BY KEVIN GARCIA
The Brownsville Herald
May 8, 2006 — Hidden in the shadows outside of civilization, monsters are believed by some to exist.
According to folklore, a large primate stalks the Pacific Northwest and a giant reptile lurks in the depths of a Scottish lake.
And in South Texas, people carefully watch the skies for Big Bird, a flying creature that terrorized the area in 1976.
“This bird’s got a habit of going after people,” said Guadalupe Cantu III, an eye witness. “This is strictly a nighttime bird, though. ... From 11 o’clock on, everybody’s bait.”
While most scientists would write off a man-hunting bird as pure myth, a group of researchers takes such accounts seriously. The researchers are called cryptozoologists.
“It’s considered a pseudo science,” said Ken Gerhard, 38. “I like to call it a frontier science.”
A Houston-based cryptozoologist, Gerhard is researching a book that will focus on the Big Bird. He will speak about his research before the Brownsville Enlightenment Society at 7 p.m., Tuesday at Shoney’s Restaurant. The meeting is free to the public.
While other zoologists might consider the existence of such a large unknown species impossible, Gerhard and others keep an open mind.
“Cryptozoology is the search for animals that have not yet been verified by science,” Gerhard said. “Most people are familiar with the marquee animals – Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster and Big Bird. ... The less glamorous side would include a new species of beetle.”
In 2005 several new birds, plants and other species were discovered in the Foja Mountains of Papua, New Guinea. Scientists announced 27 new species earlier this year, discovered in California national park caves. Large creatures have also been revealed recently, with the first photographs of a live giant squid taken in 2004.
“New species are discovered all the time, a lot of people don’t understand that,” Gerhard said. “Cryptozoologists feel that those ‘real scientists’ aren’t doing a good enough job.”
Don Farst, executive director of the Gladys Porter Zoo, remembers the excitement in January 1976 when people would ask about giant birds and livestock-attacking beasts. He said nothing was ever proved, but he can understand why some believe in unknown animals.
“Nothing is impossible,” he said. “But I usually believe that either I or somebody that I trust has seen, and preferably photographed next to something of a known size.”
There’s always more to learn, according to Lynn David Livsey, president of the Brownsville Enlightenment Society, a group that discusses new discoveries and unknown phenomena on a weekly basis.
“We pretend like we know but really we don’t,” he said. “I remain open-minded on the subject.”
The Big Bird has been compared to local owl-witch legends, but Gerhard said many real creatures began as myths.
“A lot of animals discovered in the last century were original folklore animals,” he said, adding this was true of the gorilla. “They were giant hairy wild men and back in the late 1800s were considered to be folklore. ... It made the transformation from folklore into reality.”
Gerhard said certain areas of wilderness remained unexplored by men, which obviously provided the potential to discover new species of animals.
“I can’t say these animals are there, but I can say the potential is there,” Gerhard said.
Aside from the Big Bird sightings in Brownsville in 1976, there were sightings in Robstown and Rio Grande City in 1975, Swinney Switch in the 1950s and San Benito in the 1940s. McAllen, Harlingen and Los Fresnos also claimed witnesses.
San Benito in particular seemed a hotbed for Big Bird reports. Many residents of the La Paloma Colonia have heard of the creature they call the demon bird.
“As a child I heard it one Christmas eve, really Christmas day at 1 o’clock in the morning,” said Cantu, now 50. “It made more and more noise so my grandfather went out and cussed it. ... It was a strange noise, like a couple of cats, like one voice mixed with another voice.”
As a child in San Benito, Cantu had heard of the bird, but he was surprised by its size and that it showed no fear of guns or dogs.
The bird Cantu saw seemed to stand about 8 feet tall and was solid black, although parts of its body seemed to reflect more light. It was stood vertically with stooped shoulders.
“With the face I thought I was looking at a skeleton, but it was the eyes and nose (of a skull),” he said. “It did not flap its wings, it just glided.”
Alex Resendez, 66, saw the creature three times in the 1970s. Twice he caught fleeting glimpses of the beast over Brownsville, and the third time, he saw it in broad daylight near his rural McCook area home.
“I never seen a bird that big,” he said. “He was brownish, like dirt. ... He does not have long legs and does not stand like other birds.”
What struck him most were the bird’s large eyes that shone like black glass, with red markings underneath. The beak was also peculiar.
“You have to look close because his beak is very transparent,” Resendez said. “If you see it real fast, you’re going to think he ain’t got no beak.”
In all, the brown bird seemed to stand over 4 feet tall. After being spooked by a charging bull, the bird spread its large wings and pushed off the ground with its feet.
“He was very swift, very nice, like a glider,” Resendez said. “This bird, he never flaps his wings.”
The wing underside was surprisingly colorful to Resendez, appearing with blue and white stripes.
“It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
Descriptions of Big Bird often follow the same pattern: it is dark in color, featherless or smoothly feathered, has a long thin beak or no beak at all, short legs and long tail.
Farst took a pragmatic approach.
“At certain times of year we have wood storks here, which are large gangly birds, about 4½ feet tall,” he said. “They are more black and white than brownish and have a long curving bill.”
He offered alternative possibilities such as a sand hill crane or brown pelican, but said the distinctive features described by witnesses don’t always match with known animals.
As several cattle mutilations were reported in 1976, Resendez believes they might be related to the Big Bird sightings.
“I thought maybe this bird goes after these cows, drives his beak in there, takes samples, then goes upstairs where maybe there is a UFO,” he said. “It’s so well made, nobody could tell it was a robot, but I don’t know.”
Gerhard has heard theories ranging from a giant owl to a giant bat, but he has his own ideas.
“The other theory that I’m pursuing with my book is probably a little more out there,” the cryptozoologist said. “That’s the possibility of living pterosaurs.”
Winged reptiles and contemporaries of the dinosaurs, pterosaurs are believed to have met extinction more than 64 million years ago, but some cryptozoologists see the creatures as possible Big Bird explanations.
“It seems to jibe with most of the reports I’ve collected,” Gerhard said, adding that the Kongamato of Africa and Ropen of Papua, New Guinea, both supposedly mythical creatures, are said to have reptile-like features.
Farst doubts a large flying reptile could go undiscovered, but said there are some birds that behave similarly to the Big Bird.
“The best and biggest flying birds that we have would be like the Andean Condor from South America,” he said. “They can jump and launch themselves into the air to take off, but usually they do this off the side of a cliff.”
Gliding without a cliff, or preliminary flapping, would be highly unusual, he said.
“That would indicate that it would be something that we don’t have in this world at this time,” he said. “If I had to bet any of my hard earned money, I would be willing to bet odds of a 1,000-to-1 against there being a critter like this. .... I wish you’d prove me wrong. I’d love to see something like this.”
Livsey believes Big Bird to be an actual bird, albeit one not known to modern man. The extinct Teratorn is believed to have wingspans over a dozen feet.
“This does have to be a monster or a giant flying reptile,” he said. “I believe we’re talking something terrestrial here. I do believe in UFOs, and I was a witness to a UFO event, but I do not believe this was some kind of extra-terrestrial.”