2005-04-01 / Columnists

Drawing On Science

by Stephen Yaeger

Last summer, my neighbor showed me a copy of a drawing sent to him by his nephew who is studying Wildlife Conservation at the University of Arizona. The drawing was copied from one of his texts. It was the caption’s reference to Rockaway, which prompted the student to send it to his uncle. But when I saw the drawing it jolted my memory.

When we were kids living in Brooklyn, my brothers and I had a friend whose father would take us to Rockaway. He taught us how to surf cast (I caught my first striped bass off the Rockaway beaches). One Sunday he had a treat for us: we went fishing in Jamaica Bay in a small outboard motorboat. It was the summer of 1946. Our friend had his Ansco camera with him, as he was interested in photography at the time. My younger brother had spotted a bird resting on one of the mud flats. It was a very large bird having a white, long neck and its body was covered with black feathers. When it took off our friend quickly snapped a picture of it. It flew very high then dived down in a perfect spiral. Suddenly it plucked a bird, probably a seagull, from mid-air and, carrying the struggling bird in its beak, it flew off. The drawing of the mythical bird reminded me of this strange bird that we saw.

I e-mailed the image to my brothers and our friend of over 60 years. Not only did everyone remember the incident, but also our friend, as luck would have it, still had the photo that he took. I called and asked if I could borrow the photo, but it was glued to a page in his family album. He said that he would scan it and mail it to me. The photo is not in very good condition and it is blurred, but it really does look remarkably like the mythical bird. I checked out some bird books to identify it, but with no success.

If you study the two images you would be hard-pressed to deny that there is a very close resemblance between them. Look at the long, white neck; the hooked bill (it’s hard to tell, but I believe the bird in the photo has a hooked bill too); and the large, dark body. My instinct tells me that the mythical “Thunderbird” and the bird in the photo are one and the same. This is not as far-fetched as one would believe.

Keep in mind that the gorilla was thought to be legendary, a mythical being of African natives. Early European settlers accepted it as a myth until it was “discovered” by Europeans explorers in the early 1900’s. Sea-going sailors of old told of mermaids, beings having the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a fish (after all some voyages lasted many years). The mermaids that sailors saw are now accepted as the sea mammals called dugongs. The Navajo’s mythical arawote (AH-rah-woot), or dragon of the sands, was discovered in 1897 to be the ring-tailed desert iquana. Sea serpents have been identified as giant squids. Even creatures that were thought to be extinct have been found to be living today. Such is the coelacanth (SEAL-o-kanth)—a lobe-fined prehistoric fish thought to be extinct for over 390 million years. Yet one was fished from the ocean in 1938 and many others have since been caught.

Is the Rockaway bird in the photo the same as the mythical bird depicted in the drawing? If so, Rockaway may just be written up in scientific journals. I mailed copies of the images to the Ornithology Departments of the American Museum of Natural History and the Wildlife Conservation Society, and to the Legends and Myths Department of the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. I explained what it was all about and asked for the true facts concerning the strange bird. Last week I received the same, cryptic, answer from all three:

“The truth lies in the first letters of the line of words to the right of the drawing.”

Questions/comments? E-mail Steve: Drawing onscience@aol.com

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