Film Crew Documents Tuscola Chief's Big Bird Story
FINDLAY, Illinois -- The large "Thunderbirds" return every 27 years to steal away the children of the Cherokee people, according to legend.
On Sunday, Chief John "A.J." Huffer returned to the lake where he claimed to have filmed two such Thunderbirds almost 27 years ago.
Were they really the monstrous predators of Cherokee lore, or were they just turkey buzzards basking in the warmth of summer?
Huffer believes in the former. But a film crew from Canada is trying to separate fact from fiction, and, perhaps, entertain young viewers of the non-fiction show "Mystery Hunters" in the process.
After all, entertainment follows closely behind Huffer, a Tuscola resident and chief of the Illinois Cherokee Band.
"It takes a Cherokee to film a Cherokee legend," said Huffer, 69.
In a deep yet gravely voice, he narrates the story like someone who has told it a thousand times. He probably has.
"I think I have photographed a living legend," he said.
Thus, he boarded a canoe Sunday with 16-year-old Araya Mengesha, one of two "reporters" on the documentary show aired by networks of Discovery Communications Inc.
With a cameraman, sound man, director and production assistant in tow, Huffer and Mengesha paddled across Lake Shelbyville while the chief recalled his tale.
What Will Fly By Next?
(Reprint of 1997 Article to the Right.)
Giant objects in the air-birds and blimps-captured the interest of people in central Illinois during the past week and Tuscola was touched by both.
It began last week when a mother reported that she and her 65 pound son had been attacked by a big bird which grabbed the youth and plucked him two feet of the ground before letting him go.
But it was left to “Texas John” Huffer of Tuscola to do the “big bird” feature of the week Saturday, while fishing on Lake Shelbyville he captured 100 feet of colored movie-film of a giant bird soaring over the lake and roosting in the trees.
John is a contributor to bass fishing magazines and a former Marine combat photographer.
His film was of good quality yet it has the experts stumped. Just what his bird or that one which grabbed a young man can be has not been determined.
This is a still photo made from the movie film which “Texas John” Huffer took of a giant bird over lake Shelbyville Saturday . His movie was shown on WCIA-TV and John has been told it is to be shown on BBC-TV in England this week.
A host of Internet Web sites and books describe how, in the summer of 1977 in Lawndale, a large bird swooped down and momentarily grabbed a young boy by the name of Marlon Lowe.
And rumors soon took wing that the Thunderbirds of old were back again. Of course, a sizeable reward was offered for pictures of them.
Huffer, who had learned to use a 16 mm camera with the U.S. Marine Corps, set out with his son, Jason, on the morning of July 26, 1977.
As they entered a cove near the Findlay marina on Lake Shelbyville, they spied two large birds in a tree. Huffer turned on his camera, the noise of which scared the birds into flight.
He shot about 100 feet of color film. Copies have since been purchased by television producers all over the world.
Huffer estimated the jet-black birds had wingspans of 18 feet and 14 feet, respectively.
Almost 30 years later, the story caught the attention of Montreal-based Apartment 11 Productions, which produces the children's show "Mystery Hunters."
"We're doing legends and myths," said Serge Marcio, director of the Thunderbird segment. "We're into ghost stories."
Mengesha and the rest of the Canadian crew also spent time Sunday in Normal with an Illinois State University professor and bird expert, Angelo Capparella.
After viewing Huffer's film, the professor told the young reporter that the birds probably were just turkey vultures, according to Cassie Fifer of Sullivan, the crew's production assistant, who was recruited for the Illinois shoot.
Marcio said "Mystery Hunters" will leave it up to the viewers to decide.
"There are pros and there are cons," he said. "That's what makes a mystery — there are no definite answers."
Source: Journal Gazette and Times-Courier
Reports of giant birds continued to come in from Bloomington and the north central Illinois area, then finally further south, from Decatur to Macon and Sullivan.
On July 30, the same day the birds were reported near Bloomington, a writer and construction worker named "Texas John Huffer" filmed two large birds while fishing at Lake Shelbyville.
Huffer was a resident of Tuscola and was spending the day with his son when they both spotted the birds roosting in a tree.
Huffer frightened the birds with his boat horn and when they took flight, he managed to shoot over 100 feet of film.
He sold a portion of the footage to a television station in Champaign for a newscast. Huffer said that the largest bird had a wingspan of over 12 feet.
Chief John Huffer
After the footage aired, experts were quick to dismiss Huffer’s claims, along with the reports of everyone else who reported the birds. Officials from the Department of Conservation insisted the birds were "merely" Turkey Vultures of the species cathartes aura.
Not surprisingly, these claims were also refuted by wildlife experts and cryptozoologists who stated that no turkey vultures were of the size reported by witnesses.
The largest flying bird in North America is the California Condor, which has a wingspread of up to 9 feet. The Condor is also on the endangered species list and is restricted to a few areas in California.
There is little chance that a few stray birds traveled to Illinois to attack small children!