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Lawndale Thunderbird Abduction: A New Discovery

Posted by: Loren Coleman on July 25th, 2007

Ruth and Marlon Lowe

Jerry D. Coleman was the first investigator to talk to Ruth and Marlon Lowe about the Thunderbird abduction. The description he obtained from the eyewitnesses was exacting.

As I’ve mentioned before, this is going to be a big year for anniversaries. From such events as the filming of the Bigfoot at Bluff Creek in 1967 to the Dover Demon sightings in 1977, decade milestones will be remembered often this year.

The 30th anniversary of the Lawndale Thunderbird abduction is today, July 25th.

On July 25, 1977, as 10-year-old Marlon Lowe played outside his family home along open fields near Kickapoo Creek, near Lawndale, Logan County, Illinois, two giant birds passed over. One suddenly swooped down to grab the boy, carrying him a few feet before dropping him, apparently because of his frightened mother’s screams.

The incident occurred in front of seven witnesses, all of whom described exactly the same thing: two huge, coal-black birds with long, white-ringed necks, long curled beaks, and wingspans of 10 or more feet.

My brother, Jerry Coleman of Decatur, Illinois, had been able to interview Marlon, Ruth and Jake Lowe on two occasions in 1977, within hours of the incident. I returned in 1979, with Jerry, to re-interview the Lowes.

The best materials on the Lawndale incident, from the Coleman brothers’ field investigations, are found in the following sources:

(1) Creatures of the Other Edge (NY: Anomalist Books, 2006). Contains the first, original 1977 notes from Jerry D. Coleman.

(2) Mysterious America (NY: Paraview Pocket – Simon and Schuster, 2007). Chapter Two is partially the revised original Fortean Times article on the first interviews with the Lowes.

(3-4) Strange Highways (Alton, IL: Whitechapel, 2003) and More Strange Highways (Alton, IL: Whitechapel, 2006). These books have chapters on Jerry Coleman’s memories of his interviews with the Lowes in 1977, 1979, and his documentary television experiences.

(5) Thunderbirds: America’s Living Legends of Giant Birds (NY: Paraview, 2004). Mark A. Hall’s overview of the entire Lawndale incident is placed in the context of the other sightings occurring throughout central Illinois and the Midwest in 1977. Hall’s use of original source material sets it apart from other discussions on these matters.

(6) “The 1977 Lawndale, Illinois Thunderbird Case” (2007). Jerry D. Coleman’s timeline on the abduction shares and organizes his detailed footnotes on the incident.

Is there anything new under the sun about the Lawndale incident? Well, yes.

Fortean Scott Maruna has made a discovery of an illustration from California that reinforces the description of the Lawndale Thunderbirds:

Thunderbird Abduction

Click on image for larger version

This picture [see drawing] was published in the Fresno Bee-Republican of Fresno, California on July 18, 1937. The caption reads: “Famous artist Dan Smith’s conception of a giant cousin of a bald eagle carrying off a child, drawn from what was declared to be an ‘eye-witness’ story.”

This is tantalizingly vague though unfortunately as nowhere in the article does it expand upon 1) where and when the sighting occurred 2) who was the witness and 3) how Smith came to be involved in the project.

Smith was a top Americana artist in the early nineteenth century, most famous for his commissioned work for Smith & Wesson and paintings of farm animals….

You might note that the illustration of this “giant eagle” depicts a very large bird with a distinct “white ring around its half foot long neck.” The truly bald (featherless) head of this mystery bird is also reminiscent of other Illinois giant bird sightings of the 1960s and 70s including Joni Grawe’s (1973), John Walker’s (1972) and the Chappells of Odin IL (1977).Scott Maruna, Biofort blog, July 25, 2007

From the beginning, the Lawndale Thunderbird was compared to an Andean condor, a species that does have the white ring of feathers around the neck. Due to the size, speculation next ran to a surviving population of Teratorns to take into account the long history of Thunderbird sightings, and the three principal migration routes: (1) out West, (2) up and down between the Ozarks, through Illinois, into the Wisconsin Dells, and (3) from the Balds in the Carolinas north along the Appalachian Mountains.

Thanks to The Anomalist for their attention to Maruna’s discovery, Mark A. Hall for intellectual exchange, and to Jerry D. Coleman for sharing his insights from the beginning.

About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013.


22 Responses to “Lawndale Thunderbird Abduction: A New Discovery”

  1. raisinsofwrath responds:

    Yea, ummm….

    Vulture/Buzzard flies down and buzzes kid.

    Incident is maybe 1 to 2 seconds in duration.

    Stories ensue from eyewitness hysteria.

    Bird and story grow with every person that tells it.

    Not buying it, sorry….

  2. MattBille responds:

    It doesn’t look like an eagle nearly as much as it looks like a condor, so I’m not sure what this sketch adds.

    Except for the white ring, the Lawndale business puts me in mind of Audubon’s “Bird of Washington,” the huge, entirely dark-feathered bird he thought to be a separate species from the bald eagle. It seems likely his type specimen (now lost) was an unusually large juvenile bald eagle, but you never know….

  3. Ceroill responds:

    Interesting. From my vague memories of other past accounts of similar type, the large bird that carries off the child is almost always described as an eagle of unusual size. One supposed problem with the idea of a condor carrying away a child is that, at least as I was told when small, their feet are incapable of a strong enough grip. On the other hand, as far as I know there is no acknowledged eagle that is large enough to support such weight in the air. It’s all fascinating and puzzling.

  4. shovethenos responds:

    Matt-

    For some technical arguments that I find pretty convincing on why Audobon’s “Washington Eagle” was probably not a misidentified juvenile Bald Eagle see here:
    http://biofort.blogspot.com/2006/10/substantiating-audubons-washington.html

  5. mark responds:

    I have Hall’s thunderbird book and I have read it several times. Although the writing style and argument leave a lot to be desired, there is enough information to make you think seriously. The Lowe incident and the long newspaper account of a girl taken by a giant bird in West Virginia (the most gripping story I’ve ever read about a cryptid) ring true.

    In order to decide the likelihood that such a bird could exist, let’s remember this. North America was full of giant animals only a short time ago. Giant beaver, for example, are known to have existed, yet we have almost no evidence for them: just enough to say that they were real. Now, at the end of the age of giant animals, Europeans arrive, without knowing anything about this continent. Serious scientific study of most native animals is really only a few decades old, and it began amidst widespread habitat destruction and species loss. The landscape and ecosystem are very different than they were 100, 200 or 300 years ago. Now, if there were all kinds of giant land and water animals (e.g. salmon), why were there no really large birds of prey? Only the condor was here, apparently, and that was and is a carrion eater. Wouldn’t there have been plenty of appropriate food for giant birds to eat?

    Now look at the Lowe incident. Why did the boy’s hair fall out? Why did his dog remain silent when it always barked at everything? Stress and fear respectively? You could say that the boy felt stress from the public reaction to his experience, but why did he run inside his camper and refuse to come out right after escaping from the bird (if you believe his mother)? Why did he have a traumatic night as he tried to sleep? Why would his family lie about such a thing and bring so much negative energy upon themselves? Why do they stand by their story 30 years later when they have not profited from it and not attempted to do so in any obvious way?

    Also, it’s not necessary to bring up the word teratorn to explain the thunderbird. A giant eagle, a predatory cousin of the condor, or even an entirely unknown type that doesn’t date back to the age of teratorns: all are possible. Hall’s book doesn’t consider the possibility that this bird is not a teratorn. Washington’s eagle is not even mentioned. Until or if we get a feather or a body, we won’t know.

  6. gingysnap responds:

    Anyone from Maine should take a road trip to East Machias. There is a spot on the beach there that have petroglyphs from the Passamaquoddy tribe from a few hundred years ago. A professor from UMM took me and a few other classmates out there. It is an amazing spot, the rocks are covered in various depictions. It is believed to have been a sacred ritual site. There are depictions of white man with boats that have crosses on them taking the native people with no indication of the abducted persons return. There are also depictions of the Thunderbirds which were believed to watch over and protect the people. If you go please respect the sight. Only walk barefoot on the rocks, and give a tobacco offering.

  7. Ceroill responds:

    shovethenos, thanks, very interesting link

  8. scottmaruna responds:

    Speaking of eagles attempting to steal children, another recent blog of mine lists thirty incidents in the last 130 years in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Lawndale incident…it is here…
    http://biofort.swampgasbooks.com/2007/07/22/avian-abductions-lawndale-was-last/
    Thanks

  9. greatanarch responds:

    Dropping the child because of his mother’s screams? Would a predator never have heard an animal scream before? More likely surely that the child was simply too heavy to lift, as a 10 year old would be for a bird with only a 10 foot wingspan.

  10. michaelm responds:

    I’ve read (although I don’t remember where unfourtunatley) about Harpy eagle’s in South America swooping in and carrying small children away. So I suppose it’s not impossible…

  11. Bob K. responds:

    Due to the size, speculation next ran to a surviving population of Teratorns to take into account the long history of Thunderbird sightings, and the three principal migration routes: (1) out West, (2) up and down between the Ozarks, through Illinois, into the Wisconsin Dells, and (3) from the Balds in the Carolinas north along the Appalachian Mountains.

    I’ve always found this assertion to be fascinating; there must have been at least a fair number of sightings of these giants to give someone enough data to propose possible migration routes for them. Was Mark Hall the one who came up with this? If not, than who?

  12. U.T. Raptor responds:

    That picture looks like a giant Andean Condor to me.

  13. Lyndon responds:

    Yea, ummm….

    Vulture/Buzzard flies down and buzzes kid.

    The kid supposedly had marks on him.

    Bird and story grow with every person that tells it.

    Not buying it, sorry….

    I haven’t heard anybody else tell it. I have however seen footage of the mother and son talk about the incident some 25 years later and the bird didn’t grow from their original report in 1977.

    I’ve also seen footage of two huge birds taken by an amatuer photographer not too far from that location.

  14. titantim responds:

    I have seen Golden Eagles in Wyoming swoop down and grab 50-60lb antelope. They have a hard time flying with them and usually don’t get far but if they will tackle an animal that size then a small child wouldn’t be out of the question. Especially for a bird that is supposed to be bigger than an eagle.

  15. MattBille responds:

    Those who know my writing know I am cautious about cryptid claims in general and Thunderbirds in particular, but I never saw any reason to doubt that the Lanwndale incident happned. Some details, such as wingspan, how high the bird got carrying its “prey,” and how long it managed to keep him aloft, were likely (unintentionally) stretched by the shocked witnesses, but I think there’s a core of fact in that case. I picture it as a freak occurrence where two eagles, possibly released/escaped exotics of the very powerful S. American type mentioned above, spotted the prey some way off and came out of at least a slight stoop (increasing their speed in level flight well above the average) and one grabbed the kid and, trading its forward momentum for upward momentum and flapping like mad, got him just off the ground for a couple of seconds before realizing it had something too heavy to carry off and letting go of him.

    There’s no entirely satisfactory explanation of this case, but that reconstruction comes closest to working for me.

    Now, what if this was not some exotic but known eagle species? What are our other options?

    Golden eagles or juvenile bald eagles could be suspects, although their size and weight-carrying capability does not seem to match.

    Audobon’s Washington eagle just might work, if it is a species.

    It’s always been impossible for me to accept that plane-sized Thunderbirds have never been captured clearly on film or video and their giant feathers, nests, or eggshells have never been found. However, the eagle might survive undiscovered. as it would often be mistaken for an unusually large golden eagle or young bald eagle, and its feathers, nests, and eggshells would look like large versions of those left by the known native eagles. The white neck feathers might be just an occasional variation that turns up in this species.

  16. skeptik responds:

    There’s a famous and true story in Norway (1932) about an Eagle that took a three year old child (old lady in the picture) to its nest for seven hours before a rescue team found her:
    http://www.dagbladet.no/magasinet/2007/06/05/502604.html

    There’s a problem about the so-called weight-evidence similar to Nasa’s problems. Apparently she weighed 19 pounds (9,6 kg) and not 19 kilograms at the time.

    In addition, the Sami people of Northern Norway are reporting an increase of Sea Eagle’s snatching reindeer calves, but this has yet to be proven (some claim they just say that for government compensation).

  17. springheeledjack responds:

    Lyndon,

    was the footage of the large birds from the Discovery Channel episode on Thunderbirds? If so, I have seen that footage too–and while it is hard to get an estimate of size, they look big.

  18. Carol Maltby responds:

    Anyone have any thoughts about the changing behavior of turkey buzzards? I’m up in the Catskill Mountains where we always have a lot of them enjoying the thermals.

    But recently I’ve seen a lot more of them just hunkered down on the ground at the side of the road, not moving when I drive by. While walking to the car a couple of times I flinched as a very large shadow passed over me, indicating it was flying quite low at the time.

    Weather’s been pretty temperate, not too much sun, not too much rain, temperature pretty comfortable. No change in the cariion that’s around.

    Any idea what’s making them less shy?

  19. Lyndon responds:

    springheeledjack,

    I don’t know if it was the footage that appeared on Discovery but here in England it was an episode of a series called ‘In Search Of Myths And Monsters’ and yes it was an episode about thunderbirds.

    The footage was taken by a native American man, while he was canoing I believe. I think it was from the late 1970s. There are two birds that are clearly seen flying around. They do indeed look huge and could well have a ten foot wingspan.

  20. aastra responds:

    1) Do large birds of prey sometimes attack people (in particular, small children)?
    Of course they do. Why wouldn’t they?

    2) Do large birds of prey sometimes make mistakes re: how much their quarry weighs and whether or not they can carry it away?
    Of course they do. Why wouldn’t they?

    3) Do outsized members of otherwise well documented raptor/condor species exist?
    Of course they do. Why wouldn’t they? A more relevant question: just how outsized do outsized raptors get?

    4) Could the largest living golden eagle (for example) be so much larger than the average golden eagle as to impress or even confound some human observers?
    Of course it could. Why couldn’t it? And if the human observers in question were being attacked by the outsized golden eagle in question, the bird probably wouldn’t need to be very much larger than average in order to appear very much larger than average.

    5) Do extremely large, uncatalogued birds of prey exist?
    Who knows? Maybe. But it seems to me that the bulk of the raptors-attacking-people reports don’t require the existence of an unknown species in order to be credible.

  21. rsswope responds:

    I saw a Giant bird at Erie County Memorial Gardens in Erie pa in July of 2001. It was dark grey/black with a white ring around the neck and an extended hooked beak. It did not look like an Andean Condor. It did not look like anything I have seen before or since. At first I thought it might have been a Great Blue Heron since they are common in the area. But the body, color, and size was all wrong. The bird I saw was blackish grey except for the tuff of white around the neck. I estimated it’s size to be around a 20 foot wingspan because it crossed in front of a large electrical tower as it flew by and the length that it eclipsed was about 17 feet.

    I think there is some confusion over the tuff of white around the neck if what I saw was of the same species that we are discussing here. I have spent my life in the outdoors, and I have never seen anything quite as boggling as this.

  22. StaindHand responds:

    My camping buddies and I actually sighted a “thunderbird” in the forests of Mount Harriman, NY. My best friend was the first to point it out, perched at the tip of a tall tree not far from the road we were on around early afternoon in the summer of 97. It didn’t linger very long and if I had to guess at a wingspan, I would say anywhere between ten to sixteen feet across.

    Turkey vultures are sighted regularly in this area and I can’t certainly tell the difference between the two. It did not have a white ring around its neck as in this report but the feathers were a uniform black throughout and looked more like a giant crow than a bald eagle, although the silhouette of the head was more along the lines of an eagle, I suppose.

    I don’t think humans need fear these birds as, even with their immense wingspan, they could not support our unbalanced bodies long enough to bring a human victim to its roost for feeding. I am sure this is the reason the Lowe boy was dropped after a few feet, with his struggling and clumsy flailing urged the animal to preserve itself and find more easily subdues prey.

    We make regular trips to Mount Harriman every summer since encountering this animal in the hopes of being able to capture footage or even shoot the thing out of the air if necessary and have not been fortunate enough to sight the elusive creature again. We maintain hope in seeing it again, nevertheless.

    On an unrelated note, I have noticed in the last few years, the emergence of hawks bearing the coloration of a common rock dove (aka, pigeon). Again, this is not a matter of misidentification, as I have seen them perched on shop awnings no more than ten feet from the street below, way too big to be pigeons and the beaks and heads are all wrong for the verminous species.

    Is it possible this is a result of adaptation or mimicry, as the predatory birds are introduced into urban populations to control the pigeon population or is it a species of raptor that just happens to share a similar pattern as the rock dove. I am open to opinions.



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