Guide to Patagonia's Monsters & Mysterious beings

I have written a book on this intriguing subject which has just been published.
In this blog I will post excerpts and other interesting texts on this fascinating subject.

Austin Whittall

Friday, December 11, 2009

Flying creatures - Strange birds. Part 1


Condors, griffins and big birds

The Condor

Patagonia is home to the World´s largest flying bird, the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus). They can reach a height of 1,3 meters (4.2 ft.) and have a wing-span of 3,3 m (10.8 ft.), weighing up to 12 kg ( 26.5 lb.).

They soar for hours in the ascending hot air currents of the Andes searching for prey (or carrion, because they also eat dead animals like all vultures). At one time their range extended to the Patagonian Atlantic coast but they were hunted to extinction. Now they are being reintroduced there.

It was believed that they gathered in groups to attack and kill calves and lambs, and that an adult condor could carry off tiny guanacos,[1] and children. Even the Tehuelche had a myth in which their demigod hero Elal punished the condor for abducting children; he plucked all the feathers from its head giving it its current bald appearance.[1]

We know that condors could never carry off a child or a calf, but the belief must be based on reality; perhaps another larger bird, now extinct.


The other “big” Patagonian bird is the aguila mora, which the natives called calquín. This Black Chested Buzzard-Eagle (Geranoaetus melanoleucus) has a wingspan of 2 meters (6.6 ft.) and was said to be able to speak with God (what did they talk about?).[1]

Argentavis the biggest flying bird ever

Though huge, both birds are midgets in comparison to the world’s largest known flying bird, which lived in Patagonia about 6 Ma. the Argentavis magnificens and belonged to a family of birds known as Teratornithidae (Greek for "monster bird").

This vicious predator named after Argentina (hence the ‘Argent’ part of its name) weighed some 70 kg (155 lb.) and had a wingspan of over 7 m (23 ft.). Like condors it lived in the mountains where it could find strong winds and thermals to keep it aloft.[2]

It lacked the claws of modern predator birds but its beak and massive head 55 cm (1.8 ft.) long clearly indicate that it was a predator and not a carrion eater.

Condors do not descend from Argentavis but from another line of North American Teratorns that later spread into South America. These gigantic Teratornid ancestors of the condor became extinct some 10,000 years ago together with the megafauna at the end of the last Ice Age.

But did any of them somehow manage to survive? Did they all die out or do they still soar the skies in hidden locations? Did they originate the myth of abducting birds?


Outside of Patagonia, in the XVth century, there were reports of a gigantic “condor-griffin” (the latter is a fantastic creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle). Cieza de León, a Spanish conquistador and chronicler noted that in Perú (in the 1540s) there were “some very big condors that almost look like griffins; some attack lambs and small guanaco in the fields”.[3]

I posted on a map drawn in 1546 that depicts some griffins Here.

Copiapó "pterosaur"

Further south, in central Chile, at Copiapó, which is 1.000 km (622 mi.) north of Patagonia, a very strange sighting happened in 1868, when some miners saw something odd in the sky:

a gigantic bird […] we could mark the strange shape of its body. Its immense wings were clothed with a grayish plumage, the monster’s head was like that of a locust with wide open eyes like burning coals, it seemed covered with something resembling thick and stout bristles, like a hog’s, while on its body, elongated like that of a serpent, we could only see brilliant scales which clashed together with metallic sound as the strange animal turned its body in its flight. [4][5]

Setting aside the embellishments (locust head, ember eyes) they seem to have seen a very unusual gigantic bird which perhaps extended its habitat south into Patagonia, where there have also been some “big bird” sightings.

Lake Foitzick - big birds

At Lake Foitzick (our post on its lake creatures is Here) in Aisén (home to a lake bull) there is a mythical bird known as “Chimayén or wizard bird, a large bird with the shape of a condor that cries like a child”.[6] Close by, at the Coihaique mountain range, in 2009, Juan Moran wrote that “they say there are some black birds whose extended wings are 6 meters [19.6 ft. long] […] their eating habits are the same as those of condors and their life is more nocturnal than diurnal”.[7]

These are very strange birds, because they do not fly in the dark as they can’t see. Bats are night creatures.

Could the Copiapó bird, Chimayén and the black birds at Coihaique be the same creature, a relict Teratornid?

Tierra del Fuego - big birds

In 2000, at Providencia, Tierra del Fuego, after many sheep appeared mauled a dock hand named Luis Gutiérrez Galli said that “I saw a bird fly over us, the size of a human being and with big wings”.[8] Apparently, he believed that this bird was involved in the killings.

Roc at Magellan strait

Magellan going through the Straits.
Notice the Roc carrying an elephant on the upper right corner and the fires burning on Tierra del Fuego (right) (Fire Land) and Patagon swallowing an arrow (left). From [9]

Also at Tierra del Fuego, a XVIIth century engraving by Theodore de Bry shows Magellan sailing through the straits, and behind him, high in the air flying out of the island, an enormous bird is seen gripping an elephant with its sharp talons.[9] The elephant is definitively a fancy of de Bry, but perhaps the big bird reflects some now unrecorded testimony of a crew member.

Part 2 of Strange birds is Here.
Part 3 of Strange birds is Here.


[1] Soldano, A., (2006). Leyendas Nativas Argentinas de La Patagonia: Recopilaciones. B. Aires: Ed. Dunken.
[2] Chatterjee S., Templin R., Campbell K., Jr., (2007). The aerodynamics of Argentavis, the world's largest flying bird from the Miocene of Argentina. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104:12398–12403.
[3] Cieza de León, P. Ballesteros, M., [Ed.], (2000). La crónica del Perú (1553). Madrid: Dastin S. L. pp. 367-368.
[4] The Zoologist, (1868). A Strange Bird. London, Serie 2, v.iii: xxvi. July 1868. pp. 1295.
[5] El Constituyente, (1868). Este Es Cuento. Copiapó, Chile. 18.03.1868, Nº 1853, Año VII, pp. 2 -3.
[6] Mansilla Contreras, J., (2008). Op. Cit.
[7] Grothe, S., (2009). A nuestros lectores. Bestiario de lo cotidiano y extraordinario. Online.
[8] Nuñez, O., L., (2000). Ovnis enigmas chupacabras. La Prensa Austral. Punta Arenas, Chile. 10.06.2000.
[9] De Bry, T., (1613). America. Part IV. Plate XV. Frankfurt [Engraving]. Library of Congress, the Kraus Collection of Sir Francis Drake.

Copyright 2009 by Austin Whittall ©

Patagonian Monsters

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