Flightless “Big birds”
Besides giant condors, there was also another kind of monster bird in Patagonia, the predator flightless one.
The Mapuche believe in “Alicanto”, a big bird with a curved beak and long legs ending in big claws. It is nocturnal creature with a strange diet: it eats gold and silver ore; these somehow shine through its body, giving off an eerie golden light. It can’t fly, it runs. If followed by miners seeking a new strike, it may turn on them and kill them.
Folklorist Bertha Koessler-Ilg, when describing the evil beings that the Mapuche believed that lived in the forests, mentioned that at one time “even the big birds dared to attack the small people of the valleys: they wounded them to devour them later, they kidnapped their children”.
This implies carnivorous birds much larger than humans.
A similar though independent myth is found among the Aonikenk, where “Kelenken” the twin brother of “Maip”, the evil spirit of the cold, was a gigantic black bird of prey.
Once again, both legends point towards an enormous raptor that could maim adults and carry away their children.
Father Alonso de Ovalle’s map Tabula geográfica Regini Chile dated 1646 not only showed a tailed Fuegian Coludo, it also depicted, in the correct scale, guanaco, llama, deer, ñandú and also, a strange man-sized bird of prey. This bipedal animal is drawn standing on the steppe and looks very much like a now extinct Patagonian killer bird.
The Aonikenk believed in a “Male ñandú”, that was an evil creature controlled by a witch, Kéenguenkon (the moon-woman), who sent it to attack and kill men.
Patagonia was home to a now extinct group of carnivorous flightless birds. These predatory creatures dominated South America while it was an island continent from 65 Ma. to roughly 2 Ma. when the terror birds died out around the time that North and South America merged at the Isthmus of Panama. Pressure from the invading placental mammals let to their demise.
These birds didn't fly because they didn't have to. Instead, they put their biological resources into growing bigger and faster than anything else on the continent. They were warm-blooded energetic beings. The largest of these monsters was the “Terror Bird”, a phorusrhacid that was nearly 3 meters (10 ft.) tall and weighed about 500 kg (1,100 lb.). Its discoverers named it Kelenken guillermoi, after the Tehuelche’s fearsome killer bird.
The question is why did the Tehuelche have a myth involving a “Terror bird”? and why did de Ovalle depict one in his map?
They seem to have been a very persistent myth because in the early 1900s, professor F. B. Loomis noted that the local Patagonian gauchos (cowboys) “sometimes talk of great wingless birds”, he attributed it to their alcohol induced fantasies. But, how could these mostly illiterate men have learnt about a killer flightless bird if not from personal experience? Were terror birds still roaming the steppe barely one hundred years ago?
Part 1 of Strange Birds is Here.
Part 2 of Strange Birds is Here.
 Vicuña Cifuentes, J., (1915). Op. cit. pp. 1.
 Koessler-Ilg. B., (2000). Op. Cit. pp. 81.
 Baleta, M., (1977). Joiuen Tsoneka (Leyendas Tehuelches). Río Gallegos: Talleres Gráficos Noguera.
 de Ovalle, A. Op. Cit. Tabula geográfica Regini Chile. pp. 521.
 Colombres, A., (2008). Op. Cit. pp. 40
 Bertelli, S., et al., (2007). A new phorusrhacid (Aves: Cariamae) from the Middle Miocene of Patagonia, Argentina. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 27, 409-419. pp. 410.
 The New York Times, (1922). Seeing things in Patagonia. New York. US 11.03.1922.
Copyright 2009 by Austin Whittall ©