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Are Birds Real?

Unraveling the Mystery of Legendary Birds

May 18, 2022

Just like unicorns, griffins and large hairy humanoids with giant feet that may or may not inhabit snow-capped mountains, birds have long captured the imagination of many cultures. Many play key roles in folklore. And it’s not surprising why: birds are incredible creatures – masters of air and sky, marathon athletes and navigators. And, as anyone who’s seen a quetzal up close or through binoculars, it’s not unbelievable that some birds seem as unreal or unworldly as Queztalcoatl. It can be challenging to decipher which birds are real and which are the stuff of legends. Here, we’ll break down some of our favorites.

Bertuch-fabelwesen.JPG: Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747–1822)derivative work: Tsaag Valren, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

1. The Phoenix

NOT REAL

The legendary phoenix has its roots in ancient Egypt. About the size of an eagle, the phoenix was thought to be consumed in flames at the end of its life, only to have a new, young phoenix emerge from the ashes. For Egyptians, this was a symbol of immortality. The story of the phoenix was later rooted in many cultures including legends in Greek mythology and ancient Rome. Its looks changed over time, but the basics remained the same: an eagle-like creature with red, golden, and purple feathers. Some historians think the phoenix was actually inspired by the flamingo, who lay eggs in hot salt flats. The currents rising from the scorching flats would look like the birds were born from fire.

Richard Owen, ]A page from the book Memoir of the Dodo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. 

2. The Dodo

REAL

The Dodo is an extinct species of bird that was endemic to Mauritius, an island off the coast of Madagascar. The Dodo was a large flightless bird with small wings and a large beak. It was driven to extinction because of human introduction of predators (rats and domesticated animals) and wholesale logging that swept away its habitat. These factors, in combination with their slow reproduction rates, were too much for the Dodo to survive. The last Dodo was killed in 1681, and the largely undocumented species was lost to extinction.

Charles Maurice Detmold (1883-1908), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

3. Roc

NOT REAL

The Roc is a legendary bird of Arabian tales. This eagle-like bird was so enormous and powerful that it was said to carry and eat elephants. The Roc is a part of four stories in The Arabian Nights, including tales of Sinbad the sailor. Scholars believe the Roc was probably derived from a real eagle, such as the Haast’s Eagle, the largest eagle known to have existed. Haast’s Eagles became extinct in the 1400s due to overhunting by humans of their main food source, flightless birds.

Joseph Bartholomew Kidd, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

4. Lord God Bird (Ivory-billed Woodpecker)

REAL

Much debate surrounds the fate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker: is it extinct or not? Once the largest woodpecker north of Mexico and the third largest in the world, the Ivory-billed was native to old-growth bottomland forests in the southern U.S. and Cuba. Its habitat was all but cleared, and no concrete evidence of its survival has been presented since 1944; however, that hasn’t stopped possible video or photo evidence from being heavily scrutinized in the last decade. In 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally declared the bird extinct. Just when you thought that would settle the debate, as recently as May 2022 a group of researchers from National Aviary and Project Principalis presented evidence from a nine-year search for the bird. The research is yet to be peer-reviewed, but it gives hope that Lord God Bird may still reside in the remaining swamps of the south.

Unknown, from 13th century, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

5. The Caladrius

NOT REAL

The caladrius is an all-white bird from Roman mythology that resided in the courts of kings. When presented to a sick or ailing man it was a harbinger of fate. If it looked toward the man, it meant that he would live, but if the caladrius looked away, he would succumb to illness. If you were lucky to have the caladrius' gaze upon you, the bird would pull out your sickness and fly up toward the sun where the disease would burn up and be destroyed. The bird is thought to be a representation of Christ himself, although there is a good chance the caladrius was inspired by a dove or heron.

No machine-readable author provided. Radomil assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

6. Argentavis

REAL

Argentavis is one of the largest flying birds that ever existed, with an estimated wingspan of 16-24 feet. Based on fossils discovered in central and northwestern Argentina, the Argentavis was a bird of prey 16 times larger than the Bald Eagle that lived between nine and 6.8 million years ago and is related to New World vultures. Because of its size, Argentavis would have relied on wind for take off and thermals for sustained flight.

Cornelius Nozeman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

7. The Hoopoe (aka Hudhud)

REAL

While the Hoopoe itself is a real bird, it has inspired mythologies in Arabic, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, and other cultures. First thought to be a single species, the Hoopoe has been split into three separate species found across Africa, Asia, and Europe. Some fantastical stories of the Hoopoe include the rescue of King Solomon when he was stranded in the desert, having gathered a flock of birds together to shade him with their wings. Arabs call it the doctor, believing it to possess healing powers, while ancient Egyptians considered it a symbol of gratitude and kindness. Other cultures believed body parts of the Hoopoe held magical powers, such as the eyes warding off evil.

Painted Skin representing the thunderbird, musée du quai Branly, photo Patrick Gries, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

8. The Thunderbird

NOT REAL

The Thunderbird is a supernatural bird in certain North American indigenous peoples' history and culture. It symbolized power and strength and protected humans from evil spirits, and brought on weather events, good or bad. An extremely large bird, its wingbeats were believed to bring thunder and lightning while carrying rain on its back.  The Thunderbird has been represented in indigenous culture through totems, pottery, masks, and carvings.

Nat Lamina (@lasarasu), CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

9. Adarna

NOT REAL

The Adarna is a legendary bird for the Philippines. Originating from an epic poem written in the 16th century, the story is about an ailing king who sends his three sons to find the legendary bird in order to cure his illness. Whoever brought him this notoriously difficult to catch bird would inherit the throne. The story is widely taught in schools in the Philippines today as an allegory of love and sacrifice. It is thought by birders that the Adarna was inspired by the Philippine Trogon.

Tuxyso / Wikimedia Commons

10. Shoebill

REAL

The Shoebill looks like an animatronic right out of Disney World. At about five feet tall, its oversized, shoe-shaped bill, soulful eyes, and prehistoric appearance lends to the notion that this bird stemmed from ancient mythology. But Shoebills are in fact very real, and it is believed that only 3,500-5,300 remain in the swamps of Africa. Shoebills are still linked to some myths however; it is said that bad luck will come to those who see one while fishing.

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