John James Audubon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Everything’s been coming up “big birds” lately, in terms of sightings reports. A few days ago I received one that, if the reported bird is what I think it is, definitely points to the flesh-and-blood, relict population side of possible explanations. The witness (name withheld for now) happens to have a doctorate in zoology, and enjoyed a prolonged daylight look at it, along with a second witness. Here’s a slightly shortened version of the original report and a follow-up response.
“I am writing to report a sighting I had, of an incredibly large, raptor-type bird back in Oct/Nov of 2006. I had moved to Memphis, TN in July of that year to begin a new job, and was renting a house with a large, tree-lined backyard. It was late in the afternoon, around 5:00 pm. I went into the back yard with my dogs, a German Shepherd and a Malamute, played with them for about 15-20 minutes and then sat down on my back steps. I looked up into a tree in the SW corner of the yard. The leaves had fallen from the tree, and the view was relatively unobstructed. The tree was about 30 feet from where I was sitting. In the tree, sitting on a branch approximately 15 feet off the ground, was an enormous (and I mean enormous), raptor-type bird. The head and body (minus the tail) of the bird measured approximately 4 – 4 1/2 feet. The bird was a homogenous, beautiful, deep red-brown, no white was present. The beak and feet ranged from a grey-tan to black toward the tip of the beak and claws. The eyes were a brilliant orange. I’ve never seen a bird like this before, or after for that matter.”
I went inside to get my girlfriend, so she could see the bird too. It was still in the tree when we came back out. We discussed the unusual size of the bird, as it watched us watch it. The bird seemed to be equally interested in us. I was able to observe the bird for close to 30 minutes. I guess I was too fascinated to even think of grabbing a camera, which I regret. My dogs didn’t seem bothered by the presence of the bird. The dogs did, however, get into a barking match with the neighbor’s dog, causing me to divert my attention for only a few seconds to address that behavior. Turning back, the bird was gone. I never heard it take off from the tree and could not locate it in the sky, so I don’t have an estimate of its wing span. My girlfriend and I spent the evening looking at pictures of raptors that might have fit what we saw, but we didn’t find anything that was a match. I kept an eye out for the next few days, but never saw the bird again.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the underside of the wings. S/he just sat on the branch looking over the neighborhood, and then looking at me. The bird didn’t seem interested in my dogs at all. The bird was pretty mesmerizing. I’m not one of the ‘I’m attached to my cell phone by an umbilical cord’, so I didn’t have it with me to take a picture. I’m not sure I would have thought of using the phone camera had I had it with me. At first, it did cross my mind that it might be an immature bald eagle, but there wasn’t even a hint of white on this guy, and s/he was much too BIG.”
Subsequently, I went to Reelfoot Lake in NW TN, with a friend of mine, to see the bald eagles. The backyard bird dwarfed the eagles I saw at Reelfoot. I honestly never thought of reporting this sighting. Partly because I never thought of it as being a possible cryptid or unidentified species, and partly because I would have had no idea where to report it. I’m reporting it now, because I just started reading your book American Monsters. I thought of my backyard friend, and felt you might be interested.”
When I read this exciting report, especially the part about the all-over, red-brown color, my mind immediately jumped to a supposedly extinct bird known as Washington’s (or the Washington) eagle. It was documented and illustrated by John James Audubon, whose peers were very doubtful at the time that this was a separate species and not just an immature bald eagle, even though Audubon had an actual carcass that he’d shot, himself. According to Audubon, it measured over 3 1/2 feet in body length with a wingspan of 10 feet, 2 inches.
There is a great article by Scott Maruna on his Biofort blog that discusses this controversy– and the comparative descriptions of the birds — in detail. I forwarded the article link to the witness, who wrote, “The description in the link you shared is d… close. I agree that the color would be accurately described as chestnut, possibly cinnamon.”
But that historical kerfuffle wasn’t the last word on this cinnamon bird. Maruna also posted a blog about a more modern sighting of a possible Washington’s Eagle that occurred in the winter of 2004 near Stillwater, MN, which like Memphis lies along the Mississippi River. Both Stillwater and Memphis are known for their steep bluffs, a type of habitat favored by large birds of prey. Could there still be a small population of this eagle sweeping up and down the Mississippi River bluffs?
I’ve forwarded the witness’s full information and contact info (with permission) to Maruna. Perhaps between the two of us and other interested investigators, some new publicity will bring out other sightings not yet reported, and we can all learn a bit more about this rarest of raptors.
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