In studying reports of “mystery birds,” there are many ambiguities. Before sportsmen carried binoculars, Things with Wings could vanish before being identified, and were often heard, rather than seen, raising many questions: Is it a bird? A ghost? A living bird seen as an omen of evil or of death? A spectral bird fulfilling the same function? Is the report in the paper a journalistic composite—its description cobbled together from different species for maximum mystery like a Feejee Mermaid? (Mothman, Thunderbirds, and other winged weirdies are for another post, another time, although there are some giant birds here.)
Is it a bird blown off course and unfamiliar to the witnesses? I always assumed that early settlers were aware of the animals around them; could tell a screech owl from the ghost of a screaming Indian chief and knew that the size of the American Bittern bore no relationship to its roaring call. But looking at the stories, this does not seem to be true. So I issue my usual caveats: Some of these may be hoaxes; most are probably birds that birders may readily recognize. I do well just to recognize Our Feathered Friends at the feeders in the back yard.
A winged what-is-it:
A CURIOUS MAKE-UP
A Vicious Bird With the Head of a Monkey and Tail of a Turkey
Wapakoneta, O., July 20. On the farm of John Rodabaugh, near Moulton, five miles west of this city, is a strange bird, which has attracted the attention of hundreds. The bird was captured several weeks ago while the family was coming home from church one Sunday, and not until it had received a load of shot did it allow itself to be taken captive, and then its captor was fearfully lacerated by its sharp claws. The bird is caged up and somewhat resembles an owl in shape, but having a face shaped like a heart and exactly the image of a monkey, with a fine fur all over its face. It has the tail of a turkey, while its feathers are of a very delicate yellowish gray color. It lives wholly on young birds, and when fed it swallows the bird whole and afterward spits out the bones and feathers. It utters a most unearthly noise, being like the squeal of a pig.Wheeling [WV] Register 21 July 1891: p. 4 [Some sort of owl?]
SAW MONSTROUS BIRD
Seven Feet High, He Says, Had 20 Foot Spread of Wings.
Wilton, N.H., Nov. 29. A monstrous bird, standing seven feet high, with 200foot spread of wings and heavy enough to break off a large limb from a tree on which it alighted, was seen by John L. Kerr of the Roby farm in Nashua, according to the tale he told here today.
Mr. Kerr says the bird circled about the air above him as he was feeding his hens, and finally perched in a large elm tree. He called his family to see the bird, and their appearance frightened it, for it flew away. In so doing the bird broke a limb, which Mr. Kerr says was strong and sound. Others who saw the bird on the wing declare it to be the largest ever seen in that section, declares Mr. Kerr. Boston [MA] Herald 30 November 1907: p. 2
A history of Williams County, Ohio describes the “strange, melancholy sound” of a “lone bird” no one could locate. “No note of bird, cry of wild beast or wail of night wind like it had been heard at all. Those who heard the sound were unable to describe it. Some likened it to the tap of a bell, sometimes in the tree tops and sometimes in mid-air. They said it was not unlike the note of the night bird, and yet it was different…. Sometimes the sound would come as from one lone creature, and then it would seem like many were united in producing it.”
The bird caused quite a flap; the young men went out in a body to try to track it down, but only one person ever caught a glimpse of it, describing it as brown, and about the size of a quail. It disappeared as he approached it—whether into the dusk or into another dimension is not stated. A Standard History of Williams County, Ohio, Charles A. Bowersox, 1920
In 1901, people around Lewistown Reservoir in Auglaize County, Ohio, were alarmed by a “ghost” that was called a “Thunder Bird” or a Thunder Pumper,” probably an American Bittern. . It is active only at night, and makes a weird, unearthly noise, as if “pumping” thunder by the yard, and hence its name. The noise it makes is strangely terrifying, and half a dozen of them can make night hideous. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 3 June 1901: p. 4
STRANGE BIRD KILLED IN DUEL WITH ROOSTER UNKNOWN TO SCIENTISTS
Cornwall, Vt., Feb. 6 Ornithologists are endeavouring to determine the species of a strange bird which descended into the barnyard of Mrs. F.D. Manchester, wooed a Plymouth Rock hen, and was slain in a duel with a jealous rooster.
The intruder was gray, about the size of a duck, had a long red beak and such short legs that it waddled with difficulty. Its feet were webbed and in fighting it used its bill like a rapier. Superior agility won for the rooster. Duluth [MN] News-Tribune 7 February 1921: p. 2
A singular Bird, not noticed by Audubon or Wilson, was shot a few days since at Manchester, near Richmond, (Va). It measured across the wings, three feet, within a fraction. The bill, which was rounded and all the length nearly of the same size, measured seven inches, not from its insertion, but from the cessation of the feathers. The plumage was of the mahogany color of the Woodcock, but paler and not so richly painted. When shot first and crippled, the bird was extremely fat, vying with the Sora or Rice bird in this respect. It was slightly shot in the head, and the person who shot it, being extremely anxious to preserve it, used all possible pains to find for it suitable food, trying its appetite with all temptations. It would partake only of worms and insects, rejecting grain, and thus proving its family to be, not Partridge, nor Pheasant, nor Turkey—but Kildea, Tilter, Plover and Curlew. It languished for five days. Charleston [SC] Courier 26 September 1845: p. 2
A STRANGE BIRD MIGRATING
New York Sun: New Haven, June 6. Sportsmen here are exercised over a strange bird that was shot at Morris Cove by Andrew Callahan. Its species is unknown. The body is not unlike that of a duck, but the head has a long narrow bill, with red feathers running along the side. The breast is covered with white fleecy feathers, like those of the sea gull. The feet are devoid of claws or toes; neither is the bird web footed like the duck. In place of the toes are five flippers, like those of a blue-claw crab. For this reason the bird is thought to belong to the species of paddler which frequents high Northern latitudes and which is supposed to be a species of noddy. It is probable that the bird will be stuffed and placed in the Yale museum. Nothing like it has ever been seen here before. Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL] 18 June 1889: p. 5
Then we come to a more dubious specimen eating a full-grown sheep up a tree.
A Singular Bird
On Sunday of last week a novelty in the bird line was killed in Kentucky, opposite Mound City, Ill., by a man named Jim Henry, of that city. The Cairo Democrat says:
It is larger than the ostrich, and weighs one hundred and four pounds. The body of this wonderful bird is covered with snow white down, and its head is of a fiery red. The wings of deep black, measure fifteen feet form tip to tip, and the bill, of a yellow color, twenty-four inches. Its legs are slender and sinewy, pea green in color and measure forty-eight inches in length. One of the feet resembles that of a duck, and the other that of a turkey. Mr. Harney shot it at a distance of one hundred yards, from the topmost branch of a dead tree where it was perched, preying upon a full sized sheep that it had carried from the ground.
This strange species of bird, which is said to have existed extensively during the days of the mastodon, is almost entirely extinct—the last one having been seen in the State of New York during the year 1812. Potter has it on exhibition in his office at Mound City. Its flight across the town and river was witnessed by hundreds of citizens. Columbus [GA] Daily Enquirer, 2 September 1868: p. 4
Any look at mystery birds needs a freak specimen, the proverbial One White Crow.
There was caught lately at Mansfield, a young crow, entirely white. The bird was forwarded to Edinburgh, in expectation of its being thought deserving of preservation in the College Museum. On Monday last another young crow was shot at Merteun, with three legs. The extra leg is placed between the ordinary ones; it is attached to the skin only, and has no joint above the claws; the claws are five in number, of a yellowish white color, and in form of a man’s hand. In all other respects it resembles its fellows. Freedom’s Journal [New York, NY] 1 August 1828
Mr. John McDowell has on exhibition at his store a curiosity in the shape of a young rain crow. It is snow white and has pink eyes, or in other words is a full-fledged albino. The strange bird was captured near town a few days ago. Charlotte [NC] Observer 25 July 1910: p. 1
This next story has more in common with the phantom birds at the end of this post. Probably the simplest explanation is that the bird got back out the front door, but do chickens fly like that?
MYSTERIOUS BIRD HAS ALL GUESSING
Even Police Chief Cleary Failed in Search for it in Fruit Store
“When is a Chicken Not a Chicken?” or “The Omen of the Mysterious Bird,” was a comedy that attracted a good crowd of people to the fruit store of David Plough about 1 o’clock yesterday afternoon. The bird was there, that the spectators agree upon. It was large and pure white. Beyond that, however, there is a difference of opinion.
Mrs. Teresa Schofield, Plough’s sister, who saw the bird, saw that it was a chicken and had a large red comb. Others maintain that it was a large pigeon. Still others go so far as to assert that it was no common bird, but some kind of an omen.
The bird was first seen flying above the Williams jewelry store on South Broad Street. With one great swoop, it flew down and in front of the Plough store across the street, overturning small baskets of fruit which were in its path. This attracted the attention of Mrs. Schofield, who saw the bird and turned to call her brother from the rear of the store. When she looked again, the bird had vanished.
It had not gone out through the door again, for several passers-by, who hurried there assert that. The back door was closed. It must have hidden itself among the fruit boxes, thought the proprietor and the people who gathered around. Not so. The entire store was ransacked, but the bird could not be found.
Chief of Police Cleary was passing at the time and saw the bird enter the store. Now, the chief is an expert when it comes to apprehending “birds,” but this one was too much for him. All his detective ability was called into play, but to no avail. He had to give it up.
The only conclusion that Plough can draw is that it is an omen of some kind, and he believes that it is an omen of good, because of the bird’s spotless color. Trenton [NJ] Evening Times 11 September 1912: p. 2
I think the reference to “birds,” means criminals, but the City Solictor/Counsel at this time was one Charles E. Bird.
UP IN THE AIR
Third District Neighborhood Disturbed by a Mysterious Bird
The mysterious bird that has caused so much comment downtown of late between Elysian Fields and Lafayette Avenue, was on the job again last night, flying over Elysian Fields Street. A car full of people saw it. It was not making any noise.
John Inch of 926 Port Street, motorman on a Carondelet car, first saw the strange visitor Sunday morning about 3 o’clock sitting in a tree at the corner of Elysian Fields and Royal Streets. And that’s the worst part of the mystery. What a nice, clean bird like that wants on Elysian Fields Street is hard to understand. When Inch saw it it was behaving itself and was not making a noise like a telegram, as someone accused it of doing while on the wing.
As to what the thing really is people do not agree. Some of the illiterate think that it is supernatural. Others say that it is a stray seagull, but seagulls do not wander off by themselves.
The consensus of opinion, however, is that it is a great white heron or sandhill crane. They have been known to do such tricks as this thing is doing, and the general appearance tallies exactly. If it is nothing worse than a sandhill crane, and it certainly is not, no one need be alarmed. As long as they are free, they will not molest human beings; but cornered they fight and fight well. Stories are told of men killed by them.
Audubon says that they are savage and vicious and to be handled with ropes on their bills. He tells of a case where one of them, a pet of his, spared a cat with his long, rapier-like bill. It got worse and worse until it attacked a child. Then it had to be killed. Times-Picayune [New Orleans, OA] 30 August 1910: p. 5
I had no idea that Sandhill Cranes (believed by some to have been the genesis of the Mothman creature) had such a wicked reputation.
And here we have what appears to be a Thunderbird story, although I’ve seen it called a flying snake. The location: Santiago, Chile, suggests the Andean Condor.
An Awful Bird Story
[Translated from El Ferro: Carril, of Santiago, Chili [sic], March 26]
Yesterday, about five o’clock P.M., when everyone had finished work at this mine, (Garin Mine) and the workmen in a group were awaiting their evening meal, we saw coming through the air a gigantic bird, which, at first sight, we supposed to be a cloud surrounded by the atmosphere and divided from its companions by a chance current of air. As the object in question came nearer, filling us with a very natural feeling of surprise, we were able to note that it was an unknown creature of the air—the roc of the “Thousand and One Nights” perhaps, or possibly a Leviathan of the deserts. From whence did it come? To where was it going? Its direction was from north-east to south-west; its flight rapid and in a direct line. On passing a short distance, and over our heads, we were able to note the rare structure of its body. Its great wings were clothed with a brown plumage.
The head of the monster was, in shape, something similar to a grasshopper, with enormous eyes wide open and brilliant as stars, and covered with something like hair or bristles; the body, lengthening itself like that of a serpent, was covered with scales, which emitted metallic sounds as this strange animal moved itself along. Surprise resolved itself into fear among the workmen in the presence of such a strange phenomenon. The whole stock of ornithological science possessed by the good miners was in vain exhausted to find the name and qualities of the strange bird, which had just passed without leaving a sign. Some assert that in those moments they perceived a detestable smell, like that given out by arsenic on being burned. Others that their sense was not offended by any unusual odor. The superstitious believe that it is the devil in person they have just seen pass, while others recollect having been a witness, some years ago, in the same place, to the passage of a similar monstrous bird. Cincinnati [OH] Daily Enquirer 11 June 1868: p. 4
An intriguing suggestion is added to the end of this story in the version from the Cleveland [OH] Leader 3 June 1868: p. 2
As the whole affair is in the extreme curious, we have thought it our duty to communicate it to you, withholding all useless comments, for the truth is that we cannot explain satisfactorily to ourselves what we have seen for the first and probably the last time in our lives. Can it be possible that, in the desert or the Cordilleras, nature pleases to give life to those monstrosities and rears them in solitude for many years and when they have attained sufficient strength they commence their flight through space, and the earth guards their skeletons to the confusion of sages, who on meeting them, believe they have found antediluvian remains?
While this is not a post on phantom birds, there are a number of stories in ghost literature about mysterious birds—the white birds that are seen at Winchester Cathedral when someone associated with that edifice is about to die, a huge black bird at the church at West Drayton near Uxbridge, and the account that follows. The birds always look like real creatures: apparently solid, not misty or transparent. And they can be heard, but not touched.
Captain Morgan was staying in an old-fashioned house in London with a friend.
“Captain Morgan retired to bed, and slept, but was very soon awakened by a great flapping of wings close beside him, and a cold weird-like sensation, such as he had never before experienced, spread through his frame. He started, and sat upright in bed, when an extraordinary appearance declared itself, in the shape of an immense black bird, with outstretched wings, and red eyes flashing as it were with fire.
“It was right before him, and pecked furiously at his face and eyes, so incessantly that it seemed to him a wonder that he was enabled, with his arms and the pillow, to ward off the creature’s determined assaults. During the battle, it occurred to him that some large pet bird belonging to the family, had effected its escape, and been accidentally shut up in the apartment.
“Again and again the creature made at him with a malignant ferocity perfectly indescribable, but, though he invariably managed to baffle the attack, he noticed that he never once succeeded in touching his assailant. This strange combat having lasted several minutes, the gallant officer, little accustomed to stand so long simply on the defensive, grew irritated, and, leaping out of bed, dashed at his enemy. The bird retreated before him. The Captain followed in close pursuit, driving his sable foe, fluttering and fighting, towards a sofa which stood in a corner of the room. The moonlight shone full into the chamber, and Morgan distinctly saw the creature settle down, as if in terror, upon the embroidered seat of the sofa.
“Feeling now certain of his prey, he paused for a second or two, then flung himself suddenly upon the black object, from which he had never removed his gaze. To his utter amazement, it seemed to fade and dissolve under his very fingers! He was clutching the air! In vain he searched, with lighted lamp, every nook and corner of the apartment—unwilling to believe that his senses could be the victims . of so gross a delusion—no bird was to be found. After a long scrutiny, the baffled officer once more retired to rest, and met with no further disturbance.
“While dressing, in the morning, he resolved to make no allusion to what he had seen, but to induce his friend, on some pretext, to change rooms with him. That unsuspecting individual readily complied, and the next day reported, with much disgust, that he had had to contend for possession of the chamber with the most extraordinary and perplexing object he had ever encountered—to all appearance, a huge black bird—which constantly eluded his grasp, and ultimately disappeared, leaving no clue to its mode of exit.” Strange Things Among Us, Henry Spicer, 1863
Another legendary bird was the Belled Buzzard. Here is an admirable summary of the legend of the bird, which is actually a vulture. While it was widely regarded as a bird of ill-omen, there apparently were genuine specimens flying about the skies as late as the 1920s.
The Belled Buzzard
A Carrion Bird, With a Sheep-bell Attachment, that is Looked Upon in Georgia as the Forerunner of Evil.
Taylorsville, Ga., March 5 The belled buzzard, whose flight over western counties of Georgia has aroused so much superstitious fear among the ignorant whites and blacks, passed over a field yesterday where four men were plowing. One of them, a negro, quit work at once, and said the bird was warning the people of another cyclone by which hundreds of people would be killed. The story of the celebrated bird is an interesting one. Nearly two years ago it was a pet in a barnyard of a farmer named Freeman in Paulding county. One of his children one day attached a sheep bell to the bird’s foot and the tinkling sound so scared it that it immediately flew away. The first night out it alighted on the roof of a negro cabin in Heard county. One of the inmates went out to ascertain the cause of the bell-ringing, and immediately the buzzard rose from its perch and flew away. The night was clear and cold, and as the inmates rushed out and beheld a great black object and heard the tinkling of the bell hundreds of feet in the air, great fear seized them. They all took to their knees under the impression that the end of the world was approaching. Ever since the bird has pursued its migrations through the state, arousing the fears of the superstitious who regard its visit as an omen of evil. The negroes and many whites, too, along the track of the late storm insist that they heard the fateful bell about an hour before the terrible wrath of wind had come upon them.
In 1817 a buzzard was similarly belled in Putnam county, and up until 1850, when his presence was last reported in Greene county, he was vouched for as having visited points as far west as Meridian, Miss., and in several northern counties of Tennessee.Kansas City [MO] Star 8 March 1884: p. 2
GEORGIAN POTS ANOTHER BELLED BUZZARD
Athens, Ga., March 24. Not all belled buzzards are of the proverbial variety. One of them, at least, was an actuality and for 44 years was a bell ringer over the valleys and hills of northeast Georgia, or wherever his wanderlust took him.
W.C. Birchmore, who lives near here, was hunting wild geese and took a pot shot at several on the wing, only to bring down a buzzard. Examination disclosed that he had killed a genuine belled buzzard. Around its neck was a small brass bell about two inches across the base, fastened with a wire. On the bell was the date “1882” and the name, which was hardly legible, “Joel Mine, Lianville.” San Diego [CA] Union 25 March 1923: p. 5
Back to more “normal” mystery birds:
STRANGE BIRD SHOT AT PAOLI BY YOUNG WOMAN
Creature Resembling Both Owl and Eagle is Laid Low
Experts Fail To Classify It
Paoli, Pa., Feb. 18. Miss Beulah Shainline, a 19-year-old resident of Paoli, has in her possession the body of a strange bird, which she shot on Tuesday afternoon.
The creature has a head and beak like an owl, but its wings are extremely long, resembling those of an eagle.
Ornithologists who have inspected it were all puzzled, and could not classify it. A photograph was recently printed in the National Sportsman of a similar bird, which was shot by J.F. Krebs, of Dresden, Ohio. The National Sportsman could not tell what kind of a bird it was.
Miss Shainline was in her room at her residence on Maple Avenue, when she saw the strange creature in a tree two hundred yards away. Seizing a Hamilton .22-callibre rifle, she fired two shots, one of which wounded the bird. She captured and confined it, but it died Wednesday night. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 19 February 1909: p. 1
West Alexander Items.
Messrs. Editors. There has been considerable excitement stirred up in the vicinity of West Alexander, by the appearance of a monstrous bird, of the eagle species. It was first seen about a week since on the farm of Mr. Chas. Conner and has been in the neighbourhood since. Various reports are raised respecting its size and species. Sportsmen have been following it daily. Doctors and other learned men have brought their glasses to bear upon it, but still it is unscathed. Wonderful are the tales told about it. One man affirms that he verily believes that had it not been for his faithful dog this bird of the “broad and sweeping wing” would certainly have carried him off. We trust the “noble bird” may yet be taken and stuffed and then placed in the corner stone of the Town Hall of West Alexander – futurus esse. Washington [PA] Reporter 23 February 1870: p. 1
We are all familiar with the stories of eagles who attempt to carry off children. Here is an account of an Iowa woman supposedly killed in such an attempt to carry her off.
KILLED BY AN EAGLE
An Iowa Woman’s Terrible Fight With the King of Birds.
Honey Creek, Ia., June 25. Mrs. Jane Martenson of this place, who was attacked by an immense eagle Tuesday, died yesterday as a result of the frightful injuries inflicted by the great bird. She was seventy years old and died from shock and loss of blood.
The affair occurred in the suburbs of the town and the victim’s cries and the screams of the enraged eagle were heard by a number of persons, who, however, arrived too late to render any assistance. Mrs. Martenson was working in her flower garden about the middle of the afternoon when the eagle swooped down and fastened its talons in her back and neck and spread its great wings in a desperate effort to carry her off bodily. The woman shrieked with pain and fright, and began a desperate fight with the huge bird.
The eagle showed no disposition to release its hold, although the woman hit it a number of blows with a hoe. The blows only seemed to madden it, and it buried its beak repeatedly in her face and neck. She finally struck the bird on the neck and partially stunned it and she seized the advantage she had secured and continued to belabor it with her hoe.
She had become, however, too weak from fright, exertion and loss of blood to kill the eagle and the bird flew away, uttering wild cries as it sailed upward out of sight. Mrs. Martenson fell in a dead faint and remained there until picked up by members of her family. It was some time before she recovered sufficiently to give an account of her desperate struggle and she soon became unconscious again and remained so until death. A physician was summoned at once, but owing to her extreme age and debilitated condition nothing could be done for her. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 26 June 1897: p. 1
I have to note that I cannot find Mrs. Martenson in the census reports, although the story did appear in several Iowa newspapers.
Have you recognized any of the birds in these stories? Have you ever been abducted by an eagle? How many Thunderbirds are on your life-list? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.