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Pennsylvanian Thunderbird

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Thunderbird1
Giant BIRD of Pennsylvania.

Scientific names: Gymnogyps pennsylvanianus, 
suggested by Hiram Cranmer; Mythopoeia titanornis, 
offered by Gerald Musinsky in 1997.

Variant name: Eastern condor.

Physical description: Eaglelike bird. Length, 
3–4 feet. Wingspan, 14–30 feet. Often described 
as the size of a Piper Cub airplane. Black 
or brown, becoming grayer with age. Large, 
black eyes. Large beak, not hooked. Short neck. 
Wings, about 12 inches wide. Short, thick legs.

Behavior: Possibly migratory, traveling south 
in November through the Appalachians to West 
Virginia and north in March to upstate New 
York. Flaps wings slowly. Flies easily through 
dense woodland. Feeds on carrion. Said to prey 
on humans by seizing them by the shoulders and 
carrying them to remote mountaintops to feed.

Distribution: Central and western Pennsylvania, 
especially the Sproul State Forest in Clinton 
County. Sightings have been reported from Bear 
Run, Beaver Falls, Centerville, Clinton County, 
Coudersport, Dents Run, Erie, Greenville, 
Hammersley Fork, Hughesville, Hyner, Jersey 
Shore, Lock Haven, Lycoming County, southern 
McKean County, Murrysville, Ole Bull, 
Renovo, Shingletown, South Greensburg, and 
Sunderlinville. Also Chateaugay, New York.

Significant sightings: The earliest account 
comes from Elvira Ellis Coats of northern Potter 
County, who learned about Pennsylvania Thunderbirds 
in the 1840s from the local Indians.

Around 1940, Robert R. Lyman saw a giant, 
brownish bird standing in the middle of Sheldon 
Road, 2 miles north of Coudersport. It flew 
away when he got to within 150 feet, showing 
off a wingspan of 20–25 feet and navigating 
through second-growth trees with ease.

Hiram M. Cranmer watched a giant bird flying 
at a height of 500 feet around Renovo on 
March 27, 1957. It was grayish and had a 
wingspan of 25–30 feet. Sightings continued in 
the area for about three weeks.

On March 31, 1973, Joseph and Wanda 
Kaye were driving near the Oregon Hill Ski 
Area in Lycoming County when they saw a 
large, black bird by the side of the road. Its 
wings flapped slowly as they went past, and it 
flew into the air.

Two school teachers, Debbie Wright and Sue 
Howell, saw a huge bird in the spring of 1977 
while driving to Du Bois near Drocker’s 
Woods. It was very dark, with a huge beak.

In July 1993, Shane Fisher and his mother 
and father saw a huge, eaglelike bird near Larry’s 
Creek.

On July 6, 2000, Robin Swope watched a 
dark-gray bird with a 15–17-foot wingspan fly 
over the Erie County Memorial Gardens near 
Erie, Pennsylvania.

An amateur birder of Greenville, Pennsylvania, 
saw a bird the size of a small airplane on 
June 13, 2001. It flew in from the south and 
landed on a tree 300 yards from the house, 
where it stayed for fifteen to twenty minutes. It 
had dark-brown or black feathers with grayishblack 
wings and was about 5 feet long, with a 
15-foot wingspan.

Mike Felice saw a huge, black bird with a 
wingspan of 10–15 feet in South Greensburg, 
Pennsylvania, on September 25, 2001. It was 
slowly flying about 50–60 feet above Route 
119, apparently following some trucks, and 
briefly landed on a large tree. He had it in sight 
for a minute and a half, but there were apparently 
no other witnesses.

Possible explanations: 
(1) A California condor (Gymnogyps 
californianus)—the largest U.S. vulture— 
which reaches a length of 4 feet and a 
wingspan of 9 feet 4 inches. It is black, with 
white wing linings, and has a naked, redorange 
head. An endangered species in 
California, a condor population may have 
persisted in Pennsylvania since the 
Pleistocene. Fossil remains of this bird have 
been found in New York and Florida. 
(2) An unknown species of condor endemic 
to Pennsylvania. 
(3) See BIG BIRD for other possibilities.

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