Tag Archives: eagles

Episode 277: Rewilding Scotland



This week is Caitie Sith and Dave’s episode! They want to learn about animals reintroduced to Scotland, especially the Highland wildcat!

The Scottish (or Highland) wildcat:

The Eurasian lynx:

The Eurasian beaver (with babies!):

The white-tailed eagle:

Reindeer in Scotland:

The pine marten:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week is Caitie Sith and Dave’s episode, where we’ll learn about the re-wilding of Scotland! Re-wilding is the process of restoring an ecosystem to its natural state, basically reversing habitat loss. Most of the time there’s a lot more to it than just reintroducing native animals, but sometimes that’s all that’s required.

Scotland is a part of the island of Great Britain, north of England. People have lived there since the last glaciers melted at the end of the Pleistocene, around 12,000 years ago. During the Pleistocene and a few thousand years after the glaciers melted, Scotland was connected to Europe by a lot of marshy land where today there’s ocean, and naturally many animals lived in Scotland that were also found in Europe at the time. Some of the ice age megafauna that lived in Scotland included the woolly rhinoceros, woolly mammoth, bison, aurochs, wild boar, saiga antelope, giant deer, red deer, reindeer, moose, wild horse, beaver, walrus, Polar bear, brown bear, lynx, wolf, Arctic fox, and cave lion. Many fossil and subfossil remains of Pleistocene animals were destroyed by the formation and movement of thick glacier ice, which scoured the land down to bedrock in many places, so those are only the animals we know for sure lived in Scotland.

But Scotland wasn’t covered by glaciers all the time. The Pleistocene wasn’t a single ice age but a series of cold events interspersed with warming trends. During these interglacial periods, which lasted some 10- to 15,000 years at a time, animals would move to Scotland from other places or become more numerous than before. Then the climate would start cooling again, glaciers would slowly form over many years, and animals would move to areas where there was more food. This happened repeatedly over a period of more than 2.5 million years.

In other words, while we have some fossils of Pleistocene animals that once lived in Scotland, we don’t have nearly as many as have been found in England, Ireland, and Wales. But what we do know is that Scotland was once teeming with all kinds of animals we’d never associate with the country today, like cave lions and Polar bears!

Much of the ice age megafauna went extinct around 12,000 years ago when the last glaciers melted and the climate started warming. Cold-adapted animals couldn’t always survive in a warmer climate, not to mention that as the climate changed, the types of plants available to eat changed too. Some animals migrated away or went extinct, while some were able to stay in Scotland successfully. This included the red deer, reindeer, wild boar, walrus, brown bear, and lynx.

If you’re wondering why that list is full of animals that don’t actually live in Scotland these days, like the brown bear and lynx, it’s because humans hunted many of the native Scottish animals to extinction. Others went extinct due to habitat loss or competition with introduced animals. Many surviving species are endangered today for the same reasons.

For example, the Scottish wildcat, also called the Highland wildcat. We talked about it briefly in episode 52 way back in early 2018. One of the animals that migrated to Scotland after the Pleistocene, but before sea levels rose and cut the British Isles off from Europe, was the European wildcat. The Scottish population has been separated from the European population for at least 7,000 years, and some researchers think it should be classified as a subspecies of European wildcat.

The Scottish wildcat is a little larger than a domestic cat and is always tabby striped. It has a bushy tail with a black tip, a striped face and legs, never any white markings, and is usually dark in color with black paws. It’s a solitary animal that mostly lives in woodlands, where it eats mice, voles, and other rodents, rabbits, and birds. It used to be common throughout much of the British Isles, but these days it’s only found in parts of Scotland.

You’d think people would be excited to have a genuine wildcat living in their country, since wildcats are pretty awesome and eat animals that can damage crops. But for some reason, until recently people thought these wildcats were pests and would shoot them on sight. Some people thought the wildcats were killing game birds, which is rare, or that they were dangerous, which isn’t true. At the same time, the people shooting wildcats were letting their domestic cats roam freely, which has caused an even bigger problem to wildcats than getting shot at.

Like other wildcat species, the Scottish wildcat can and will cross-breed with domestic cats. The resulting kittens are fertile, meaning they can have babies with either wildcats or domestic cats. Kittens are great, of course, but domestic cats are a different species from wildcats. Hybrid cats are less suited to live in the wild, but too wild to be good pets, and if too many domestic cats breed with wildcats, soon there won’t be any real wildcats left. Not only that, domestic cats carry diseases that wildcats can catch.

The Scottish wildcat is a protected species these days, with conservation efforts in place to keep the wildcats and their habitat as safe as possible. One important step is to encourage people to get their domestic cats neutered. This is healthier for pet cats anyway and will help keep tomcats from spraying and fighting, and of course it stops them from having kittens with wildcats.

Another felid that once lived in Scotland is the Eurasian lynx. It still lives in parts of Asia and Europe, but it went extinct in Scotland several hundred years ago, mainly due to deforestation and hunting for its fur. It’s about 28 inches tall at the shoulder, or 70 cm, and is a heavily built animal with thick spotted fur and a short bobtail. The tip of its tail is black although the rest of the animal is mostly tan or brown with darker brown spots, and it has long black tufts of fur on the tips of its ears. It’s slightly bigger than the related Canadian lynx.

Conservationists have wanted to reintroduce the Eurasian lynx to Scotland for years. Since the lynx is threatened in the rest of its range by habitat loss and hunting, reintroducing it to its former range in Scotland would help it and the ecosystem in general. With no large predators to keep their numbers in check, the population of roe deer in Scotland is too high to be healthy, and the lynx loves to eat roe deer.

Some people worry that if the lynx is reintroduced to Scotland, it will be dangerous to humans and livestock. But the lynx is a shy, solitary animal that avoids humans as much as possible. There are enough roe deer alone to sustain a population of over 400 lynxes in the wilder parts of Scotland, especially in the Highlands. The lynx also spends almost all of its time in forests and doesn’t like open pastures. It’s been successfully reintroduced to its former range in other countries, with a nice side effect being increased tourism to national parks where it’s now found.

Scotland also used to have beavers, which were hunted to extinction in the 16th or 17th century. Then, in 2009, the Eurasian beaver was reintroduced to parts of Scotland and is doing great! There are more than 1,000 beavers living in Scotland now. Beavers are considered a keystone species, a term we haven’t really examined on the podcast before, but it means that an animal is so important to an ecosystem that if it goes extinct in an area, the ecosystem sort of falls apart and many other animals go locally extinct soon after.

Beaver ponds create a winter habitat for many types of fish, and beaver dams don’t stop fish like salmon that migrate upriver to spawn. The dams help reduce flooding, improve water quality, and create cover for lots of fish and other animals.

Naturally, though, some people complain about the beavers, because there will always be someone who complains about anything. Some people think beavers eat fish and will eat up all the fish that humans want to catch. Beavers actually don’t eat fish at all, they only eat plant material. Some people think beavers carry the giardia parasite, which causes a bacterial infection sometimes called beaver fever that’s spread in water, but giardia is actually mostly spread by domestic dogs. Some people complain that beavers fell trees and build ponds, and both these things are true. But the beaver is just doing what it’s supposed to do, and as we just learned, this tree felling and pond-making are good for the environment—unlike humans, who chop down lots of trees and make artificial ponds when landscaping, while simultaneously draining wetlands, which doesn’t help the local environment at all. Besides, the beavers are cute and attract tourists who want to get pictures of them, which is also good for the local economy. Everybody wins when there are beavers around, is what I’m trying to say.

The beavers reintroduced in 2009 aren’t the only beavers in Scotland. In 2001, people started seeing them around the river Tay—but no one knew where they came from. Well, presumably someone knew, because the beavers didn’t get there without help. If this reminds you of episode 48, where we talked about some mystery beavers that appeared in Devon, England, the Devon beavers showed up in 2013, twelve years after the Scottish mystery beavers. At first the Scottish government planned to capture the Tayside beavers and keep them in captivity, but the beavers are still there and doing very well.

It’s great that over a thousand beavers live in Scotland now, but that’s actually not very many. Still, it’s a whole lot better than the number of Eurasian beavers about 150 years ago, when researchers think there may have been as few as 300 individuals alive in the whole world.

Another animal that once lived in Scotland, was hunted to extinction, and then mysteriously reappeared recently is the wild boar. They first appeared in the 1990s and by now there are thousands of them in Scotland. It’s possible they escaped from farms, where they’re sometimes raised for meat like domestic pigs. While they’re a native species, they don’t have any predators in Scotland and are causing a lot of damage as they become more numerous. The wild boar’s natural predator is the wolf, and the last wolf in Scotland was killed in 1743. Lynxes will also kill wild boar piglets.

Some birds have been reintroduced to Scotland too. The white-tailed eagle is a type of sea eagle, closely related to the bald eagle of North America although it’s slightly larger than the bald eagle. The biggest ever reliably measured was a specimen from Greenland with a wingspan of 8 feet 4 inches across, or 2.53 meters, just a smidge larger than the largest bald eagle wingspan known. It’s mostly brown and gray with a yellow bill and feet, and a white tail. It lives around water and eats a lot of fish, but it also eats lots of carrion, gulls and other birds, and occasionally small mammals like rabbits. It always lives near water but it prefers wooded areas, especially lowlands and forested islands.

The white-tailed eagle went extinct throughout Britain in the early 20th century when people decided they wanted all those fish the eagle eats for themselves. Never mind that even a thousand eagles couldn’t eat as many fish that a single commercial fishing boat catches in a day. People also decided that eagles killed lambs, even though this is extremely rare. White-tailed eagles would much rather eat fish and seagulls than lamb. The last white-tailed eagles in Scotland were shot and killed in 1916.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, white-tailed eagles were also killed throughout the rest of their range and were especially vulnerable to the chemical called DDT. DDT was a popular pesticide developed in the 1950s and used to kill insects on crops and gardens. But DDT is dangerous, because like other pesticides it doesn’t just do its job and evaporate. It stays in the environment and ends up in the bodies of animals, including people. It’s especially bad for birds that eat a lot of fish, since a lot of pesticides end up in the water, and it causes their eggshells to become so thin and weak that the eggs break when the mother tries to keep them warm. This is the same thing that almost drove the bald eagle to extinction in North America. By the time DDT use was banned in many countries and the white-tailed eagle was declared a protected species, it was almost too late.

Conservation efforts have helped stop the white-tailed eagle from going extinct and its numbers are slowly growing. Starting in 1975, young eagles were brought from Norway to Scotland, where they were successfully reintroduced in the inner Hebrides islands and have now expanded to other parts of Scotland. Some people still complain about the eagles and sometimes shoot or poison them even though it’s illegal, but most people are happy to have them around, especially birdwatchers.

Scotland even has some reindeer these days. Reindeer probably lived in Scotland until around the 12th century, and in 1952 a Swiss herdsman thought they should still be there. He brought a small herd to the Cairngorm mountains, which is now a national park. The reindeer are semi-domesticated but roam free, and they attract tourists who hope to catch a glimpse of them.

At the same time that many native animals have gone extinct, lots of non-native animals have been introduced to Scotland, including wallabies, American mink, gray squirrels, various species of crayfish, and many more. Conservationists are working to minimize the damage these introduced species cause. Many invasive species were animals kept as pets that either escaped or were released into the wild. We talked about the invasive eastern gray squirrel versus the native red squirrel in episode 241, for instance. People released gray squirrels into parks in England because they were so cute, and a hundred years later, the gray squirrels are taking over in many places. They’re increasingly common in Scotland, although Scotland has a small predator called the pine marten that loves to eat squirrels.

The pine marten is a type of mustelid, or weasel relative, that’s common throughout much of Europe and Asia. It grows about two and a half feet long, or 75 cm, including its bushy tail. It mostly lives in wooded areas and spends a lot of its time in trees, hunting squirrels and other small animals like frogs, insects, and birds. It will also eat carrion, bird eggs, and sometimes fruit. It’s mostly brown with a cream-colored throat. It even has partially retractable claws like a cat to help it climb trees, although it’s not related to the cat.

The pine marten is especially good at catching squirrels, and it tends to target the gray squirrel because it’s easier to catch. The red squirrel is more cautious. Where there are pine martens, there are fewer or no gray squirrels. The problem is, the pine marten is considered a pest that kills game birds, so some people shoot or poison it even though it’s a protected species. Then those same people complain about all the gray squirrels around. The pine marten is doing well in many parts of Scotland, though, and has even expanded its range slightly in the last few years.

Scotland is a beautiful country known for its wild and rugged countryside. It wouldn’t take much to rewild it properly, a process that’s well underway with keystone species like beavers already re-established in many places. The main problem is people who don’t understand that a healthy ecosystem requires predators. Without lynxes, wolves, bears, and other large predators, animals like roe deer and wild boar become so numerous that they can’t find enough to eat and either starve or destroy crops and gardens.

Fortunately, many more people in Scotland do understand the importance of building healthy ecosystems. After all, they’re naturally proud of where they live and want to make it even better.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 017: Thunderbird



We’re talking about Thunderbird this week and the huge North American birds that may have inspired Thunderbird’s physical description. Thanks to Desmon of the Not Historians podcast for this week’s topic suggestion!

Further listening:

While I was in the middle of researching this episode, Thinking Sideways did a whole episode on Washington’s Eagle.

Further reading:

“The Great Quake and the Great Drowning”

“The Myth of 19th Century Pterodactyls”

Depiction of Thunderbird on a Pacific Northwest totem pole:

A wandering albatross hanging out with a lot of lesser birds. Biggest wingspan in the world right here, folks!

A California condor. #16, in fact.

An adult bald eagle with a juvenile.

Washington’s eagle as painted by James Audubon

Model of a teratorn. We don’t actually know what colors they were.

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week’s episode about Thunderbirds was suggested by Desmon of the Not Historians Podcast, a fun, fascinating podcast about history. If you haven’t given it a listen yet, I recommend it.

Despite my interest in birds, before I started research for this episode, I didn’t know much about the Thunderbird. I knew it was an element in First Nations lore but I didn’t know which tribes or regions, just assumed it was out west somewhere. Since I live in East Tennessee, “out west” to me is a vague wave of the hand and a mental image of wide-open plains and buffalo and maybe John Wayne. But it turns out that the Thunderbird is an important element in Northeastern and Pacific Northwest tribal lore, as well as being well known among the Great Plains societies and beyond. Thunderbird, in fact, is one of the most widespread figures in Native American lore.

I’m always cautious when mystery animal research points me to religious lore. Many cryptozoologists like to mine myths, legends, folktales, and religious stories of all kinds to find corroboration for the existence of their personal pet cryptid, but if you aren’t extremely well versed in the culture, it’s easy to misinterpret elements of a story. Worse, some cryptozoologists do this on purpose, running roughshod over sacred beliefs and yanking out one mention of, for instance, a giant human and then shouting about how this tribe clearly knows all about Bigfoot. Not to pick on the Bigfoot hunters, but guys, you need to calm down.

Thunderbird is associated with storms but it’s not accurate to say he’s a storm god. He’s more of a representation of the uncontrollable power of nature. In many Plains societies, Thunderbird is associated with trickster figures and a deep belief in the dual aspect of nature—that things in nature often hold their own opposites, that everything found in nature is reflected and represented in the human world.

Thunderbird is not necessarily a single being, either. Many tribes have stories about four different varieties of Thunderbird represented by different colors. Sometimes the different colored Thunderbirds correspond to the cardinal directions, sometimes not. And while Thunderbird is generally supposed to be an enormous eagle-like bird, the difference between bird and human is frequently blurred in the stories. This blurring of human and animal traits in stories is true across all cultures, incidentally, and if you doubt me, think about “what big eyes you have, granny.” Animal beings in traditional stories of all types are allegories, not real animals or real people.

The Thunderbird is also an allegory, a spiritual being, and it’s a disservice to the rich and sophisticated First Nations cultures to strip those trappings away and try to find nothing but a bird underneath. That’s not to say the physical form of Thunderbird wasn’t inspired by eagles or other birds. Just don’t dismiss a culture’s spiritual world to root out so-called proof of a natural explanation.

But. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any gigantic honkin birds in North America and throughout the world.

Going by wingspan, the biggest known living bird is the wandering albatross. Its wingspan can exceed 12 feet, with unconfirmed rumors of individuals with wingspans topping 17 feet. That is an enormous wingspan, seriously. I’d love to see one. The wandering albatross looks like an enormous seagull, white with black wings and a pink bill and feet. Males have more white on the wings—sometimes only the wingtips are black—and a peach-colored spot behind the head. Like many seabirds, albatrosses have a salt gland in their nostrils that helps filter excess salt from the body.

The wandering albatross spends most of its life on the wing far out at sea. It can soar for hours without needing to flap its wings. It eats fish and other animals it can catch at the surface of the ocean or in shallow dives, and sometimes will eat so much it can’t fly and has to sit in the water while it digests. I feel that way every time I go to a buffet.

But since the wandering albatross, as well as its somewhat smaller relatives, lives around the southern sea at the south pole, I think we can safely say that it wasn’t an inspiration for Thunderbird. Besides, it’s basically a giant seagull. Not exactly Thunderbird material.

The California condor’s wingspan is ten feet, and many people point at it as a possible Thunderbird model. But the condor is a type of vulture, which means it has a bald head and mostly eats carrion. Vultures evolved bald heads to reduce bacterial growth in their feathers, since yeah, they sometimes stick their heads in dead animal carcasses to get at those yummy soft parts. No matter how magnificent a wingspan the condor has, it doesn’t fit the stories of Thunderbird battling creatures like Horned Snake, since vultures aren’t raptors and their bills and claws are relatively weak. The same holds true for the Andean condor, with a wingspan of eleven feet, not to mention that bird lives in South America.

The trumpeter swan has a wingspan of over ten feet and lives in North America, but while swans can be aggressive, they eat aquatic plants and act like gigantic ducks, not exactly fierce Thunderbird material. The American white pelican likewise has a ten-foot wingspan but, well, it’s a pelican.

So what about North American eagles? We only have two known species, the bald eagle and the golden eagle. Both have wingspans that can reach more than eight feet and, tellingly, both are common throughout the Pacific Northwest and throughout most of North America. It’s entirely possible that admiration of these large eagles gave form to descriptions of the Thunderbird.

But while an eagle with a nine foot wingspan is impressive, let’s not fool ourselves. We all want to know about GIANT HECKIN HUGE BIRDS. Like, twice that size! This is what cryptozoologists so often dig around for in Native Thunderbird legends, hints that there was once and maybe still is a bird so enormous that it inspired terror and awe in people who saw it, to the degree that they immortalized it in cultures throughout North America as the Thunderbird.

In cultures without written language, stories impart knowledge of everything—history as well as religion, warnings of real-life dangers as well as rituals to ward off the danger—and many stories serve dual purposes. Among the Pacific Northwest peoples, certain stories about Thunderbird battling Whale commemorate a cataclysmic event now known to science, a violent earthquake on Jan. 16, 1700. It was probably a magnitude 9 quake that dropped the coast as much as six and a half feet and resulted in tsunami waves drowning villages from northern California to southern Vancouver Island. In the 1980s a team of researchers studying the geology of the area looked closely at stories of the Makah people in Washington state. Soon they learned that all the indigenous peoples along the coast had stories about the earthquake.

The difference between that study and cryptozoologists looking for Bigfoot or a real-life Thunderbird is one of training and intent. The 1980s team consisted of anthropologists, geologists, and indigenous scholars. And they weren’t cherrypicking information that matched what they had already decided was the truth. What they discovered among the Pacific Northwest peoples guided their research and helped them learn more about the infrequent but violent earthquakes in the area. They even uncovered stories that may be about older quakes and tsunamis.

The problem is that stories about events that happened a long time ago tend to fall out of circulation eventually, especially if the events are no longer relevant. The earthquake stories were hard to gather in the 1980s because the event that inspired them happened almost 300 years before. How much can you remember about the year 1700 without looking it up online? And in the meantime, other cataclysms, notably invading Europeans bringing diseases like smallpox, destroyed much of the native culture.

In other words, even if you’re a trained anthropologist with a deep understanding of the cultures you’re studying, teasing historical information about giant birds from Native American stories is next to impossible. We know truly gigantic birds used to exist in North America because we’ve found their remains, but we can never know for certain if any of those birds inspired Thunderbird legends in any way or if the birds were ever even seen by humans.

Some of the largest flying birds that ever lived are known as pseudotooth birds because their beaks had toothlike spines. They were big, slender birds that probably looked a lot like albatrosses although at the moment they’re classified as more closely related to storks and pelicans. While we don’t have any complete skeletons, researchers estimate the birds’ wingspans may have been as much as 20 feet. One species, Pelagornis sandersi, may have had a wingspan as wide as 24 feet. I just went outside and measured the road in front of my house, and it’s only about 18 and a half feet wide, just to put that into perspective. It’s probable the pseudotooth birds weren’t actually able to flap their wings, just soar.

Like albatrosses, the pseudotooth birds probably covered vast distances in flight. Their remains have been found in North and South America, New Zealand, parts of Africa and Europe, Japan, even the Antarctic. They ate whatever they could scoop up from the water with their long bills. The toothlike projections on their bills weren’t very strong and just helped the bird keep hold of wriggly fish, but they certainly look impressive.

But from what we know from the fossil record, the pseudotooths all died out by the early Pleistocene, some two million years ago. Homo habilis may have seen them flying off the coast of Africa, and if so I bet our distant ancestors thought something like, “Wow, that’s a huge bird!”

The group of North American birds that a lot of cryptozoologists want to call the Thunderbird is the teratorns. Some of them were as big as pseudotooth birds with 20-foot wingspans, but they looked much different. They’re related to the New World vultures, but their bills are more eagle-like, indicating that teratorns were active hunters that could probably swallow prey as large as rabbits whole. Formerly some researchers thought the biggest teratorns couldn’t fly, but new discoveries of fossils with contour feather attachment marks indicate they could. But since teratorns had long, strong legs as well, they might have sometimes stalked their prey on foot the way golden eagles occasionally do.

We have a lot of teratorn remains from the La Brea tar pits. Teratornis merriami had a wingspan of about 12 feet and lived until only about 10,000 years ago. The biggest teratorn is Argentavis magnificens, which lived in South America and probably went extinct around 6 million years ago. It had a wingspan of at least 20 feet, possibly more than 25 feet, but we don’t have very many fossils of this bird. Only one humerus has been discovered—that’s the upper arm bone, and it’s the length of an entire human arm.

It would be truly magnificent if a teratorn descendent still existed. Some people think it did, at least until a few hundred years ago. We might even have a depiction of one by the most famous bird artist in the world, James Audubon.

In February 1814, Audubon was traveling on a boat on the upper Mississippi River when he spotted a big eagle he didn’t recognize. A Canadian fur dealer who was with him said it was a rare eagle that he’d only ever seen around the Great Lakes before, called the great eagle. Audubon was no slouch as a birdwatcher and was familiar with bald eagles and golden eagles. He was convinced this great eagle was something else.

Audubon made four more sightings over the next few years, including at close range in Kentucky where he was able to watch a pair with a nest and two babies. Two years after that, he spotted an adult eagle at a farm near Henderson, Kentucky. Some pigs had just been slaughtered and the eagle was probably coming by to look for scraps. Audubon shot the bird and took it to a friend who lived nearby, an experienced hunter, and both men examined the body carefully.

According to the notes Audubon made at the time, the bird was a male with a wingspan of 10.2 feet. Since female eagles are generally larger than males, that means this 10-foot wingspan was likely on the smaller side of average for the species. It was dark brown on its upper body, a lighter cinnamon brown underneath, with a dark bill and yellow legs.

Audubon named the bird Washington’s eagle after George Washington and used the specimen as a model for a lifesized painting. Audubon was meticulous about details and size, using a double-grid method to make sure his bird paintings were precisely exact. This was long before photography, remember.

So we have a detailed painting and first-hand notes from James Audobon himself about an eagle that…doesn’t appear to exist.

Now, this isn’t the only bird Audubon painted that went extinct afterwards. He painted the ivory-billed woodpecker, subject of our episode nine, and the passenger pigeon, along with less well known birds like Bachman’s warbler and the Carolina parakeet. Yeah, North America used to have its very own budgie that was cute as heck, but it’s long gone now.

To add to the confusion, though, Audubon also made some mistakes. Selby’s flycatcher? Nope, that was just a female hooded warbler. Many people think Washington’s eagle was just an immature bald eagle, which it resembles.

I don’t actually agree. I’m just going to say that right out. Let me explain why.

There are reports of bald eagles with wingspans of nine feet, although I couldn’t find any verified measurements that long. A bald eagle will actually have a slightly wider wingspan as a juvenile than as an adult because of the way its feathers are arranged, but that difference is a matter of a few inches, not feet. In addition, the largest bald eagles are found in Alaska; individuals in the southeastern United States are usually much smaller. And female bald eagles are typically as much as 25% larger than males.

But here we have a male eagle shot in Kentucky with a measured wingspan of 10.2 feet. Juvenile bald eagles do travel widely, but even if that happened to be an outrageously large individual who’d flown down from Alaska, consider that Audubon had seen the same type of eagle nesting a few years before near the same area. He’d watched a pair feeding two chicks. Immature bald eagles don’t nest or lay eggs. There are other differences too, notably the color and size of the nostril area and the type of scaling on the legs.

Golden eagles also resemble juvenile bald eagles to some degree, but they don’t nest in Kentucky. Their winter range just barely touches Kentucky, in fact. They nest in Canada and in the western half of the United States. And the largest golden eagle ever measured was a captive-bred female with a 9.3 foot wingspan, and like bald eagles, golden eagle females tend to be considerably larger than males. A male with a wingspan of over ten feet is probably not too likely; but even if an aberrantly large male golden eagle decided to vacation a little farther south than usual, it’s clear from many details in Audubon’s painting and in his notes that the bird he shot can’t be a golden eagle.

Audubon kept diaries of his birding trips so we know he was familiar with juvenile bald eagles—he even painted one. We also know he differentiated between juvenile bald eagles and Washington’s eagle, which he wrote was about a quarter larger than the juvenile bald eagle.

And Audubon wasn’t the only person to have reported the eagle. From other reports we know it hunted differently from bald eagles, including no reports of it stealing fish from ospreys the way bald eagles frequently do (the jerks). Washington’s eagle reportedly preferred to nest in rocky cliffs near water, not in trees like bald eagles.

So I don’t think Audubon was mistaken or lying. I think he really did paint a type of eagle that was already rare in the early 19th century and which went extinct soon after. Unfortunately, Audubon’s mounted specimen has been lost, but it’s always possible there are other specimens floating around in personal collections or museum storage rooms, possibly mislabeled as juvenile bald eagles.

There’s not a very good chance that Washington’s eagle survived into the present day just because its immense size would make it easy to spot. Then again, size is really hard to estimate without something of known size to compare it to. Is it a gigantic eagle that’s really high up or an ordinary eagle at a closer distance? Combine that with Washington’s eagle looking so much like a juvenile bald eagle and there could be a remote population hiding in plain sight.

There are, of course, lots of reports of giant birds in North America. Most take place along roads or in back yards, where people catch glimpses of eagles of unbelievable proportions—literally unbelievable, in fact, 15 or 20 or even 25-foot wingspans and birds that pick up deer and fly off with them. Most of these are probably misidentifications of known birds of prey with size exaggerated due to alarm, poor visibility, or just an inability to estimate size correctly. Some may be hoaxes. But there’s always the possibility that in this case we might really have a very rare, very large eagle still living in remote areas of Canada or Alaska, and occasionally one flies into more populated areas.

Let’s hope someone finds some remains, either taxidermied specimens or a collection of bones and feathers in some protected cave, so they can be tested and we can find out if there’s a real live teratorn still flying around—or at least learn if there are three species of eagle in North America instead of just two.

I don’t know if Washington’s eagle has anything to do with the Thunderbird. In my mind they feel like two completely separate entities: a flesh and blood eagle circling high above a lake in search of prey, and a terrifying being wrapped in storm clouds soaring somewhere between reality and the spirit world. Some birds are bigger than others, and some birds have to be taken on faith.

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