Assuming that they do exist, just what ARE the terrifying blood-drinking 'death birds' of Ethiopia (© Ben Male)
The little-known cryptozoological case of the Ethiopian 'death bird' is unremittingly macabre and horrific, more akin to the gothic outpourings of Poe and Le Fanu than to anything from the dispassionate, sober chronicles of zoology. Yet in spite of this, it is only too real; at the present time, moreover, it is also unsolved. I am most grateful to Queensland zoologist Malcolm Smith for bringing this chilling but hitherto unexamined case to my attention, and for kindly supplying me with a copy of the original source of information concerning it.
It was during an archaeological expedition to Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) during the early 1930s, before the country was invaded by Italian troops prior to World War II, that Hungarian/American amateur archaeologist and anthropologist 'Count' Byron Khun de Prorok (1896-1954) first learnt of Devil's Cave, whose grisly secret he subsequently documented in his travelogue Dead Men Do Tell Tales (1933).
Journeying through the province of Walaga, he resided for a time at the home of its governor, Dajjazmac Mariam, and while there he was approached by one of the servants, a young boy who began to tell him about a secret cave situated roughly an hour's horseback-ride away, near a place called Lekempti. It was known to the local people as Devil's Cave, and was widely held to be an abode of evil and horror - plagued by devil-men who prowled its darkened recesses in the guise of ferocious hyaenas, and by flocks of a greatly-feared form of bat referred to as the death bird.
No-one had ever dared to penetrate this mysterious cavern, but de Prorok decided to defy its forbidding reputation, because he thought it possible that there would be prehistoric rock paintings inside (especially as its notoriety would have served well in warding off potential trespassers, who might have desecrated any artwork preserved within its stygian gloom).
When de Prorok told his young informant of his decision to visit Devil's Cave, the boy was terrified, but after being bribed with a plentiful supply of gifts he agreed very reluctantly to act as de Prorok's guide - though only on the strict understanding that he would not be held responsible for anything that happened!
The cave was situated high among rocky pinnacles and jungle foliage, but de Prorok succeeded in scrambling up to it, and in removing the several heavy boulders blocking its entrance. Armed with a gun, and leaving his guide trembling with fear outside, he cautiously stepped inside - and was almost bowled over a few minutes later by a panic-stricken pack of hyaenas hurtling down one of the passages to the newly-unsealed entrance. Seeking to defend himself against a possible attack by them, he shot one that approached a little too close for comfort, and the echoes from the blast reverberated far and wide, ultimately reaching the ears of two goatherds who came to the cave mouth to find out what was happening. Here they were met by de Prorok, who had followed the hyaenas at a respectful distance during their shambolic exit, and was greatly shocked by the men's pitiful state - they seemed little more than animated skeletons, upon which were hung a few tattered rags.
When, with the boy as interpreter, they learnt that de Prorok planned to go back inside the cave, they implored him to change his mind, warning him of the death birds. De Prorok, however, was not afraid of bats and made his way once more through the cave's sombre corridors, until he suddenly heard a loud whirring sound overhead. This proved to be a huge cloud of bats, which flew rapidly towards the cave mouth when he fired off a shot in alarm. These, he presumed, must be the dreaded death birds, a line of speculation speedily confirmed when only moments later a rain of bat excrement, dislodged by the shot, began to pelt down upon him from the cave roof, accompanied by an asphyxiating stench that drove him back almost at once to the entrance in search of breathable air.
Outside, he enquired why everyone was so afraid of these bats, to which the two goatherds and the boy all replied that they were blood-suckers - that night after night they came to drink the blood of anyone living near the cave until eventually their unfortunate victims died. This was why the only people living here now were the goatherds (who were forced to do so by the goats' owners), and was the reason for their emaciated state. The death birds' vampiresque activities ensured that none of the goatherds lived very long, but they were always replaced by others, thereby providing the goats with constant supervision - and the death birds with a constant supply of their ghoulish nutriment.
To provide him with additional proof of their statements, the two goatherds took de Prorok to their camp nearby; all of the herders there were equally skeletal - and one was close to death. Little more than a pile of bones scarcely held together by a shroud of ashen skin, this living corpse of a man lay huddled in a cot, with blood-stained rags and clothes on either side, and was so weakened by the nightly depredations of the visiting death birds that he was unable to stand, capable only of extending a wraith-like arm. The goatherds told de Prorok that the death birds settled upon their bodies while they were asleep, so softly that they did not even wake; and that they were sizeable beasts, with wingspans of 12-18 in.
As for physical evidence of the death birds' sanguinivorous nature, the goatherds showed him their arms, which clearly bore a number of small wounds - the puncture marks left behind by these winged leeches once they had gorged themselves upon their hapless hosts?
Nothing more has emerged concerning this gruesome affair, but for zoologists it would have some significant repercussions if de Prorok's account could be shown to be accurate. Only three modern-day species of blood-drinking bat are currently known to science - and all three of these are confined exclusively to the Americas!
Common vampire bat Desmodus rotundus (© Uwe Schmidt/Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
These are the notorious vampire bats, of which the best-known is the common vampire Desmodus rotundus, whose range extends from northern Mexico to central Chile, northern Argentina, Uruguay, and Trinidad; its numbers have dramatically increased since the introduction of sheep and other livestock to these areas with the coming of the Europeans, serving to expand the diversity and numbers of potential prey victims for it. The other two species are the white-winged vampire Diaemus youngi, recorded from northeastern Mexico to eastern Peru, northern Argentina, Brazil, and Trinidad; and the hairy-legged vampire Diphylla ecaudata, ranging from southern Texas to eastern Peru and southern Brazil.
(As a thought-provoking digression, there may also be a fourth, giant vampire bat in existence. Within the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington for 7 December 1988, researchers Drs Gary S. Morgan, Omar J. Linares, and Clayton E. Ray formally described a new species of vampire, 25% larger in size than Desmodus rotundus, based upon two incomplete skulls and skeletal remains found in Venezuela's famous Cueva del Guácharo - home of the extraordinary radar-emitting oilbird Steatornis caripensis. Dubbed D. draculae, this giant vampire bat's remains date from the Pleistocene. However, Brazilian zoologists Drs E. Trajano and M. de Vivo, in a Mammalia paper from 1991, noted that there are reports of local inhabitants in southeastern Brazil's Ribeira Valley referring to attacks upon cattle and horses by large bats that could suggest the continuing survival here of D. draculae, although despite extensive recent searches of caves in this area none has been found...so far?)
Over the years, a great deal of misinformation has been dissipated concerning this nocturnal, terror-inducing trio of micro-bats - including the persistent fallacy that they actively suck blood out of wounds; and the equally tenacious, fanciful misconception that they are enormous beasts with gigantic wings into which they are only too eager to enfold their stricken victims while draining them of their precious scarlet fluid. In contrast, the truth is (as always) far less exotic and extravagant.
Any creature that can subsist entirely upon a diet of blood (sanginivory) must obviously be highly specialised, and the vampire bats are no exception; Canadian biologist Dr Brock Fenton from Young University in Ontario has suggested that they evolved from bats that originally consumed blood-sucking insects attracted to wounds on large animals, but which eventually acquired a taste for the animals' blood themselves. Yet in overall external appearance these nefarious species are disappointingly mundane - with an unimpressive total length of only 2-3.5 in, a very modest wingspan of 5-6 in, and a covering of unmemorably brown, short fur. Only when they open their mouth to reveal a distinctive pair of shear-like upper incisors do they display the first intimation of their sinister lifestyle.
Head and face of a common vampire bat, revealing its specialised dentition (© Uwe Schmidt/Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
These incisors terminate in a central point and have long, scalpel-sharp edges, perfectly adapted for surreptitiously shaving a thin sliver of skin from the body or neck of an unsuspecting (usually sleeping) victim - detected by the vampire's ultrasonic echo-location faculties. The wound that is produced is sufficiently deep to slice through the skin's capillaries, but not deep enough to disturb the victim and thereby waken it (or arouse its attention if already awake) - stealth is the byword of the vampire's lifestyle. Aiding the furtive creation of this finely-engineered wound are the bat's canine teeth, shorter than the incisors but just as sharp.
Once the wound begins to seep blood in a steady flow, the vampire, delicately clinging to the flank or back of its victim with its wings and hook-like thumbs (not with its sharp claws - yet another fallacy), avidly laps the escaping fluid with its grooved, muscular tongue. It can also suck it up by folding its tongue over a notch in its lower lip to yield a tube, but it only sucks blood that has already flowed out of the wound. In addition, its saliva contains anticoagulants, preventing the blood from clotting, and thereby providing the bat with an ample supply (but causing its victim to lose more than would have been the case if the wound had been inflicted by some other type of sharp cutting implement).
Indeed, one of these anticoagulants, plasminogen activator (Bat-PA for short), shows promise as a powerful drug in the prevention of the severe physiological damage caused by heart attacks in humans, according to a study of its effects by research fellow Dr Stephen Gardell at Merck Sharp & Dohme Research Laboratories in West Point, Pennsylvania.
The vampire's teeth, tongue, and thumbs are not the only specialised facets of its anatomy - its gut also exhibits some important modifications. Enabling the bat to gorge itself thoroughly before bidding its victim a silent adieu, its stomach has an enormous extra compartment - a tubular, blind-ending diverticulum unattached to the rest of the digestive tract and capable of prodigious distension, rendering it able to hold a voluminous quantity of blood. Sometimes the bat can scarcely fly after feeding, because it is so heavy with freshly ingested blood. Also, its oesophagus is specialised for efficient water absorption, a necessity for any obligate sanguinivore because blood contains an appreciable proportion of water.
Exclusively sanguinivorous bats, like this common vampire, are known to science only from the New World, not from the Old World as well (© Desmodus/Wikipedia - CC BY SA 3.0 licence)
What all of this means in relation to the Ethiopian death bird is that any bat thriving solely or even predominantly upon a diet of blood is inevitably a much-modified species, rigorously adapted for such a lifestyle - rather than a mere opportunist species that in certain localities has switched (through some unusual set of circumstances) from its normal diet to a sanguinivorous existence. In other words, if de Prorok's account is a truthful one, then surely the death bird must be a species new to science? After all, there is currently no known species of Old World bat that is a confirmed dedicated blood-drinker. This, then, is plainly one plausible answer to the death bird mystery - but it is not the only such answer.
I am exceedingly grateful to the late John Edwards Hill, bat specialist and formerly Principal Scientific Officer at London's Natural History Museum, who presented me with a great deal of information that offers a completely different outlook upon this perplexing case. It is well known that the New World vampire bats transmit livestock diseases from one animal victim to another, in a manner paralleling the activities of mosquitoes and other sanguinivorous insect vectors. They also carry rabies to humans, although this is a much rarer occurrence than the more lurid reports in the popular press would have us believe. Moreover, bats of many species all around the world are known to contract many different types of bacterial, viral, and protozoan diseases, which can be spread to other organisms via parasites such as body lice and ticks that live upon the bats' skin or fur. Relapsing fever in humans, for example, is caused by the bacterium Borrelia recurrentis, carried by lice and ticks that have in turn derived it from former rodent or bat hosts.
Accordingly, during communications concerning the death bird, Hill suggested to me that it is possible that humans venturing in or near a cave heavily infested with bats (like Devil's Cave, for instance) would become infected with such diseases - if lice or ticks, dropping from the bats as they flew overhead, bit the unfortunate humans upon which they landed. A parasite-borne infection of this nature would account for the bite-like wounds of the goatherds observed by de Prorok; and, depending upon the precise type of infection, could ultimately give rise to the emaciated condition exhibited by these afflicted persons.
Additionally, native superstition and a deep-rooted fear of bats might be sufficient, when coupled with the distressing effects of a parasite-borne infection, to nurture the belief among such poorly-educated people as these that they were the victims of blood-sucking bats - the notion of vampirism is very ancient and widespread in human cultures worldwide (the Maya of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica even worshipped the vampire bat as a god - Camazotz).
Two other medical explanations for the death bird case were also raised by Hill during our correspondence (although he rated both of these as being less plausible than the likelihood of a parasite-borne disease's involvement). These are as follows.
As Devil's Cave contained large quantities of bat excrement, perhaps these droppings harboured the spores of the soil fungus Histoplasma capsulatum (even though this is more usually associated with bird guano). If inhaled, these spores can cause an infection of the lungs known as histoplasmosis, which can prove fatal (but severe cases are not common).
Alternatively, an illness called Weil's disease again offers some notable parallels with the 'death bird syndrome'. Also referred to as epidemic spirochaetal jaundice and as leptospirosis icterohaemorrhagica, Weil's disease is caused by spirochaete bacteria of the genus Leptospira, and is usually spread by rodents, but the bacteria have been found in a few species of bat too. Infection generally occurs through infected drinking water, and among the ensuing symptoms of contraction is the appearance of small haemorrhages in the skin, which could be mistaken for bites. Also, the accompanying damage to the kidneys and liver, jaundice, and overall malaise experienced by sufferers could explain the goatherds' haggard, wasted form.
Clearly, then, the case of the dreaded death bird and the stricken herders is far from being as straightforward as it seemed on first sight, and may involve any one, or perhaps even more than one, of the above solutions. Also well worth noting is that de Prorok was (in)famous for gross exaggeration and imaginative narratives, so it is by no means evident how much of his testimony concerning his visit and experiences relating to Devil's Cave can be taken as fact.
Micrograph showing histoplasmosis. Liver biopsy. Periodic acid-Schiff diastase (PAS-D) stain. Histoplasma = clumps of small bright red circles (© Nephron/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
One aspect of the case that is evident, however, is the necessity for a specimen of the death bird to be collected and formally studied. Only then might the resolution of this mystifying and macabre cryptozoological riddle be finally achieved.
Yet in view of the perennially uncertain political climate associated with Ethiopia in modern times, even this is unlikely to prove an easy task to accomplish.
Until then, the secret of this purportedly deadly, unidentified creature will remain as dark and impenetrable as the grim cave from which its winged minions allegedly issue forth each night to perform their vile abominations upon the latest tragic campful of doomed, defenceless goatherds.