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Incident at Lawndale: The Thunderbird and Other Winged Oddities in Art

Some summer evenings in July aren’t sweltering in Illinois, but that wasn’t the case on this particular evening in 1977. Lawndale was hot and humid again on this particular night, and even as the sun was setting over the midwest, it was still warm outside as Mrs. Ruth Lowe was cleaning up after her family’s most recent foray in backyard dining.

Shortly after 8:10 p.m., as the now-famous story goes, Ruth’s children were playing in the family’s backyard when she heard a commotion coming from outside. As she stepped out onto the family’s back porch, what she saw bordered the unthinkable: Ruth saw what appeared to be a pair of very large birds—nearly hovering as they flapped their massive wings—passing just a few feet over her backyard.

Famous scenes might come to mind here, where a condor or some similar bird of prey swoops gracefully down from above, snatching a salmon from shallow water in some majestic display of predatory dominance. However, Ruth’s amazement at what was happening in her backyard was soon overtaken by panic, as it quickly dawned on her what the object of the birds’ attention had been: there, perhaps inches from the clawing talons of these birds as they glided over her yard, was her 10-year-old son Marlan.

These events may sound like something from the annals of science fiction and film, but they are purported to have really happened on the night of July 25, 1977. Nearly 42 years have passed since the “Thunderbird flap” of ’77, and commemorating the incident is an equally fantastic piece of art depicting the alleged monsters as they are said to have appeared. 

For Sam Shearon, art based on cryptids (animals that are presently unrecognized by science) is more than merely a hobby. In fact, he had his own run-in with a large, panther-like cat many years ago in England (Shearon believes this had been an exotic pet, which was subsequently released or escaped from its owner). Since that time, he has chronicled similar reports of out-of-place animals and “cryptids” in his various works of art.

Sam Shearon’s depiction of the massive bird seen attacking Marlan Lowe in July 1977 near Lawndale, Illinois (Credit: Sam Shearon).

“I’ve cataloged 400 up to now that I’m wanting to illustrate and produce as prints,” Sam says.

This latest batch, created in conjunction with the documentary Terror in the Skies from filmmakers Small Town Monsters, features limited edition prints, each hand-signed and numbered, measuring 11.5” x 16.5”. 

For the series of prints, Sam selected several incidents from cryptozoological literature which involve winged creatures, which range from the famous Mothman of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, to its English cousin, the “Owl Man.” Five in all, these works of art provide detailed (and delightfully dark) portrayals of these classic cryptids, including one of the massive birds said to have attempted an abduction of young Marlon Lowe back in 1977.

The details in Shearon’s rendering of the incident are precisely as they were described at the time: the bird carrying young Marlon aloft is large, dark gray or black, and resembling a condor or other large bird with few other markings apart from a ring of white around the neck; all characteristics that the witnesses described during the actual incident.

James D. Daniels had been one of the witnesses on that night in 1977. He and his wife had been over visiting when they heard a commotion outside, and following Ruth Lowe into the back yard, saw the large birds as they attempted to lift young Marlan off the ground. 

“If I had just had a can of beer earlier, then I could have said I imagined I saw it,” Daniels was quoted saying in a UPI article shortly after the incident. “But I didn’t have any beer that day.”

As Ruth Lowe had stepped out onto her back porch, she didn’t have time to question whether her eyes were playing tricks on her. Maternal instinct overtook her instead, as she rushed in the direction of her 70-pound-son Marlan, who was “battling a huge bird that was carrying him two feet off the ground.”

As Lowe rushed to her son’s aid, the bird gave up the chase, dropping the badly frightened child and joining its mate as the two birds flew away in the direction of nearby Kickapoo Creek.

“They were the biggest things I’ve ever seen,” a still frightened Mrs. Lowe told newspaper reporters only days after the incident. Although some raised questions about why the press learned of the incident before police were notified, Lowe gave a familiar response to her critics: ”I thought if I tell the police they’ll think I’m crazy.” She further notes that upon telling law enforcement about the incident days later, she was treated as though the incident were a prank or delusion. 

In a statement given to the Freeport Journal-Standard, which appeared on July 28, 1977, Logan County officials “said the story is not being discounted because of the number of credible witnesses who reported strong enough to lift a child.”

In light of the number of witnesses, police did finally give some consideration to the incident, and collected the following description of the animals from Mrs. Lowe:

“It had a white ring around its half foot long neck. The rest of the body was very black. The bird’s bill was six inches in length and hooked at the end. The claws on the feet were arranged with three front, one in the back. Each wing, less the body, was four feet at the very least. The entire length of the birds body, from beak to tail feather was approximately four and one half feet.”

The description above formed the basis for Shearon’s latest renderings of the incident, which are precise right down to the beak that is slightly “hooked at the end.” In my opinion, such quality artistic renderings of incidents like that of the Lawndale “Thunderbird”—perhaps among the more credible cases in the broader study of cryptozoology—are invaluable, as they help bring a realistic clarity to what is often left solely to the mind. (You can learn more about Sam and his fine artistic depictions of these animals which border reality here). 

Condor photographed over Colca Canyon, Chivay, Peru, which bears similar markings to those of the bird seen in Lawndale in 1977 (Credit: Unsplash/Loïc Mermilliod)

It seems unlikely that a resolution will ever be brought to incidents like this. Although the description given by Lowe and the other witnesses did resemble one known large avian species—the Andean Condor—this creature, as the name would entail, is only found in the high mountains of South America’s Andes range; it seems highly improbable that any of these birds would have been flapping about over Lawndale in 1977. Furthermore, despite the size of these birds, it seems unlikely that they would be capable of lifting a child and carrying him, even the short distance described above.

It begs the question then, if true, what else could it have been? Could there actually be another large species of bird that might have existed until fairly recently, which could account for such incidents? The Lawndale incident is not the only one of its kind, although it is perhaps the most widely reported, and hence a cornerstone in the broader study of similar cases where large, mysterious birds of unknown varieties have been observed over parts of North America.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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