THUNDERBIRDS OVER ILLINOIS
STRANGE THINGS ARE HAPPENING IN THE SKY!


INTO THE SHADOWS
American Unsolved Mysteries & Tales of the Unexplained by Troy Taylor


MYSTERIOUS ILLINOIS
The History, Mystery & Unexplained of the Prairie State 


OUT PAST THE CAMPFIRE LIGHT
Hauntings, Horrors & Unsolved Mysteries of the Great Outdoors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the idea of giant birds that swoop across the sky, frightening the unsuspecting, and then vanishing back into the clouds. There is no way that I can explain my interest, for I have never seen one of these strange flying beasts, other than to say that I was born and raised in Illinois. This is a state that seems to have an inordinate number of such sightings and encounters, including the famous Lawndale Thunderbird Attack, and it also the home of the legendary Piasa bird as well. Enjoy the article that follows and remember - keep watching the sky!

Illinois Thunderbirds
American Indian lore is filled with stories of strange, monster birds with enormous wingspans and the propensity to carry away human victims. They called these creatures "Thunderbirds" because the legends claimed that their flapping wings made a sound like rolling thunder. The birds have been described as having wingspans of 20 feet or more; hooked talons; razor-sharp beaks; and sometimes descriptions that seem oddly close to the pterodactyls of prehistoric times.

One of the most famous of the early American legends of these giant winged creatures comes from the bluffs outside of the small Mississippi River town of Alton, Illinois. Many visitors to this historic town are often startled to see a rock painting just north of the city that portrays a pretty vicious-looking winged creature. Years ago, this rock painting was actually a petroglyph that showed two such creatures. These monsters, like the modern rendering of the paintings, were called the "Piasa" by the Illinwek Indians. The original painting existed near this location for hundreds of years and was first described in the journals of Marquette in 1673. The original site of the painting is now long gone, but Marquette described the creatures portrayed there in this manner:

As we were descending the river we saw high rocks with hideous monsters painted on them and upon which the bravest Indian dare not look. They are as large as a calf, with head and horns like a goat, their eyes are red, beard like a tiger’s and face like a man’s. Their tails are so long that they pass over their bodies and between their legs, under their bodies, ending like a fish tail. They are painted red, green and black and so well drawn that I could not believe they were drawn by the Indians, for what purpose they were drawn seems to me a mystery.

Father Hennepin, another early explorer of the west, published a book in 1698 called "A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America" and he also wrote about seeing the paintings of the Piasa, which incidentally, were first incised and cut into the bluff and then painted over.


A modern rendition of the Piasa Painting

The painting was later described by a Professor William McAdams, an Illinois State Geologist, who created an illustration of the bird in the 1880’s. It is from his drawing that all of the modern-day renditions of the Piasa Bird come. McAdams also seems to be the person responsible for creating the mythology of a single bird-like creature, instead of two monsters, as the Indians originally passed along the story. Even in McAdam’s day, the original painting no longer existed. A quarry had purchased the property and they had blasted away the wall on which it could be found some time around 1847.

The drawing that McAdams created was based on the testimony of five men who recalled seeing the painting before it was destroyed. It was later featured in the Literary Digest and it is believed to be the most accurate drawing of the Piasa.

Who created the original painting? No one will ever know for sure, but it must have existed for some time as part of the culture of the local Native Americans. It was said that on a flat ledge below the painting were hundreds of arrow heads and spear points. It is believed that the Indians who passed the Piasa on the river would "attack" the creature by firing an arrow at it. This apparently became a custom in honor of the Indian warrior who allegedly killed the creature that was carrying off members of his tribe.

When the white men settled this region and heard the tales of the Piasa, they found no evidence (at first) to suggest that this creature really existed. But the Indians who still lived here at that time certainly believed it had. As mentioned previously, they took great pleasure in loosing arrows at the creature as they passed on the river and later would fire their rifles at it also.

In July 1836, a Professor John Russell discovered something very unusual concerning the legend of the Piasa Bird. Russell was a professor at Shurtleff College in Alton and had interest enough in the local legend to do a little exploring and research into the story of the creature. His adventures were later recounted in a magazine article in 1848 and in Records of Ancient Races in the Mississippi Valley by William McAdams in 1887. Here is how his story appears, written in his own words:

"Near the close of March of the present year, I was induced to visit the bluffs below the mouth of the Illinois River, above that of the Piasa. My curiosity was principally directed to the examination of a cave, connected with the above tradition as one of those to which the bird had carried his human victims.

"Preceded by an intelligent guide, who carried a spade, I set out on my excursion. The cave was extremely difficult of access, and at one point in our progress I stood at an elevation of one hundred fifty feet on the perpendicular face of the bluff, with barely room to sustain one foot. The unbroken wall towered above me, while below me was the river.

"After a long and perilous climb, we reached the cave, which was about fifty feet above the surface of the river....The roof of the cavern was vaulted, and the top was hardly less than twenty feet high. The shape of the cavern was irregular; but, so far as I could judge, the bottom would average twenty by thirty feet.

"The floor of the cavern throughout its whole extent was one mass of human bones. Skulls and other bones were mingled in the utmost confusion. To what depth they extended I was unable to decide; but we dug to a depth of 3 or 4 feet in every part of the cavern, and still we found only bones. The remains of thousands must have been deposited here. How, and by whom, and for what purpose, it is impossible to conjecture."

There are more modern accounts of Thunderbirds and winged creatures attacking and carrying off people and also accounts of sightings of such figures - which obviously should not exist. And yet they do! One of the earliest accounts that I could find of someone being attacked by a giant bird took place in Tippah County, Missouri in 1868. According to the report, an eight year-old child was actually carried off by what was described by his teacher as an “eagle”. It happened one day during school. The teacher’s account states that “a sad tragedy occurred at my school a few days ago”. He wrote that “eagles” had been very troublesome in the neighborhood, carrying off small pigs and lambs. No one thought that they would ever bother the local children until one afternoon when one of the birds swept down and picked up a boy named Jemmie Kenney and flew off with him. The other children called out but by the time the teacher ran outside to see what was going on, he could only hear the child screaming as he vanished into the sky. The teacher and the children on the playground began to cry out to raise the alarm in town and apparently, the noise frightened the bird and it dropped the boy. “But his talons had been buried in him so deeply, and the fall was so great, that he was killed.”

What could this creature have really been? Could it have actually been an eagle? If so, it must have been a monstrous one because according to renowned zoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans, even the most powerful eagle cannot life more than a rabbit or a lamb. Most experts insist that even the strongest birds cannot carry off a small child - so what occurred in Missouri in 1868 and in Lawndale, Illinois in 1977? How do we explain these mysterious encounters?

However, before we delve into the 1977 bird sightings in Illinois, we have to first return to the Alton, Illinois area for another "flap" of sightings that took place in the 1940's! Reports of big bird sightings began to accumulate and one modern day "flap" of thunderbird sightings began in April 1948. On April 4, a former Army Colonel named Walter F. Siegmund revealed that he had seen a gigantic bird in the sky above Alton, Illinois. He had been talking with a local farmer and Colonel Ralph Jackson, the head of the Western Military Academy, at the time. "I thought there was something wrong with my eyesight," he said, "but it was definitely a bird and not a glider or a jet plane. It appeared to be flying northeast... from the movements of the object and its size, I figured it could only be a bird of tremendous size."

A few days later, a farmer named Robert Price from Caledonia would see the same, or a similar, bird. He called it a "monster bird... bigger than an airplane". On April 10, another sighting would take place and this time in Overland. Mr. and Mrs. Clyde Smith and Les Bacon spotted a huge bird. They said they thought the creature was an airplane until it started to flap its wings furiously.

On April 24, the bird was back in Alton. It was sighted by EM Coleman and his son, James. "It was an enormous, incredible thing with a body that looked like a naval torpedo," Coleman recalled later. "It was flying at about 500 feet and cast a shadow the same size as a Piper Cub at that height."

On that same day, the bird was reported across the Mississippi River in St. Louis by two city policemen. They stated that it was “as big as a small airplane”. Officer Francis Hennelly added that “its wings were flapping and it was headed southwest, flying at an altitude of several hundred feet. I thought it was a large eagle but I have never seen one that big before.”

On April 26, a St. Louis chiropractor named Kristine Dolezal saw the bird from her apartment window. It nearly crashed into a plane and swerved at the last minute to avoid it. The creature then flapped its wings and vanished into the clouds. The next day, the bird was reported by instructors at a flight school at the St. Louis-Lambert International Airport. On April 28, a salesman named Harry Bradford was turning onto Kingshighway , spotted the bird and then turned his auto spotlight on it. The creature circled around a time or two and then vanished northward. It was seen again by Clifford Warden and Mary and Charles Dunn on April 30. According to their account, the creature was moving quite fast and even gave off a dull glow.

Then, on May 5, the bird was sighted for the last time in Alton. A man named Arthur Davidson called the police that evening to report the bird flying above the city. Later on that same night, Mrs. William Stallings of St. Louis informed the authorities that she had also seen it. "It was bright, about as big as a house," she said. A number of sightings then followed in the St. Louis are, but ironically, just when the public excitement over the bird reached its peak, the sightings came to an end.

The Lawndale, Illinois Incident
One of the most frightening and best documented encounters with giant birds occurred in 1977 in Lawndale, a small town in Logan County. On the evening of July 25, two giant birds appeared above Lawndale. The birds were reported several times as they circled and swooped in the sky. Finally, they headed straight down and reportedly attacked three boys who were playing in the backyard of Ruth and Jake Lowe. One of the birds grasped the shirt of ten-year-old Marlon Lowe, snagging its talons into the cloth. The boy tried in vain to fight the bird off then cried loudly for help.

The boy’s cries brought Marlon’s mother running outside. She later reported that she had seen the bird actually lift the boy from the ground and into the air. She screamed loudly and the bird released the child. It had carried him, at a height of about three feet, for a distance of about 35 feet. She was sure that if she had not come outside, the bird had been capable of carrying the boy away. She later stated that the bird had been bending down, trying to peck at the boy as it carried him off. Luckily, although scratched and badly frightened, Marlon was not seriously injured.

Four other adults appeared on the scene within seconds of the attack. They described the birds as being black in color, with bands of white around their necks. They had long, curved beaks and a wingspan of at least 10 feet. The two birds were last seen flying toward some trees near Kickapoo Creek.

Investigator Jerry Coleman, who lived in Decatur at the time, was able to interview the Lowe family, and the other witnesses, within hours of the incident and detailed the event. He returned to Lawndale with his brother two year later to speak to the family again and discovered that the family had been harassed and bothered by media attention and by locals in the community. It was not uncommon to find dead birds on their doorstep in the morning, placed there by mean-spirited pranksters.

Marlon Lowe himself also had trouble dealing with the frightening encounter. His read hair turned gray for a time and then eventually grew out. The shock of the incident took years to wear off. Ruth Lowe had vivid memories of the event too and spent years trying to identify the huge winged creatures that had almost taken her son. She spent long hours looking through books, certain that the creature had not been a turkey vulture, as an area game warden tried to convince her that it was. “I was standing at the door,” she told the investigators, “and all I saw was Marlon’s feet dangling in the air. There aren’t any birds around here that can lift him up like that.”

And there aren’t any birds on the North American continent that are capable of it either, animal experts tell us. Yet something appeared in Lawndale that day and managed to do the impossible! And the Lawndale incident would not be the last sighing in Central Illinois!

Three days later, a McLean County farmer named Stanley Thompson spotted a bird of the same size and description flying over his farm. He, his wife, and several friends were watching radio-controlled airplanes when the bird flew close to the models. He claimed the bird had a wingspan of again, at least 10 feet across. It dwarfed the small planes that buzzed close to it. He later told McLean County Sheriff’s Sergeant Robert Boyd that the bird had about a six foot body and easily a wing span of nine feet. Boyd commented that Thompson was a “credible witness”. He had lived in the area for a long time and had no reason to make up stories. He questioned the original reports that came in but after speaking with Thompson, he had decided to investigate.

The next sighting took place near Bloomington when a mail truck driver named James Majors spotted the two birds. He was driving from Armington to Delevan when he saw them alongside of the highway. One of the birds dropped down into a field and snatched up a small animal. He believed the two birds were probably condors, but with either to ten foot wingspans! He saw one of the birds fly into a nearby field and pick up a small animal, what he believed to be a pig. Majors quickly drove to the next town and then jumped out of the truck and smoked four cigarettes to regain his composure.

On July 28, Lisa Montgomery of Tremont was washing her car when she looked up and saw a giant bird crossing the sky overhead. She estimated that it had a seven foot wingspan and was black with a low tail. She said that it disappeared into the sky towards Pekin.

At 2:00 am on Saturday, July 30, Dennis Turner and several friends from Downs, Illinois reported a monstrous bird perched on a telephone pole. Turner claimed that the bird dropped something near the base of the pole. When police officers investigated the sighting, they found a huge rat near the spot. Several residents of Waynesville reported seeing a black bird with an eight foot wingspan later on that same day.

Reports of giant birds continued to come in from Bloomington and the north central Illinois area, then finally further south, from Decatur to Macon and Sullivan. On July 30, the same day the birds were reported near Bloomington, a writer and construction worker named "Texas John Huffer" filmed two large birds while fishing at Lake Shelbyville. Huffer was a resident of Tuscola and was spending the day with his son when they both spotted the birds roosting in a tree. Huffer frightened the birds with his boat horn and when they took flight, he managed to shoot over 100 feet of film. He sold a portion of the footage to a television station in Champaign for a newscast. Huffer said that the largest bird had a wingspan of over 12 feet.

After the footage aired, experts were quick to dismiss Huffer’s claims, along with the accounts of everyone else who reported the birds. Officials from the Department of Conservation insisted the birds were merely turkey vultures and were nothing out of the ordinary. Not surprisingly, these claims were also refuted by wildlife experts and cryptozoologists, who all stated that no turkey vultures were of the size reported by witnesses. The largest flying bird in North America is the California Condor, which has a wingspread of up to 9 feet. The Condor is also on the endangered species list and is restricted to a few areas in California. There is little chance that a few stray birds traveled to Illinois to attack small children!

On July 31, Mrs. Albert Dunham of rural Bloomington was on the second floor of her house when she noticed a large dark shadow passing by her window. She quickly realized that it was a giant bird and got a good look at it. Her description was almost identical to others reported at the same time, including a white ring around its neck. Her son chased the bird to a nearby landfill, but it had vanished before a local newspaper photographer could get a photo of it.

On August 11, John and Wanda Chappell saw a giant bird land in a tree near their home in Odin, Illinois. According to the witnesses, it was gray-black in color with about a 12 foot wingspan. John Chappell stated that it looked like a “prehistoric bird” and that it was likely big enough to have carried away his small daughter if it had wanted to. Wanda Chappell said that she and her husband almost didn’t report the sighting because they were afraid people would think they were crazy.

And it’s not surprising that they felt this way. The bird sightings of 1977 vanished from the press after the Odin, Illinois report from John and Wanda Chappell. As the notion appeared in many people’s heads that these massive birds could be “turkey vultures”, interest in the accounts began to fade and many were hesitant to report further sightings for fear of being laughed at, as the Lowes in Lawndale were. The stories continued to spread of further sightings though and have not died out to this day.

On August 15, a witness who lived near Herrick, Illinois reported seeing two giant birds in a section of forest outside of town. He estimated the wingspans on the creatures to have been at least 10 feet. He followed their flight path to an abandoned barn at the edge of field where they landed for about five minutes. After that, they vanished into the sky towards Taylorville.

On August 20, Paul Harrold reported a giant bird in the sky near Fairfield. He told me that the bird landed in a field not far from his car and remained there for a few moments before flying off again. According to his report, its wing span was at least 12 feet in width. Harrold also stated that he was sure the bird was no vulture or buzzard, which are common in Illinois. Having lived out west for several years, he was familiar with large birds but said that he had never seen anything this big.

Another witness contacted me after seeing accounts of some Illinois big bird sightings in one of my books and said that she had also seen a huge winged creature in 1977. On November 1, she looked out the window of her home near Chester and had seen a huge bird resting in the top of a tall tree in her back yard. The bird seemed massive, much large than anything else she had seen before, and had huge wings that it folded around itself. A few minutes later, it opened its wings and took off into the sky, gliding towards the Mississippi River. Its wingspan, she guessed, was at least 10 or 15 feet. After that, the rash of 1977 bird sightings in Illinois came to an end.

We have to be puzzled as we read such tales and wonder about the validity of the strange sigthings. Are these mysterious flying creatures actually real?  Do they fill the skies of anything other than our imaginations? If so, then what have so many people seen over the years? At this point, such creatures remain a mystery but one thing is sure, the sightings have continued over the years and occasionally an unusual report still trickles in from somewhere across America. So keep that in mind the next time that you are standing in an open field and a large, dark shadow suddenly fills the sky overhead. Was that just a cloud passing in front of the sun - or something else??

© Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.

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