than any known eagle. "At least not one I've ever seen before," McCormick said before balking about its size. "How big is a Piper Cub? Because that's how big it looked," he said.
Driving through the Algerines, Russ Powers, Jr. and Denny Eckley stopped for deer crossing the road at Bear Run. As they watched, they saw a bird with wings that "spanned the forest road." The deer bolted into the surrounding woods, except the yearling that stood on the road. Out of nowhere the bird attacked, ripping the yearling's vital areas, and turned to look at them. It flew off struggling with its kill before disappearing above the trees.
Powers described the bird as having: "a longer and less hooked beak than an eagle, dark grayish brown plumage, thick legs, talons larger than a man's hand, and grayish legs." The head was flat with "feathers, like on a chick." The bird stood "eye level with us" and had wings as wide as the forest road, approximately 14-16 feet.
Later Powers and Eckley went to a library and found a photograph in what Powers thought might be The Guiness Book of World Records. The photo depicted a giant bird nailed to a barn wall with the caption "Thunderbird" greatly resembled what they saw.
Often people believe they have seen a particular photograph of a giant bird but cannot recall the source (Hall, Mark, Thunderbirds, 65-66) This mysterious photograph resurfaces from time to time in "thunderbird" lore and is an autonomous enigma.
In August, 1945, the school bus left Helen Erway off by Ole Bull 2 miles from home because the dirt road had been oiled. After walking near a stretch of pines along the road she saw a large shadow on the ground. Overhead was a very large bird. She feared being carried off, so she ran until a neighbor stopped and drove her home. "It was not an eagle. The wings were straight out. It made a high pitch noise. The shadow on the road was about 30 feet," she said recalling the incident.
Erway suffered severe nightmares and could not sleep or eat. Finally her parents took her to her grandmother, Marion Erway, an Indian "medicine woman", who told her she saw a Thunder Bird. That it was there to protect her because she was part Indian. Her grandmother said it was a magic moment and that Helen shouldn't be frightened.
Helen Erway also told of a "thunderbird" hovering over Delbert Schoonover, when he was bitten by a rattlesnake by the dam, until help arrived. Other loggers who came to assist him also saw the bird.
Contemporary "thunderbirds" are not limited to the scenic areas of the Keystone State. Significant sightings have occurred in Illinois, West Virginia, and other states across America. Not surprising since the Thunder Bird myth was as wide spread among the Native Americans.
The Thunder Bird is a nature spirit shared by most if not all Algonquian tribes (McClintock, Walter. "The Thunderbird Myth I" 170 and 16; also Alanson Skinner, "The Algonkin and The Thunderbird" 71-72).
According to Winnabego tradition, "Thunder is a spirit, and it is an emblem of war, it is winged, mighty and awful and it is called the Thunder Bird." (Curtis, Natalie, THE INDIANS BOOK: Song & Legends of the American Indian 252).
The Chippewa supreme bird had "eyes of fire, his glance was lightning, and the motions of his wings filled the air with thunder." (Emerson, Ellen Russell. Indian Myths 34). Concerning the origins of thunderstorms, "The Mandan supposed that it was because the thunderbird broke through the clouds (Hodge, Frederick Webb Handbook of American Indians (North of Mexico) 747)."
This colloquial nomenclature to identify a raptor larger than an eagle is presumably inappropriate since the Thunder Bird in the majority of Native American myths is benevolent toward humans. "Thunder Bird... was a friend of man... a willing protector; ...also a teacher and, at times, a creator" (Wherry, Joseph E. Indian Myths of the West 59-60). "It was the Thunderbird who taught the Kwakiutl how to build houses." (Wherry 60-65).
An Assiniboin account claims, "...but the old Thunder, or big bird is wise and excellent, he never kills or injures anyone" (Judson, Katherine B. Myths and Legend of the Great Plains 48).
But a Comanche story differs, "...a hunter once shot a large bird...it was so large he was afraid to go near it alone..." (Judson, 47). The hunter believed he shot a Thunder Bird. When he returned with the Medicine Man and others from the village, the bird was gone, and the hunter was struck by lightning during the resulting storm. This tale implies another large bird, not a mythical deity, but an earthly creature, existed concurrently with early Native Americans.
Thunder Bird lore can be classified as a benevolent nature deity or a malicious predator; not a spirit but mortal and co-extant with the aboriginal inhabitants of pre-colonial North America. The non-spirit myth might lead to the conceivable origins of giant birds reported in more recent times.
Powerful enough to carry away full grown deer, the piasa was a bird of prey and in spite of its size, could quickly surprise a hunter and carry him off to devour him in its cave. Entire villages were decimated.
A painted rock once existed near present day Alton, Illinois honoring Chief Ouatago and his band of twenty braves who slew the beast and delivered the Illini from its grizzly depredations (Russell, John. "The Piasa, An Indian Tradition of the Illinois", The Piasa 11-19).
The Hu-huk (Hoh-hoq) was a mythical bird of prey among the Pawnee was said to devour hunters (Curtis 258). Described as cannibalistic it is similar in behavior to the piasa; having tasted human flesh preferred it to deer.
"According to Indian legends the thunderbird flew down, seized a victim by the shoulders, and carried the prey to a barren mountain top where it was devoured. First the belly was ripped open, while the victim was still alive, and then the insides were eaten. Lastly, it picked a hole in the skull and ate the brain.
The Indians said it was capable of carrying away deer or a man" (Lyman, Sr. Amazing Indeed 93). Lyman's "thunderbird" is unlikely the same Thunder Bird mentioned in the vast amount of Native American myths.
Other accounts of giant birds preying on humans in post-colonial times exist. Stories such as Marie Delex and Jemmie Kenny (Pouchet, F. The Universe 255), Landy Junkins ("A Modern Roc" St. Louis Globe Democrat, February 1895 7) and Marlon Lowe (The Daily Pantograph July 1977 A-3) which irritate ornithologists fearing unwarranted attacks on more familiar and endangered species.
But also, these tales appear to substantiate Indian accounts of immense avian carnivores lingering from a neolithic past which might still exist in the most remote parts of North America, like the Black Forest region of Pennsylvania.
Regional historian and folklorist, Robert Lyman, Sr. recorded "thunderbird flocks" were seen near Dent's Run in 1892, (94).
|.......Renovo River Area. Source: Mckittrick.com|
In April 1922, Hiram Crammer saw his first Thunderbird with a 35 foot wing spread at Hammersley Fork. In 1957 "thunderbirds" appeared regularly over Renovo, Westport, Shintown, and Hammersley Fork (Cranmer's letter-to-the-editor, FATE, August 1957, also Lyman 94).
Near Bush Dam in 1964, road workers watched a "thunderbird" carry off a fawn (Lyman 95). A couple saw a giant bird fly at the car. "She said the claw was at least 4 times as big as her hand, and its legs as large as her arm..."
"Thunderbirds" soared over Jersey Shore in 1970, with estimated 18 foot wings. A family saw a "gigantic winged creature... almost like an airplane" (96).
In 1971, two women saw a "'thunderbird' devouring a dead opossum, "...its wings covered the tops of four trees which was 18 feet" (97).
In 1892, a farmer in Centerville caught a bird eating a dead cow at the edge of his field. Former Potter County school superintendent, A. P. Akeley, saw the bird and said "its color was grey. It stood upright. He is not sure how tall it was, but certainly over 4 feet and perhaps as much as 6 feet" (Lyman 97).
Near Coudersport in 1940, Lyman Sr. sighted a huge bird "between 3 and 4 feet tall... like a very large vulture.... its wing spread was equal to the width of the road..." (97).
The number of giant birds sighted in Pennsylvania were numerous enough for Mark A. Hall to devote a chapter on "Pennsylvania Thunderbirds," in his book Natural Mysteries (67-82, also see Thunderbirds). He lists additional sightings at Jersey Shore, Oregon Hill, Sundlinerville, Cross Forks, by Lyman and others, and the last near Snow Shoe by Herb Nesman (Hall 77-78). Nesman also later revealed that he and several others had seen small flocks near Hammersley Fork in the 1940's and recalled Cranmer's theories about "thunderbirds" and the Eastern Condor (another regional avian myth).
After the Agnes [Hurricane] Flood of 1973, a Renovo librarian watched what appeared to be two airplanes dipping and diving in tight circles above Hyner. She realized "they were not airplanes, but birds the size of planes high in the air. No plane could fly like that," she said.
A woman in Hyner, while hanging the wash with her infant in a basket beside her, saw a bird bigger than an eagle overhead. She dropped the wash, grabbed the child, and rushed into the house. The bird flew within thirty feet of her home. She had never mentioned it before. Another reason for the dearth of contemporary reports: observer reluctance to speak.
Mike Floryshak, Sr. was near Huntsville in summer of 1973 when he saw an airplane flying across a field before he realized it was a bird "...gliding about six to ten feet above the ground beside the car. I didn't think it possible," he said, "the wings appeared to be twenty feet wide." It was "dirty brown," with a large beak and very level, stiff wings. The bird didn't flap but turned on edge and disappeared into woods bordering the farm.
Late one afternoon, Charlie Passell and others sighted a "thunderbird" west of Renovo in late May, 1964. The bird was spotted perched in a dead Hemlock tree at a strip mine near Bush dam. "Where the wing meets the body was thick, longer neck than a hawk's but not as long as a stork or crane, bigger beak than an eagle," he said. Passell heard of "thunderbirds" and figured "that's what we must've seen because it wasn't like any bird we were familiar with. Definitely no eagle. Larger than a buzzard, real large."
From his camp at Kettle Creek, Robert Lyman, Jr., son of the regional historian and folklorist, sighted "thunderbirds" over Rattle Snake Mountain in 1973. Too far to notice any distinctive markings, he used his forestry skills to estimate the size of the bird.
"Over the very tall mountain in front of the camp, I saw two huge birds, slow wing thrusts, I used my finger nail to triangulate the size. By knowing distance and height of the mountain I calculated the wing span between 14-15 feet."
Lyman's father recorded "thunderbird" reports from Hiram Cranmer, a central figure in "thunderbird" lore. Both men professed theories about the "thunderbird" and the "Eastern condor" (Gymnogyps pennsylvanianus). Lyman, Jr. regards the "thunderbird" and the "Eastern Condor" as being distinctly separate species aptly describing the Eastern condor as identical to the California condor (G. californianus) except for minor variation in plumage (G. pennsylvanianus is lighter, the head darker). [Gymnogyps fossil remains were found in Genesee County, NY, north of the Black Forest].
Regarding the "Thunderbird" photograph Lyman, Jr. commented, "I've seen that photograph Hi Cranmer claimed to have." Crystal, Lyman Jr.'s daughter, recalled the photograph, possibly in Ripley's Believe It or Not.
Because of the frequent sightings, Lyman, Sr. speculated the "thunderbird" home is in the Black Forest, "north of the Susquehanna River, between Pine Creek in the east and Kettle Creek in the west (97)." But sightings have occurred in Clearfield, Cameron and Centre counties, beyond Lyman's designated boundaries.
In Spring of 1977 two Curwensville school teachers, Debbie Wright and Sue Howell, while driving to Du Bois about 7:30 am were unsettled by a very large bird "wider than the car." It flew straight at them before it veered away.
The sighting occurred on Route 219 near Drocker's Woods about nine miles south of Du Bois, bordered by State Game Lands No. 87 and Moshannon State Forest. Sue Howell said, "It was big, black or very dark brown with a huge beak." Debbie Wright said, "It was horrible, big, black and ugly. I'll never forget that. It was frightening!"
A large, charcoal grey bird perched on a rock in the Susquehanna parallel Route 879 at Curwensville was seen twice by a Clearfield store clerk. She first saw the bird about 9:00 am in the early Autumn 1991 and in October 1992, near the same spot at 7:30 am while on the way to work.
The bird stood on one leg, head twisted around and the beak nuzzled over the shoulder. She said the legs were "thick like an ostrich and it appeared to be sleeping." It wasn't a Great Blue Heron.
Truck drivers on Boot Jack Hill, north of the Howell/Wright sighting, were "harassed by large dark birds resembling "big buzzards" over the last few years.
This extended range of recent sightings could indicate populations spreading into "thunderbird" territory, while strip-mining and developments force the bird into more populated areas. Eagles are not known as domiciles and rarely frequent the area. The observers are certain the birds sighted are strikingly larger than eagles.
How can an immense unknown avian species elude detection? If the "thunderbird" exists then why haven't people reported it?
People have. But the reports are denied and trained observers fail to investigate. Most reports come from people who live in the areas and have a greater chance of sighting the bird than infrequent visitors. To dismiss the reports as "too incredible" lacks scientific rigor.
The opinion that all witnesses are incapable of identifying eagles, hawks, or vultures is a false assumption. The most outstanding and condemning feature is the bird's tremendous size. Even skilled observers have difficulty accurately assessing the size of a bird in the air. An eagle in flight is an awe inspiring sight.
Witnesses agree their reports are fantastic and hard to believe yet attest that the extraordinary bird they saw cannot be a known species.
Another argument against the "thunderbird" as a "bona fide" species is that no bird with so wide a wingspan could dwell in the thick forests where it has been sighted. Yet, the world's two largest eagles, the Harpy (Harpyia harpyia) and the Monkey Eater (Pithecophaga jefferyi) live near rivers in dense tropical forests. Both prey on primates and have ten foot wingspans.
Like most tropical birds their plumage is colorful and they possess other features which rule out a several thousand mile periodic visit to scenic Pennsylvania. But is it unreasonable to consider a similar North American species?
Not unless one wonders how it was able to remain undiscovered for so long a time and still secreted from eyes of contemporary naturalists.
Early pioneers considered the "thunderbird" to be an eagle other than the Bald and Golden eagles already known, like Audubon's Great Washington Eagle. The Monkey Eater of the Philippines was only discovered by John Whitehead in 1896 (Heuvelmans, Bernard. On the Track of Unknown Animals, 20) while a year earlier a distant kin might have been nesting in Webster Springs ("A Modern Roc" St Louis Globe Democrat).
John Audobon, famed naturalist and artist, twice had sighted what he referred to as the Great Washington eagle (present day ornithologists claim is the juvenile of the Bald eagle) once near Alton, and the other time en route through northern Pennsylvania.
Also regional lore claims Mark Twain while writing on rock (in present day Ravensburg State Park) and Edgar Allen Poe (now Poe Valley) sighted immense black birds in Pennsylvania.
Collectively the sightings possess more common than contrary characteristics. To dismiss the reports as embellished tales, hoaxes and fabrications prejudges the issue. Native American accounts regarding mythic birds of prey coincide with contemporary living folklore.
To suggest an identity for the illusive Thunderbird is difficult since no verified physical evidence has been collected; such as nests, feathers, droppings, or even the "mythic" photographs.
Speculative analysis of the empirical evidence says more about what the "thunderbird" is not, than what it might be. But what it is not might lead to what it is. Yet one fact remains, an avian of immense dimensions has been sighted again in the remote areas of Pennsylvania's Black Forest.
Addison. "A Modern Roc." St. Louis Globe Democrat 24 February 1895
Cranmer, Hiram. Letter-to-the-editor. FATE August 1957
Curtis, Natalie, THE INDIANS BOOK: Song & Legends of the American Indian. New York: Dover, 1966
Emerson, Ellen Russell. Indian Myths. Minneapolis: Ross and Haines, 1965
Hall, Mark A. Thunderbirds. 2nd Ed. Bloomington: Mark A. Hall Publications, 1994----, "Pennsylvania Thunderbirds,"
Natural Mysteries. Bloomington: Mark A. Hall Publications, 1991
Hodge, Frederick Webb Handbook of American Indians (North of Mexico). New York: Pageant Books, 1959
Heuvelmans, Bernard. On the Track of Unknown Animals. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971
Hultkrantz, Ake. The Religions of the North American Indian. Trans.
Monica Settwerwall. Berkely: University of California Press, 1979
Judson, Katherine B. Myths and Legend of the Great Plains.
Chicago: A. C. McClure 1913 "King Vultures or California Condors." The Daily Pantograph (Bloomington/Normal, IL) 27 July 1977 A-11
Lyman, Sr., Robert R. Amazing Indeed, Strange Events in the Black Forest. vol. 2.
Coudersport, PA: Potter Enterprise, 1971
McClintock, Walter. "The Thunderbird Myth I." vol. 15 nos. 5 and 6. 1941
Pouchet, F. The Universe, New York: Scribners, 1881 255 Russell, John. "The Piasa, An Indian Tradition of the Illinois." The Piasa. Alton Arts Council 1970
Skinner, Alanson, "The Algonkin and the Thunderbird." American Museum Journal vol. 14 no. 2 February 1914
Wherry, Joseph E. Indian Mass Myths of the West. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1969
Copyright © 1997 Gerald Musinsky
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North Bend, PA 17760
Copyright © 1996-2002 Scott T. Norman, scottnorman.com
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