Quetzalcoatlus had a wingspan of over 40 feet.
It lived during the late Cretaceous.
(Copyright Lee Krystek
While driving his cruiser through the wee hours one morning
1976, Policeman Arturo Padilla of San Benito, Texas, spotted
something unusual in his headlights. It looked like a big
bird. A really big bird. A few minutes later Padillaís
fellow officer, Homer Galvan, reported it also. It appeared
as a black silhouette that glided through the air. According
to Galvan, it never even flapped its wings.
A short time later Alverico Guajardo, a resident of Brownsville,
Texas, reported he'd heard a thumping noise outside his
mobile home at about nine-thirty at night. When he looked
out the door, he saw a monstrous bird standing in his yard.
"It's like a bird, but it's not a bird," he said. "That
animal is not from this world."
The sighting of the strange bird didnít end with the reports
from Guajardo and the two policemen. Two sisters told of
seeing a "big black bird" with "a face like
a bat" near a pond outside of Brownsville.
Reports of this creature continued to multiply in the early
months of 1976 until finally a radio station offered a reward
for the creature's capture. Soon after, a television station
broadcast a picture of an alleged bird track measuring some
twelve inches in length. As the media hype increased, the
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department took action, fearing
that hunters might mistake a large, rare and protected bird
(like a whooping crane) for this mysterious creature. They
made an announcement saying, "All birds are protected by
state or federal law."
At about this same time several Texas schoolteachers told
of seeing the strange flying creature, with a wingspan of
at least 12 feet across, while they were driving to work.
One of them checked the school library and found a name
for the animal: A pterosaur.
Pterosaurs were an order of reptiles that lived and went
extinct with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. They were
the first true flying animals that had vertebrae. Their
wings were composed of a membrane of skin that stretched
from the side of the body, along the arm, out to the tip
of an enormously-elongated fourth finger, and then back
to the ankle. Like a bat, they had no feathers.
Pteranodon, a member of the pterosaur family, may
have skimmed along the coastal waters catching fish.
It had a wingspan as big as 23 feet and a head almost
seven feet long. (Copyright
Lee Krystek 2003)
Computer analysis of pterosaur fossils suggest that they
were slow gliders, capable of making very tight airborne
turns. A large pteranodon, with a wingspan of 30 feet, could
turn in mid-flight in a circle only 34 feet in diameter.
So what were extinct pterosaurs doing in Texas in the 20th
Strangely enough, Texas hasnít been the only place plagued
by aerial, reptilian predators from the past. In 1923 a
writer by the name of Frank Melland who worked in what was
then northern Rhodesia, in Africa, told of a strange flying
creature in his book In Witchbound Africa. According
to Melland, the natives called this animal a kongamato.
Its wing span was four to seven feet across and it had a
long beak full of teeth. The wings were featherless and
resembled those of a bat. Melland sent for some books he
had at his home and showed a picture of a pterodactyl (a
type of pterosaur) to the tribesmen. Melland reported that
"every native present immediately and unhesitatingly
picked it out and identified it as a kongamato."
Melland wasnít the only one to hear of this beast. In 1942
Col. R. S. Pitman wrote about reports heíd heard about a
flying creature living in the same region as Mellandís kongamato:
Öthe most amazing feature of this mystery beast is its
suggested identity with a creature bat-and-birdlike in form
on a gigantic scale strangely reminiscent of the prehistoric
Nobody has yet to find a living pterosaur either in Africa
or Texas, however. Is it possible that what people were
seeing was a very big, but conventional bird? The largest
American bird is the California condor. With an impressive
wingspan of over ten feet they would be large enough to
explain some of the Texas reports. California condors, however,
are a rare and endangered species and it seems unlikely
that one would have wandered so far from its home on the
west coast without being spotted and recognized by bird
watchers for what it really was.
Bird of Legend
There is another bird, more legend than fact, that might
fit the Texas reports: The thunderbird.
Thunderbirds are a part of Native American myth. These
huge, supernatural creatures were supposed to have caused
thunder by flapping their wings and lightning by blinking
their eyes. Though such powers are obviously in the realm
of legend, there are occasional reports in certain sections
of North America of sightings of a giant birds that seem
to fit the thunderbird description.
The forested region along the Allegheny Plateau of Pennsylvania
seems to get more than its share of thunderbird reports.
In 1969 the wife of a local sheriff spotted a huge bird
sitting in the middle of a creek near their cabin. When
it took off and unfurled its wings she estimated it was
about 75 feet across. A more recent thunderbird account,
a little further east, comes from the New Jersey coastline
where in 1970 several people saw a flying creature with
a "wingspread almost like an airplane."
Could a thunderbird have a wingspan as large as an airplane?
The largest known flying animal of all time was a pterosaur
called the Quetzalcoatlus. It had a wingspan as big
as a small plane (over 40 feet) and weighed about 190 pounds.
Unlike many of the other pterosaurs, Quetzalcoatlus
lived inland and probably fed on the ground like modern storks
by hunting small vertebrates on land or in small streams.
The Quetzalcoatlus, interestingly enough, brings
us back to Texas. The first Quetzalcoatlus fossils
were discovered in Big Bend National Park, Texas, in 1972,
just four years before the first sightings of the Texas
"Big Bird." Is there a connection?
Have there been pterosaurs hiding in Texas for the last
65 million years? Or could it be the publicity surrounding
the discovery of Quetzalcoatlus four years before
triggered the misidentification of large birds like the
sandhill crane, brown pelican or the vulture? We may never
know, because after the two-month flap of sightings in 1976,
reports of the big birds dwindled. The pterosaurs, if they
ever existed, seem to have gone back into hiding.
Perhaps not for forever, though. Six years later, on September
14, 1982, James Thompson was driving on a road near Los
Fresnos, Texas, when he saw something large glide low over
the highway just ahead of him. He stopped and stared at
the animal that seemed to fly without moving its wings.
Thompson reported the creature had a black or gray color.
Its body appeared to be covered with a rough-textured skin.
The wings, which were five or six feet across, had no feathers.
When he got home, Thompson looked up the animal in a book.
The book said it was a pterosaur.