Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

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Tuesday, 6 April 2021

SOLVING THE RIDDLE OF THE SEA SCOPIUM - A FISHY TALE FROM EAST SUSSEX

 
Life restoration model of a Eurypterus sea scorpion, exhibited in the Smithsonian Institution's Hall of Fossils (© Ryan Somma/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

The eurypterids or sea scorpions of prehistory are unquestionably among the most extraordinary, physically spectacular creatures known exclusively from the fossil record. They consist of a long-extinct group of arthropods – that incomparably diverse assemblage of invertebrates united morphologically (but no longer taxonomically within a single phylum) by their jointed limbs.  Including among their number the largest and most spectacular of all arthropods, attaining a total length of up to 8 ft in one species (Jaekelopterus rhenaniae), the sea scorpions were only distantly related to modern-day scorpions, as they were much more closely allied to the horseshoe crabs. They had reached their zenith of evolutionary of development by the late Silurian Period (approximately 420 million years ago) and had disappeared entirely from the fossil record by the close of the Permian (around 170 million years later), victims of the mass extinction that occurred at that time.

Most sea scorpions were generally elongate - commencing with a broad prosoma (the combined head and thorax) whose rounded head sported a distinctive pair of laterally-sited compound eyes and elongated mouth, and whose short thorax bore six pairs of limbs. One pair, the chelicerae, were jaw-parts (which attained an exceptional degree of development in Pterygotus species, resembling pincer-like grasping organs). The others were true legs (which in some species were so stout that they may have enabled these particular forms to walk on land).

Of those true legs, the most posterior pair was much larger and flatter than the rest, terminating in oval plates or paddles - undoubtedly constituting the principal swimming organs, but possibly serving as anchors too, or as scoops for digging up mud on the sea bottom where these creatures may have rested or hidden themselves. These wider legs earned the sea scorpions their scientific name - 'eurypterid' translates as 'broad wing', alluding to the wide paddles.

 
Examples of pterygotid eurypterids, size not to scale (© Junnn11/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

The abdomen or opisthosoma was divided into two morphologically distinct sections. The forepart, known as the mesosoma, consisted of seven squat segments. The posterior part or metasoma consisted of five tapering cylindrical segments, the last of which bifurcated into two lobes - between which, concluding the sea scorpion's morphological roll-call, arose a long pointed spine (or, in some species, a short flat plate) called the telson or tail.

During their evolution, the sea scorpions adapted to living in brackish waters too, and even entered freshwater. Indeed, based upon some exceptional eurypterid fossils unearthed during the 1980s at East Kirkton in West Lothian, Scotland, palaeontologists believe that certain sea scorpions might even have been terrestrial. And if their lineage has persisted into the present day, 245 million years of intervening evolution could have engineered many other changes too, yielding creatures quite different in form and lifestyle from their Permian predecessors.

But what has all of the above information on sea scorpions to do with the mystery creature under consideration in this present ShukerNature article? In reality, nothing at all, were it not for a very confusing similarity of names, which, until I investigated it, had prevented the true nature of the creature in question from being recognised for what it truly is. Happily, all will now be revealed, in the curious case of the East Sussex sea scopium.

 
Exquisite vintage illustration of a Eurypterus remipes sea scorpion from 1858 (public domain)

I was first alerted to the mystifying sea scopium by way of a short but tantalising newspaper report, written by reporter John Ogden, that appeared in my local evening newspaper, the Sandwell Express and Star (Wolverhampton), on 2 May 1986, p. 2. It concerned a TV programme that had been screened the previous evening, 1 May.

Channel 4, a British television station, had broadcast a little-known true-life film that had been made in 1972 and was entitled The Moon and the Sledgehammer. Its subject was the Pate family, whose home was situated deep in some woods near Newhaven in East Sussex, southern England, and whose patriarch was Old Man Pate.

In this film, Old Man Pate recollected seeing a marine creature that he referred to as a 'sea scopium'. According to his description, it "looks like an old ship's sailing cloth in the water...They're black...It's got a head like a frog, but it's all goldy colour round, and its eyes stick out a bit, bulge fashion...It was about 7-8 ft under the water".

 
From my archives, the Sandwell Express and Star newspaper cutting of 2 May 1986 that had first brought the sea scopium to my attention - please click its picture to enlarge for reading purposes (© John Ogden/Sandwell Express and Star, Wolverhampton - reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Pate had considered pulling it out of the sea to observe it more closely, but when he saw its large mouth, and realised that it was looking at him, he changed his mind. Afterwards, however, he regretted this, and in the film he announced plans to build a semi-submersible boat in which to look for the creature again. But what might it have been? Surely not a living sea scorpion??

Although the term 'sea scopium' naturally evokes images of eurypterids, there is a much simpler explanation available here. Pate's account recalls a fish called the sea scorpion – Myoxocephalus scorpius. Up to 2 ft long and black when fully mature, also referred to as the shorthorn sculpin, and a member of the taxonomic family of fishes known as cottid sculpins, this is a large-mouthed, frog-faced lurker among stones and seaweed on rocky seafloor with mud or sand.

This species is found in the English Channel, and the Atlantic north of Biscay, as well as the Arctic basin including the Siberian and Alaskan coasts. True, its head is not golden, but in the film Pate stated that the sun was shining down through the water, so this no doubt gave the creature's head a golden sheen. Exit the 'sea scopium' from any further cryptozoological consideration.

 
Dorsal view of a sea scorpion of the shorthorn sculpin kind (© Genet/Wikipedia – CC-BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Many years ago, in a report describing a new 3-ft-long species of Mixopterus sea scorpion, Norwegian palaeontologist Prof. Johan Kiaer recalled the thrill of its discovery:

I shall never forget the moment when the first excellently preserved specimen of the new giant eurypterid was found. My workmen had lifted up a large slab, and when they turned it over, we suddenly saw the huge animal, with its marvelously shaped feet, stretched out in natural position. There was something so lifelike about it, gleaming darkly in the stone, that we almost expected to see it slowly rise from the bed where it had rested in peace for millions of years and crawl down to the lake that glittered close below us.

No doubt cryptozoologists share a similarly dramatic dream – to haul up a living sea scorpion from the depths of the oceans or even from the muddy bottom of a very large freshwater lake. Certainly, there have been some claims of this nature made down through the years in relation to various unidentified aquatic mystery beasts. And who knows – somewhere out there, perhaps there really are some post-Permian, present-day eurypterids, indolently lurking in scientific anonymity? Yet if the terminological tangle disentangled here that had hitherto hindered the delineation of these palaeontological sea scorpions from their modern-day piscean namesake is anything to go by, however, this prospect seems no more likely than the resurrection of Kiaer's fossilised specimen from its rocky bed of Silurian sandstone.

My sincere thanks to longstanding friend and crypto-colleague Sally Watts for kindly making available to me for personal viewing a copy of The Moon and the Sledgehammer after I'd mentioned reading the above newspaper cutting referring to its sea scopium.

 
Lateral view of the shorthorn sculpin aka sea scorpion (public domain)

 

 

Saturday, 3 April 2021

UPDATING THE LOUISIANA GIANT SPIDERS SAGA

 
Giant spider sculpture in Ottawa, Canada (© Markus Bühler)

Last year, I posted a 2-part ShukerNature blog article of mine (click here and here to access it) concerning the alleged encounters during 2005 and 2007 by various Louisiana-based U.S. army personnel with some incredibly huge spiders. Unsurprisingly, it attracted a great deal of attention, especially as by all the fundamental laws of biophysics such creatures shouldn't – couldn't – exist. The information concerning these immense arachnids was provided to me by one of their reputed eyewitnesses, and he gave me full permission to publish all of it, on the sole condition that I did not make public his identity, which I have not done. Instead, I refer to him merely as Sgt S.

My 2-part article engendered a fair few comments from readers, some of which queried certain technical and military aspects of Sgt S's testimony. As a result, I have recently received some additional information from him, not only addressing those queries but also providing further insights into the creatures that he and others allegedly encountered. Moreover, he has provided me with a series of truly startling, thought-provoking scale drawings that readily reveal the supposed sizes of those spiders alongside an average human. As noted above, the zoologist in me cries out that such creatures simply cannot be. Equally, however, Sgt S's extensive, impassioned communications are ones that ostensibly originate from someone who was truly terrified and still patently haunted by what he claims to have seen.

As before, Sgt S has kindly granted me full permission to publish these updates under the same condition as before, that he remains anonymous, and to which I fully accede. Personally, however, I can see no feasible way via which the diametrically opposite, mutually exclusive disparity between the biological incongruity of the spiders and the apparent honesty of his belief in what he claims to have seen can be resolved. So I choose instead to present Sgt S's additional information and scale drawings herewith without comment from me, but in the form of a new article that will serve as a publicly-available record of the latter data's existence, which I feel needs to be done.

I received the first of Sgt S's new emails to me just over a fortnight ago, on 14 March 2021, in which he stated: "I finally saw your blog postings of my accounts with the giant spiders at Fort Polk. Thank you so much for bringing this story to light and keeping my name out of it. After reading it all over again I remembered a few more details from the 2005 sighting, regarding the animals' behavior that are significant enough to include".

On 18 March, Sgt S. added:

I was so traumatized by these events that I became disassociated, as if this were too unbearable to think about or as if it happened to someone else. To be clear on the retelling of these parts of the story, I did not fully recall the entire play-by-play of events, as it was so hard to deal with, that I blocked it out trying not to think about it. I have not talked about it at all with anyone until writing about it with you, 15 years later. Now it haunts me to even see a large dog lose in the park as that is the general size of the creature’s torso, without the 6-inch venomous fangs and long creepy legs. I was finally able to talk about it with a friend from work who is very open-minded to this sort of thing and that helped me to decide to write these additional details. You have my permission to publish as agreed upon before.

I must discourage anyone from trying to get near one of these things, or even walking in their area as they are extremely dangerous, venomous, man-eating, ambush predators that can move with tremendous force and speed.

He then presented an extensive account, which he revised slightly during some subsequent emails. This is his finalised version. Be sure to check back to my previous 2-part article in order to set the scene and read in context what is now presented below:

 

2005 Sightings

Animal Type 1A

On the night of the first encounter in 2005, when I first saw this thing that I will label Type 1A, I could not believe what I was seeing. In the heat of the moment, I charged forward and used my M4 carbine weapon’s buttstock to smash Type 1A in the head repeatedly, swinging wildly with my weapon at its legs while kicking and screaming at it at the top of my lungs. The flashlight shining directly in its eyes illuminated the eye tube itself making it appear light blue. I can compare it to being in a dark room and shining a light into to the bottom of a clear glass bottle filled with clear viscous fluid or clear jelly. The eyes of course were outwardly convex and had no eyelids. Before I charged, Type 1A tilted its head to the side and around so I could see the light all the way inside its head and there were increasingly smaller rings inside the eye tube. I think the adrenaline from my fight or flight instinct kicked in when I saw it moving. Type 1A backed up and sprayed a mist of foul-smelling liquid at us from about 5 or 6 feet away. The pheromone-laced liquid came out from the animal’s mouth, (or likely from glands near its mouth) and initially fanned out like water from an automotive windshield wiper nozzle, before dispersing into a mist. It happened very suddenly while I was firing blank 5.56mm rounds in its face, so it may have been a defensive response. The scent was a mix of ammonia and strong animal musk, like the scent of a cat marking its territory but much more pungent. The smell was not as bad as Skunk spray but more of a wet, swampy undercurrent of stench. With the sound and flash from 30 blank rounds, Type 1A turned its back and fled very clumsily, tumbling into its own legs, and smashing into the trees and sticks on the wooded area and was feeling its way around trying to find a path to escape before it scampered out of sight. I believe these things cannot see very well like most spiders and instead follow their noses (or whatever olfactory organs a spider has).

After I cut SGT Becky loose from the thick threaded silk, I became entangled and stuck to the ground. While SGT Becky was screaming and running back to our tent, I was nauseated from the pungent spray and basically frozen in fear, unable to move my legs. I then changed magazines in my weapon and made a Morse code S.O.S signal by firing a three-round burst, followed with three separate single-round shots, finishing with another three-round burst. I did this pattern three times. I could still hear movement in the trees from the direction where Type 1A fled, so I frantically cut away blindly at the dirt trying to free myself until I could get up and run like the devil back to our tent. I was very disoriented, dizzy, and itchy on my exposed skin as was SGT Becky. In retrospect, I believe this was due to a neurotoxic effect on the inch-long bristles or hairs we found all over our uniforms that I believe were ejected from Type A1 in a defensive reflex. Common tarantulas are known to shoot bristles or urticating hairs from their abdomens, to ward off predators. The bristles were black, white, and tan. Some of these were collected in a zip lock bag but the senior leadership took these away with any other evidence.

Later when they asked me to describe what I saw, I recalled thinking Type 1A looked like an old, frail man. Its head was not covered in hair, but the face and fangs were covered in long, light-colored bristles. This gave it the appearance of a bald, bearded elderly man, with its long, thin legs giving it the appearance of frail, bony arms, and legs.

When the senior leadership arrived one of the soldiers recognized the scent on us and ordered his men to go get bottles of ammonia and Simple Green (a degreaser popular with the Army). He ordered us to wash our hands and faces with ammonia and warned us to burn our uniforms or wash them three or four times with the Simple Green to get the smell out, or ... “she’ll come after you”. He did not elaborate further.

 
Scale drawing showing a Type 1A spider alongside an average human (© Sgt S)


----


Animal Type 2A

When everyone calmed down from all the excitement I headed back to my cot. SGT Becky returned from the Aid station under assistance as they had given her tranquilizers. She was removed from training the next day under a command referral due to her traumatized state. My tent mates began complaining about the musty smell on me, so I threw the scent-marked uniform in a laundry bag outside, next to the tent about 20 feet from the door. After I changed and made a coffee I started heading out to the showers and laundry, and stood just inside of the door frame, getting my eyes adjusted to the dark. I had a black shaving kit/ toiletry bag in my right hand outside the open door when I felt something hit the bag. There was a whitish, silver-dollar-sized material connected to a thick string against my black bag. As I turned it slightly to look, it was pulled away from me suddenly and with great force, smashing my wrist into the metal frame of the door and snatching it out of my hand. Just then another soldier leaving the portable toilets, about 40 feet perpendicular to the door, started gasping in silent screams, pointing at a dark mass, about the size of a man and low to the ground along the outer wall of the tent, where my laundry bag was (this [creature] I will label as Type 2A). He threw a plastic spit bottle at the shape on the ground, splashing tobacco spit all over Type 2A, and it turned in his direction making a hissing sound. Immediately I threw my hot coffee and canteen cup that I had in my other hand. Type 2A turned again now with its back to me and raised with its head topping off at about five feet from the ground. Its 2- to 3-inch-thick front and side legs then spread out, shaking menacingly in the air, spanning 6 or 7 feet in circumference! Type 2A's back legs were dangling straight down like it was on its tiptoes and its abdomen was about 1 foot thick by 3 feet long. All this happened instantaneously, and in a split second, it leaped 50 or 60 feet horizontally away! (I suppose it could have run on its back legs but it covered 50 to 60 feet of distance in a split second!) It reached the edge of the "200 man" tent and without stopping it rounded the corner, crashing into another tent alongside ours. It clumsily clambered over the next tent ripping holes in the fabric then disappeared into the woods. Animal Type 2A was much darker in color, with a thicker coat of bristles, much thicker in body mass. Its abdomen was more elongated than bulbous, and its overall size was greater than a large man. I did not see its fangs as it was dark and quickly turned its back to me, but overall, it gave the appearance of an enormous tarantula. Someone found my bag the next day by the wood line and it was punctured, with the shaving cream can exploded and the other contents mangled. Again, the senior officers collected it and ordered us not to talk about the incident. The soldier who threw the spit bottle already had a phobia of spiders and this event so traumatized him that he could no longer speak intelligibly. He became so uncontrollably stressed that he was also removed from the training under command referral.

 
Scale drawing showing a Type 2A spider alongside an average human (© Sgt S)

In my first email to you on the 2005 event, I mentioned another soldier woke up to what he said looked like a bearded old man wearing large black goggles, looking at us at the base of our open tent door. To elaborate further on that event, that night of the first sighting I placed Army issue cots upright, lengthwise around my sleeping cot in a feeble attempt to protect myself with a wall around me. In the night I awoke to a loud metal banging sound at the rear tent door near where I was sleeping. But when several of us got up there was nothing to see. In the morning one of my upright cots was gone. I found it crumpled up in the field behind our tent with more sticky silk around it. I assume one of the spiders returned and spit silk at where their scent was coming from, catching an upended cot instead of me. The cots are made of sturdy aluminum intended for years of military use and not easily crumpled up by human hands.

After these incidents, the senior leadership came back and ordered me to surrender my boots and any clothing I wore when I was sprayed by Type 1A. I washed my equipment including my helmet, flashlight, and weapon with the Army-issued M295 Decontamination Kit (this is a charcoal powdered mitten that has a disgusting rotten fish oil smell). I also used the M295 kit on my head, face, neck, hands, and arms. I repeated this process a few times to get the smell off me and we sprayed the area down with Army issued STB, or super tropical bleach, (the M295 and STB are for chemical weapons defense). After the decontamination, a few showers, new uniforms, spraying down the tent area with STB, and pouring STB into the hole where Type 1A appeared, the creatures did not return. I was quietly praised for being a survivor and openly mocked for seeing something that was not there or feeling stressed about an event that never happened.

 

2007 Sighting

Animals Type 1B & Type 2B

I would like to label the 2007 daytime sighting of the large, light-colored trapdoor spider, Type 1B, and the night-time sighting of the gargantuan spider on the roof as Type 2B. [see Part 2 of my previous article here for details of Sgt S's 2007 sighting.]

 

OBSERVATIONS

1. Nocturnal, occasionally diurnal.

2. Burrowing and tunneling.

3. Creates Trap Doors with silk feeder lines to capture and ambush prey. Alerted by vibrations.

4. Large venomous fangs, and potentially venomous tailhook/ stinger.

5. Spitting silk to capture prey from at least a 20’ distance.

6. Makes a hissing sound when agitated.

7. Urticating hairs with a neurotoxic effect.

8. Raises up and rattles its forelegs legs before jumping horizontally at high velocity to 50 or 60 feet.

9. Pheromone marking and hunting.

10. Inferior sight.

11. Superior olfactory senses.

12. Prey baiting.

13. Easily startled.

14. Returns to scent marked hunting of prey even when startled.

15. Follows scent marked prey over many miles and many days.

16. Moves silently under cover of darkness.

17. "Bags" prey in silk to carry off to burrows.

 

 
Scale drawing showing a Type 1B spider alongside an average human (© Sgt S)


ASSUMPTIONS:

1. I assume the creatures were hunting after the scent marked on my clothes and body by Type 1A and Type 1B. I propose They may work communally or competitively going after each other’s scent marked prey.

2. Type 2A spit a sticky web hitting my bag and pulled it away from me, perhaps as a way of capturing prey from a distance, like the spitting spider, Scytodes thoracica.

3. I think it reacted to the liquids thrown at it like many common spiders do, by raising up and jumping away, albeit with extraordinarily terrifying force and speed. If I were in its path it would have undoubtedly taken me with it.

4. Animal Types 1A, 1B, 2A, and 2B may all be the same species but different sex and at different life phases. I believe the lighter colored, smaller Types 1A and 1B are the males, as both male spiders are usually smaller, and each performed the scent-marking behavior. I believe Type 2A and Type 2B are the females. Both being larger, darker colored and followed the scent of Types 1A and 1B. One theory is that these are four different animals at two different life stages. Another could be that these are two animals that have enlarged from 2005 to 2007. These could be mated pairs.

5. I speculate that these things may have a long lifespan where they hibernate or have years of inactivity where they remain in their tunnels.

Sgt S concluded his testimony with the following telling comment contained in an email to me of 26 March 2021:

Putting together the scale drawings made me sick with anxiety. I feel nauseous just looking at them again. If I did not see it with my own eyes I wouldn't believe that venomous spiders as large as grizzly bears could actually be roaming around freely in the Louisiana woodlands. I don't care if anyone else believes it to be honest because gravity doesn't care if you believe in it either. Go ahead and jump off a tall building and try not to believe in gravity if you want. 

 
Scale drawing showing a Type 2B spider alongside an average human (© Sgt S)

So there we have it, make of it all what we will, but undeniably fascinating.

 

I have already stated my personal opinion as a zoologist regarding the biological feasibility of such spiders, based upon what is currently known concerning arachnid anatomy and physiology. As for whether the U.S. Army would – or could – keep such extraordinary events a secret or alternatively endeavour to seek out and either capture or destroy anything as inimical as these arachnid entities, I am not a military man, so I have neither the theoretical knowledge nor the practical experience to answer such questions. Nor do I have any means of either confirming or discounting Sgt S's testimony. Like so much evidence put forward in cryptozoology, it is entirely anecdotal, unsupported by any physical, tangible evidence. Nevertheless, in view of its detail and depth, I have decided to document it herewith, because I feel not to do so would be both judgmental and remiss, and might even mean that if there is other, independent evidence out there that could substantiate its claim, it might not be brought forward. But now it might, so now we must wait and see.

My sincere thanks to Sgt S for sharing his testimony with me and, as before, for most kindly permitting me to make it publicly available.

For further details concerning giant spider reports, be sure to click here to read a detailed survey on ShukerNature, and also check out the comprehensive chapter devoted to such creatures in my book Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History.



Tuesday, 30 March 2021

SINGING THE PRAISES OF OUR NATIONS' FEATHERED AMBASSADORS

 
A male doctor bird, Jamaica's national bird, in Philip Henry Gosse's book The Birds of Jamaica, 1849 (public domain) / Doctor birds (two males, one female), in John Gould's tome A Monograph of the Trochilidae, or Family of Humming-birds, Vol. 2, 1861 (public domain)

Despite being a nation intimately associated with birdwatching and a love of all things ornithological in general, the United Kingdom, most surprisingly, is one of the very few nations on Earth that does not have an official national bird. True, several years ago a countrywide poll was held to decide which species should serve as our own representative, and revealed as its winner the robin Erithacus rubecula – a friendly, familiar species beloved of gardeners and Christmas card illustrators, and which has traditionally if unofficially occupied that very same role for untold years anyway. However, even this newsworthy poll failed to convince the powers-that-be to elect the robin formally as our nation's feathered ambassador, and so, at least for now, the wait continues. Elsewhere around the world, conversely, is a vast array of national birds, chosen for many different reasons as their respective country's much-loved avian symbol – from its links to its country's beliefs or culture, or as an eyecatching example of its rich biodiversity, to the longstanding admiration that it has inspired among those people sharing its homeland, or even as a means of highlighting its modern-day rarity and need for conservation. So here, to demonstrate this eclectic variety, is a global twitching tour, highlighting some of the most distinctive national birds with fascinating facts explaining why they are so memorable.

 
European robin, painted by Frederick W Frohawk, 1907 (public domain)

Birds of prey have always been greatly admired as symbols of power, strength, intelligence, wisdom, and keen vision, so it is hardly surprising that they have also been popular choices as national birds. Perhaps the most famous example in this capacity is the bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus, the national bird of the USA. One of the world's several species of fish-eating eagle, and named after the adult bird's characteristic white-plumed head (it is brown in juveniles), the bald eagle was officially adopted as the USA's feathered representative on 20 June 1782, when the design of the Great Seal of the United States portraying a bald eagle grasping in its talons 13 arrows representing the 13 founding states plus an olive branch signifying peace was formally adopted by the Continental (Philadelphia) Congress, containing delegates from those states.

 
Bald eagle, hand-coloured engraving, 1840 (public domain)

Another country with a tradition of eagle imagery is Germany, and it too has an eagle as its generally-recognised national bird, but this time the golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos. Indeed, the magnificent plumage and stately poise of this species is so imposing that several other countries have also adopted it in this role, including Afghanistan, Armenia, Egypt, Mexico, and Scotland, although in Egypt and Scotland it is presently still in an unofficial capacity, rather like our robin. Moreover, the African fish eagle Haliaeetus vocifer, a close Old World relative of the bald eagle and sporting a very striking brown and white plumage, is so well-regarded on its native African continent that it is the official national bird of no fewer than four different nations – Namibia, South Sudan, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

 
Golden eagles (Wikipedia – public domain)

One of the most spectacular yet also one of the rarest of all eagles is the Philippine eagle Pithecophaga jefferyi. Originally dubbed the monkey-eating eagle as it is large and powerful enough to prey upon sizeable monkeys here, it was subsequently renamed the Philippine eagle and formally installed as its country's national bird on 4 July 1995 by the then president Fidel V. Vamos. This was done in a bid to raise awareness regarding its critically endangered status, a result of longstanding habitat destruction, especially via widespread deforestation. Less than 1,000 individuals are currently thought to exist.

 
Philippine eagle, by Henrik Grönvold, 1910 (public domain)

Other powerful birds of prey declared as national birds include the harpy eagle Harpia harpyja in Panama, the white-tailed sea eagle or erne Haliaeetus albicilla (Poland), and the gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus (Iceland). Vultures may not seem the most photogenic or behaviourally refined of species to serve as national birds, yet they too clearly have their supporters, because the griffon vulture Gyps fulvus is the national bird of Serbia, and the mighty-pinioned Andean condor Vultur gryphus serves in this role for a quartet of major South American nations (Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador). Smaller raptorial species are not overlooked either, with the peregrine Falco peregrinus representing Angola and the United Arab Emirates, the European kestrel F. tinnunculus Belgium, and the saker falcon F. cherrug Hungary and Mongolia.

 
Andean condor, 1800s engraving (public domain)

As for owls, back in classical times the little owl Athene noctua was the sacred bird of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, so in modern-day times it is the national bird of Greece. And the Aruba burrowing owl A. cunicularia arubensis represents the Caribbean island of Aruba. Perhaps the strangest of all birds of prey is the secretary bird Sagittarius serpentarius, named after its straggly crest that has been fancifully likened to an untidy sheaf of quills that a secretary from bygone times might have placed behind one of his ears. This bizarre-looking species somewhat incongruously combines a hawk-like body with the lengthy legs of a stork, and is famed for its snake-killing abilities in its native Sudan where it is commemorated as that country's national bird.

 
19th-Century painting of a secretary bird, from Dictionnaire Histoire Naturelle by Charles Orbigny (public domain)

Waterbirds are another popular choice for national birds. The mute swan Cygnus olor represents Denmark, and the whooper swan C. cygnus Finland, whereas more colourful feathered symbols include the American flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber for the Bahamas, the scarlet ibis Eudocimus ruber for Trinidad and Tobago, and the magnificent frigate bird Fregata magnificens (noted for the breeding male's vivid scarlet, greatly-inflatable throat pouch) for not only the Pacific island nation of Kiribati but also the twin-island Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda. Its smaller but no less distinctive relative the great frigate bird F. minor does the honours for Nauru, and on account of their extraordinarily prehistoric appearance when seen high overhead in flight, frigate birds are regularly mistaken by unknowledgeable observers for living pterodactyls!

 
Adult male magnificent frigate bird, painting from The Birds of North America, 1903 (public domain)

Their impressive, imposing stature and noble mien no doubt explains why cranes and storks also include several national birds among their assemblage. Most celebrated of these is the blue crane Grus paradisea (aka the paradise or Stanley crane), representing South Africa. Its cultural links to this country include a longstanding tradition among the Xhosa people here, whereby the honour bestowed upon a man who had distinguished himself in battle was to be decorated with blue crane plumes placed in his hair by a chief during a special ceremony known as ukundzabela. Other African nations with a crane as their official symbol include Uganda (its national bird is the grey crowned crane Balearica regulorum) and Nigeria (the black crowned crane B. pavonina). The white stork Ciconia ciconia, a species beloved throughout Europe as the traditional bringer of babies according to fairytales and folklore, is the national bird in both Belarus and Lithuania, whereas the hammerhead or hamerkop Scopus umbretta, an odd stork-like but pelican-related species native to much of sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar, is the national bird of Gambia, and is widely if erroneously claimed to induce lightning. And speaking of pelicans: the brown pelican Pelecanus occidentalis represents the Caribbean nation of St Kitts and Nevis.

 
Blue, paradise, or Stanley crane, from A Monograph of the Cranes, 1897, by Frans Ernst Blaauw (public domain)

Many species of tropical bird have dazzling, multicoloured plumage exhibiting truly extravagant displays of feathered flamboyance, so it is little wonder that some of the most beautiful examples have been adopted by their homelands as national birds. Count Raggi's bird of paradise Paradisaea raggiana, for instance, in which the adult male boasts a fiery explosion of long scarlet plumes with which to tempt and entreat dowdy brown females to mate with him when he dances before them during the breeding season, is the national bird of Papua New Guinea, whose tropical rainforests are home to many of the world's 40-odd bird of paradise species.

 
19th-Century painting of an adult male Count Raggi's bird of paradise, by John Gould (public domain)

Another series of bird species with feathers of the fantastically fabulous kind constitutes the peafowl and pheasants. The blue peacock's famous eye-spotted tail-train when unfurled and held vertically to entice what he hopes are suitably bedazzled peahens is said to owe its distinctive ocellated patterning to the Greek goddess Hera (or Juno in equivalent Roman retellings). Distraught when the messenger god Hermes slew her loyal hundred-eyed watchman Argus at the behest of Zeus, she placed Argus's eyes in the train of the peacock, and adopted it thereafter as her sacred bird. No doubt, therefore, she would be pleased to know that this very familiar species, Pavo cristatus, is honoured as India's national bird. Turning to pheasants, the green pheasant Phasianus versicolor claims comparable prestige in Asia as Japan's national bird, as does the Himalayan monal Lophophorus impejanus for Nepal, the Siamese fireback Lophura diardi for Thailand, and the confusingly-named grey peacock-pheasant Polyplectron bicalcaratum for Myanmar (the last-mentioned species is so-called because although it is a pheasant, it has spotted plumage whose markings recall the ocelli in the peacock's train).

 
Himalayan monal, from A Century of Birds From the Himalaya Mountains, 1831 (public domain)

Parrots were always going to be sought after as national birds by tropical countries fortunate enough to be home to these vividly-plumed perennial favourites among aviculturalists and ornithologists alike, and sure enough, several species have indeed gained that exalted status. The largest, and gaudiest, is undoubtedly the scarlet macaw Ara macao, an animate tricolor of red, blue, and gold, representing Honduras but native to much of northern South America too. Several Caribbean island nations have their very own endemic amazon parrot species – large, brightly-coloured, and found nowhere else – so for reasons of national pride in their avifauna and also to highlight that these species are endangered in many cases, they have duly declared them as their national birds, as with the St Lucia parrot Amazona versicolor for St Lucia, the St Vincent parrot A. guildingii for St Vincent and the Grenadines, and the imperial parrot A. imperialis for Dominica. Nor should we forget the near-threatened Grand Cayman parrot A. leucocephala, the national bird of the Cayman Islands but also found in Cuba and the Bahamas.

 
St Lucia parrot, painted by Joseph Smit, Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1875 (public domain)

The pink-plumaged hoopoe Upupa epops with huge black-and-white wings that bestow upon it the extraordinary guise of a giant butterfly when seen in flight is Israel's national bird, and is intimately linked with biblical lore and legends. According to one such story, hoopoes once bore crests of solid gold, but they were so persecuted by hunters seeking their precious head plumes that they beseeched King Solomon to save them. So in response to their plea, he very kindly transformed their crests into normal feathers, which of course were of no interest to the hunters, and which they have thus borne ever since.

 
A family of hoopoes, painted by John Gould, 1837 (public domain)

Hoopoes are closely related to kingfishers, rollers, hornbills, and motmots, many of which are brilliantly-plumaged and as a consequence include several national birds among their number, such as the lilac-breasted roller Coracias caudatus for Botswana (and also unofficially for Kenya), the rhinoceros hornbill Buceros rhinoceros for Malaysia, the turquoise-browed motmot Eumomota superciliosa for El Salvador and Nicaragua, and the grey-headed kingfisher Halcyon leucocephala for Cape Verde. Superficially similar to the Old World hornbills due to their comparably top-heavy beaks, but less closely related to them zoologically speaking, are the New World toucans, with the keel-billed toucan Rhamphastos sulfuratus serving Belize as its national bird.

 
Rhinoceros hornbills, in Daniel Giraud Elliot's A Monograph of the Bucerotidæ, or Family of the Hornbills, 1882 (public domain)

However, the epitome of tropical birds as far as breathtakingly gorgeous plumage is concerned must surely be the trogons. Again distantly related to kingfishers, rollers, and hoopoes, and native to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, these typically thrush-sized birds resemble living jewels when spot-lit by shafts of bright sunlight filtering through the leafy canopy in their jungle domain. Inevitably, therefore, several of them have been adopted as national birds, such as the Hispaniolan trogon Priotelus roseigaster in Haiti, the Cuban trogon P. temnurus in Cuba itself, and the bar-tailed trogon Apaloderma vittatum in Malawi. However, the trogon par excellence – indeed, a leading contender for the world's most beautiful species of bird – is the aptly-named resplendent quetzal Pharomachrus mocinno of Guatemala, whose history, both natural and national, makes fascinating reading.

 
Bar-tailed trogon, by John G. Keulemans, 1892 (public domain)

According to the ancient traditions of the Aztec nation, which formerly inhabited what is today Mexico (and which in turn formerly included present-day Guatemala within its borders), one of their principal deities, the sky god Quetzalcoatl, would sometimes appear to them in the form of a great airborne feathered serpent with bright emerald-coloured plumes. Today, it is believed that this curious legend arose from real-life observations by the Aztecs of the resplendent quetzal, because during the breeding season the green-plumaged male, which is normally no more than 1 ft long, grows a pair of exceptionally lengthy, elongate tail plumes, also green, but each measuring up to 3 ft long – and when it flies, these two streamer-like feathers extend horizontally behind it and undulate, so that it bears more than a passing resemblance to an extraordinary plumed snake in flight. Such a famous bird of legend has made an immense cultural impact upon Guatemala, one of several Central American countries where this spectacular bird exists (as well as in present-day Mexico) – so much so, in fact, that not only is it Guatemala's national bird but it has given its name to this country's currency too (100 centavos = 1 quetzal since the year 1925), as well as appearing upon both its national flag and its official coat of arms, and also upon its bank notes and many of its postage stamps.

 
Late 1800s chromolithograph portraying a pair of quetzals (public domain)

Also deserving of mention here is a veritable 'quetzal in miniature' that is itself a national bird – the doctor bird Trochilus polytmus, hailing from Jamaica. Indigenous to that island nation, this iridescent green-plumaged hummingbird is characterised by the male's pair of extremely long ribbon-like tail feathers, which make a humming sound as it flies. There is speculation that because these feathers resemble the long silk tail-coats worn by doctors in olden days, this is why the species is called the doctor bird.

 
Delightful short video of two male doctor birds boldly perching on visitors' fingers as they drink sugar water from bottles (© Conley Salmon/YouTube – inserted here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Of course, not all national birds are chosen for their dramatic appearance or links to mythology. Quite a few have been specifically selected for their basic 'everyman' appeal and popularity, familiar to everyone and loved by all. Italy has as its national bird the Italian sparrow, a cheeky little upstart that is abundant and instantly recognisable everywhere here. Long the subject of controversy as to its precise taxonomic status because it appears intermediate in form between the Spanish sparrow Passer hispaniolensis and the house sparrow P. domesticus, it was formerly thought to be a hybrid of these two. Nowadays, however, it is often deemed to be a separate, valid species in its own right, albeit one that may indeed have originated via hybridisation between the two afore-mentioned species, and has been dubbed P. italiae, because this is where it predominantly occurs.

 
A pair of Italian sparrows, by John Gould, from The Birds of Europe, 1837 (public domain)

Other well known but visually modest avian groups with national birds among their membership are the wagtails (the white wagtail Motacilla alba being Latvia's national bird), the crows (Bhutan's is the common raven Corvus corax), swallows (the European or barn swallow Hirundo rustica represents both Austria and Estonia), thrushes (the common blackbird Turdus merula for Sweden, the redwing T. iliacus for Turkey), doves (mourning dove Zenaida macroura for the British Virgin Islands, zenaida dove Z. aurita for Anguilla, Grenada dove Leptotila wellsi for Grenada), and finches (Sinai rosefinch Carpodacus synoicus for Jordan).

 
Adult male Sinai rosefinch, painted by Nicolas Huet, 1838 (public domain)

But perhaps the last word on national birds should be reserved for the most poignant example – namely, the species that represents the Mascarene nation of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. For alone of all such birds, it is no longer in existence, having been slaughtered for its meat more than three centuries ago, only for it afterwards to become an icon in its former island homeland. Today, its instantly recognisable form can be seen everywhere in Mauritius – decorating picture postcards, appearing in advertisements, reproduced as toys of every conceivable composition, and serving as the number one choice for countless visually-inspired souvenirs. And the name of this extinct, exterminated superstar? What else could it be? Raphus cucullatus – the dodo.

 
Dodo, 17th-Century Dutch illustration, colour-corrected (public domain)