I almost feel that I am not doing my job properly, because I am merely recounting sightings and interviews made by other people and I cannot verify any measure of credibility on these stories other than the discretion of the writer whose material I am providing commentary on. But it is the best I can do for now. So I hope my readers will accept another commentary on cryptid Illinois found in a published work.
I have just recently started college again after the Christmas break, and it has been a bit of an adjustment again as I have been off school for over a month and a half. But I am still making time for my work with the CFZ.
One of the more famous flying cryptids of Illinois folklore are the piasa birds of the Alton Bluffs along the Mississippi river. The French explorer Pere Marquette in 1683 discovered Illiniwek artwork cut and painted into the bluff at Alton, Illinois where it overlooks the place where the Mississippi River and the Illinois River meet. These huge works of art depicted fierce looking creatures with four feet, wings, the faces and teeth of lions, and tails that looked like a cross between a fish and a snake with deer antlers atop the heads. This Native American art description sounds more like it would fit into a Greek or Roman fresco from Mediterranean Mythology, but it appeared at the meeting place of two great rivers in America.
The word “Piasa” bird, means “Devourer of men” in Illiniwek. However , I must admit that because these cliffs have been mined for stone long before the advent of modern technology and photography, the original works of art have been lost forever. Only reproductions of the creature paintings exist today that are based on descriptions taken from the journals of early explorers in the region. But, there is a story of these terrifying creatures carrying off humans from an Illiniwek tribe, until a chief had a dream vision of how to kill them by shooting them under the wings with arrows where the feathers seemed the thinnest. He offered himself as bait and held onto a root when the piasa came to take him away, and as it flapped its wings the others from the hunting party drew and shot their bows into the creature. The poison-coated heads went deep and the creature fell dead from the cliffs into the river below.
I must admit that, like a lot of Illinois folklore, the piasa birds are very apocryphal. Yet an explorer was shown a cavern in the bluff face before it was mined, where human bones lay feet deep on the floor and it appeared to be lived in at one time by huge birds. However , due to the loss of the site because of mining we will never know if this truly was the den place of the great creature slain by Chief Owatago of the Illiniwek tribe.
I believe that the bluff paintings of the ancient times are much like the paintings of today. The artist was attempting to get across a meaning of how fierce a foe it was that chief Owatago faced with his hunting party. But the picture might not be meant to show the animal as it would have looked in reality.
However , I have two theories for what may have caused the piasa bird legend. One of them being that it could have been a relic oral memory of huge birds that stalked the native tribes from above during the last Ice Age. Or some of the large Ice Age birds of prey still existed in the United States up until very recent times, or even until present day out of sight above the earth, and in the cliffs and bluffs along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. For more on the piasa birds check out Mysterious Illinois for the full story and account of the monument.
Also, I have came across some interesting and fairly recent attacks on humans by the great Illinois thunderbirds. I do not think it is entirely impossible that large Ice Age birds could have survived until recent times. However, if they still survive and have not recently gone extinct due to loss of habitat, the many cliffs along the Mississippi River would make ideal places for the large birds to live, nest and hunt. The bald eagle has recently made its stunning comeback in Illinois - what if other huge unknown eagles could still survive; it’s unlikely but not totally impossible.
The earliest official report of a thunderbird attack was made in Tippah County, Missouri just over the Mississippi river from Illinois in 1868. A child was taken from a schoolyard by, what the teacher described as, a massive eagle. The child was eight years old and assuredly not a light meal or a light carry for a modern bird. As a side note, the debate of whether or not modern, or even Ice Age, birds of prey could carry off a full sized human being reminds me of the Monty Python sketch about the swallows and the coconuts. But to return to the story. As the child was carried away the teacher and the other students cried out and alarmed the bird. More than likely rocks that had been thrown at it connected, but all things as they were, the eagle dropped the ill-fated boy and he fell to his death. However, the injuries sustained from the bird’s talons and beak would surely have killed him if the fall did not.
Bernard Heuvelmans, in the past, had remarked that “no modern bird could carry anything larger than a lamb”. However, I have no evidence to my knowledge that Heuvelmans ever said that an Ice Age bird could not carry more weight with its superior wingspan and muscular body. So I just plain do not know. Also, I am as open to possibilities as the next cryptozoologist, but we must keep in mind that when a bird is in the air, it is very hard - and damn near impossible - to correctly estimate its height in the sky, or its wingspan correctly, because there is no frame of reference. However, when it is near the ground such as in a thunderbird attack, and it is carrying - say - a child of known size, that bird will look pretty darn big next to that child close to the ground.
In the year 1948, the thunderbirds returned to Alton, Illinois and sightings began to come in a few times a month. However, no attacks were reported from these sightings. And, unfortunately, without an attack where the bird is carrying something of known size, the sizes given by witnesses cannot be verified to be correct without, at the very least, an object of known size in the background.
In Logan County, Illinois in 1977 in Lawndale, two giant birds attacked 3 young boys playing in the back yard of one of their houses. The attack was fast and almost could be said to be coordinated; because the boys were separated by the massive birds, before one was chosen for abduction and, as the adults came to see what was going on when they heard the children yelling, and the sound of screaming and flapping from the birds. One of the boys was caught up in the talons of the one of the birds and was lifted a full 3 feet above the grass and carried in the air for more than thirty five feet. The young boy managed to save himself as the bird flapped higher by striking the bird in the head when it leaned down to peck at his face to subdue him, causing it to drop him, and continue on its way with a scream. The boy was traumatized and the family was ridiculed by papers and experts of the time.
Over the course of 1977 the huge birds would be sighted in Pekin, Bloomington, Tremont, and also in rural Mclean County. Many of the huge birds would be seen looming from telephone poles or in trees alongside Illinois roads, and there was no explanation that anybody could come up with as to from where the hell these mystery birds came from , and why did they appear to be migrating around the state following alongside the Illinois River.
Near Delevan, Illinois in 1977 a thunderbird was seen to snatch a sixty pound hog from a pasture and fly with it to a telephone pole, where it proceeded to enjoy a leisurely meal leaving the body in the ditch.
Yet after the panic of 1977 and 1978 died down there was a much less steady, and much more staggered, list of reports of the thunderbird, with a report as recently as 2003. But, it is not totally impossible that large Ice Age relic birds could have survived along the Mississippi cliffs and bluffs until very recent history, but what are they, and where are they now, and why did they appear and disappear?
I do not have these answers. But , mostly cryptozoology leaves you more questions than answers and a few statements as well. So , I hope you have enjoyed this instalment of the cryptid Illinois project using some references from the Troy Taylor book Mysterious Illinois. There are more stories of thunderbirds in the pages of the book, but I wanted to give a small summary of the reported thunderbirds in recent Illinois history. I will continue on the track of mystery animals in Illinois as best I can, and write as regularly as possible but with college starting up again, I will have a fresh pool of possible witnesses, but yet, perhaps, less time to write.