STL Science Center

STL Science Center

11 November 2017

Birds and Thunder

©Nobu Tamura
In general, native peoples of both South and North America have a number of legends and mythologies describing giant flying animals. From the Thunder Bird (a generic term that encompasses a wide range of mythological figures from different tribes) to Tah-tah-kle'-ah (a race of cave dwelling "owl women" from Yakama lore) to Achiyalatopa (from Zuni folklore), native peoples have been influenced by the idea of giant birds flying across the sky. In some instances these are giant bird-men/women but regardless of the anthropomorphizing of giant birds, these legends could have been influenced by real living animals. One such giant flying bird has been discussed here before (See Pelagornis). Another giant bird, more often associated with the southern hemisphere but by no means entirely limited to that hemisphere, was Argentavis magnificens (Magnificent Argentinian/Silver Bird). Flying through the skies during the Late Miocene and known, at present at least, from only Argentina, Argentavis possessed a wingspan of approximately 6.07 m (19.9 ft) and 72 kg (159 lb) by the greatest estimates. This makes it the second largest flying bird ever known behind Pelagornis. In comparison to living birds, the largest wingspan is that of the Wandering Albatross at 3.65 m (12 ft) and the heaviest (sustained) flyer is the Kori Bustard at 11.4 kg (25.1 lb). At this size Argentavis must have flown much like Pelagornis; flapping powered flight may have gotten it airborne but thermal soaring would have been the most likely model for sustained flight.

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