Do Giant Flying Reptiles Still Live?
Feathered Friend? -- For Some, Legend of Big Bird Remains A Mystery
by Alma Walzer, The Monitor
McALLEN — For decades, bird lovers have flocked to the Rio Grande Valley to see a large variety of their feathered friends. But in 1976, hunters scoured the area trying to win a reward for the capture of a creature which became known to residents here as Big Bird.
For about two months in the mid-1970s, Big Bird — not the friendly tall, yellow bird that loves children on Sesame Street — terrorized Valley residents.
View of the Rio Grande Valley.
The 5-foot-tall bird was described as "horrible-looking," according to The Monitor’s archives. Its wings were large enough to be folded over its body and it had large, dark red eyes attached to a gray, gorilla-like face. Its head was bald and it made a loud, shrill sound through its 6-inch-long beak.
Tom Waldon claimed to have found its tracks on Jan. 2, 1976, near his home in Harlingen. The three-toed tracks measured 8 inches across and pressed an inch and a half into the ground.
Three teachers from San Antonio claimed to have seen Big Bird in that city as well, on Feb. 24, 1976. The trio later pointed to a picture in a book of a pteranodon, an extinct giant flying reptile, as being most like what they had seen. Some bird experts told area residents that the bird was a lost condor or a jabiru, a large Central American stork which can boast a 10-foot wing span, big tracks and a featherless head.
The jabiru has a breeding ground about 250 miles south of McAllen, near Tampico, Mexico, experts pointed out. But just as mysteriously as it arrived, Big Bird seemed to disappear overnight. But for some Valley residents, what exactly the Big Bird was is still a mystery.
THE FIRST SIGHTINGS
The Big Bird sighting thought to be the first was Jan 1, 1976, when Tracey Lawson, then age 11, and her cousin Jackie Davies, then 14, were playing in Lawson’s back yard near Harlingen.
The two girls say they saw the bird standing about 100 yards away on an irrigation canal, according to the Atlas of the Mysterious in North America.
Lawson went inside to get her binoculars, and when she returned, she saw the bird staring back at her.
Big Bird was more than 5 feet tall, she said, and when she and Davies ran inside to tell her parents, the adults did not believe them.
On Jan. 8, 1976, The Brownsville Herald and the Valley Morning Star ran a piece that told the story of Alverico Guajardo and a strange "birdlike" creature which he claimed to have seen outside his home one day earlier.
"I was scared," Guajardo said at the time. "It’s got wings like a bird, but it’s not a bird. That animal is not of this world."
Guajardo said Big Bird had large wings but it never flew while in his presence. Its eyes were as big as silver dollars and its long, skinny beak was three or four feet long, he said.
It made a terrible noise, and although the sounds seemed to come from the creature’s throat, which pulsated as it made the noise and its beak never moved, Guajardo said.
The Brownsville Herald
Three Potential culprits; Pterodon, Jabiru and Jim Beam.
An article in the Herald indicated that reports of the large bird began shortly after a number of cattle mutilations made the news in Cameron County, but there was no proof that the bird had caused the strange mutilations.
GROWING LEGEND, GROWING FEAR
As more sightings of Big Bird were reported, its legend grew. One Valley radio station offered a reward of $1,000 for the capture of the bird, archives show.
Johnny Carson even joked about Big Bird on The Tonight Show. The West German newspaper, Die Bild Zeitung, ran a story about the bird on its front page on Jan. 15, 1976.
Tejano artists Raul Ruiz and Wally "The Taco Kid " Gonzalez recorded songs about Big Bird. It was official: Trying to spot Big Bird became more popular here than searching for UFOs.
The almost daily reports of Big Bird sightings and the frenzy of Valley hunters to trap the bird in an effort to claim the cash prize prompted the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission to issue a warning.
"We have a number of species of birds that do exist in South Texas in the Valley area," said commission officer Ed Dutch at the time. "Many of them have wingspans up to perhaps 10 feet or in excess of 10 feet, and some of them are on the rare endangered species list."
The punishment for catching a protected bird could cost a hunter $5,000, Dutch said.
The sightings of Big Bird were reported from every type of person, including two San Benito police officers. Patrolmen Arturo Padilla and Homero Galvan, traveling in separate police cars, reported seeing a huge bird with a 15-foot wing span gliding through the air.
"It’s more or less like a stork or pelican-type of bird," Padilla said. "I’ve done a lot of hunting, but I’ve never seen anything like it."
Padilla said the bird had a wingspan of about 15 feet. He said he was willing to shoot it if he saw it again.
Big Bird was sighted along the river near Laredo as well, by Arturo Rodriguez and his nephew Ricardo, as they were fishing on the banks of the Rio Grande, newspaper archives show.
Television footage showing three-toed footprints, measuring 9 inches by 12 inches, and believed to have been left by Big Bird, fed the fear felt by area residents.
When one eyewitness said he believed the bird was large enough to easily scoop up a small child off the ground, parents began to keep their children indoors, instead of allowing them to venture outside to play.
Fear took a tighter grip on the Valley after Jan. 15, 1976, when a Raymondville man told police officers he was attacked by the bird.
"I felt some wind and looked up and this big bird attacked me," said Raymondville resident Armando Grimaldo, who was 26 years old at the time.
Grimaldo’s neighbors found him in his back yard shaking and screaming, and reported that his shirt and jacket were torn.
A man from Eagle Pass said he was attacked as well, archives show.
Francisco Magallanez’s claim that he was attacked was given some credibility by law enforcement officials, who said Magallanez had marks on his shoulders. His physician, Dr. Arturo Bates, told police the marks were made by some type of animal or bird.
The Monitor reported that Magallanez, who was 21 years old at the time, admitted he was drinking at the time of the attack.
On Feb. 1, 1976, Texas A &M ornithologist Keith Arnold said he believed Big Bird was a large Central American stork, which at times has been observed as far north as Oklahoma, according to The Monitor’s archives.
The stork, also known as a jabiru, had a 10-foot wing span, leaves large tracks and has a featherless head, Arnold said.
Arnold said he had examined a jabiru in 1973 when it was found in a weakened state near Houston.
Big Bird became larger than life when the tales about it were told over and over.
Some of the stories can be found in the Special Collections Department in the library of the University of Texas-Pan American.
For years, UTPA students have been asked to write down what they know about local legends, and Big Bird has always been a favorite. Because the students never intended for their stories to be published, The Monitor will not print their full names.
Javier, 27, of Rio Grande City recalled the story which connected Big Bird to the mysterious cattle mutilations. "It’s a true story that happened in Starr County in the early 1980s," Javier wrote. "There were reports of the bird killing cattle because the ranchers were finding cattle mutilated and drained of their blood.
"There was no explanation and people were shocked because the cattle were supposedly mutilated using surgical instruments and there were no tire tracks or foot prints near the dead cattle," Javier wrote. "After the bird disappeared, there were no more reports of mutilated cattle."
A 49-year-old man from Olmito, who withheld his name from the report given to a UTPA student named Yadira, said he had proof the bird attacked him. "He left a bar a little late and was about to get in his car when he was attacked by a giant bird," Yadira wrote. "It cut him up, so when he got home his wife bandaged him up.
"He told her the story but she didn’t believe him," Yadira wrote. "The next day the wife used his car and found bird feathers on the seat and the floorboard."
Another UTPA student, Esequiel, said he was in sixth grade at a Pharr elementary when he saw the bird for himself. His story is also in the library collection. "We were at recess and saw a huge bird-like object in the sky," Esequiel wrote. "My friend and I were the only ones who saw it, even though there were a lot of students playing outside. "We told a teacher about it and she said it was probably an unexplained event like a UFO or something," Esequiel wrote.
On Feb. 11, 1976, the legend of the magnificent winged bird died. Some farm workers saw Big Bird in a fruit orchard about two miles south of Alamo, and within an hour, about 50 people had gathered to see the bird for themselves.
The bird stood quietly and watched the group of people walk around, including a television reporter who filmed the bird.
The film showing a 4-foot tall silvery-blue bird was broadcast around the state on Feb. 12 and Feb. 13, 1976, and the bird was identified as a great blue heron by Don Farst, a curator at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville.
Farst said the great blue heron was not uncommon in the Valley.
"They usually stay near the bay or in arroyos, feeding on small snakes and lizards," Farst said at the time.
Just when we thought it was safe to go back outside, another big bird made headlines.
On Feb. 17, 1976, The Brownsville Herald ran a story about a big bird that died after it became entangled in a barbed wire fence in Logan, Ind.
The bird, named Boomer by his owner William Brasier, had been lost for four days before it was found dead in the fence line.
The 6-foot, 2-inch tall ostrich-like creature was a South American bird that can run up to 40 miles an hour, but cannot fly, Brasier said at the time.
Brasier believed Boomer got caught in the barbed wire while trying to jump the four-foot fence to freedom.
Alma Walzer handles special assignments, investigative reporting and politics for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4422.