Friday night topic: Unexplained critters

— 8:09 PM on October 18, 2002

This report about an extremely large bird spotted by people in Alaska caught my eye. Reports from multiple witnesses seem to corroborate one another:

Moses Coupchiak, a 43-year-old heavy equipment operator from Togiak, 40 miles west of Manokotak, saw the bird flying toward him from about two miles away as he worked his tractor.

"At first I thought it was one of those old-time Otter planes," Coupchiak said. "Instead of continuing toward me, it banked to the left, and that's when I noticed it wasn't a plane."

The bird was "something huge," he said. "The wing looks a little wider than the Otter's, maybe as long as the Otter plane."

The bird flew behind a hill and disappeared. Coupchiak got on the radio and warned people in Togiak to tell their children to stay away.

Pilot John Bouker said he was highly skeptical of reports of "this great big eagle" that is two or three times the size of a bald eagle. "I didn't put any thought into it."

But early this week while flying into Manokotak, Bouker, owner of Bristol Bay Air Service, looked out his left window and 1,000 feet away, saw a very big bird.

"The people in the plane all saw him," Bouker said. "He's huge, he's huge, he's really, really big. You wouldn't want to have your children out," Bouker said.

Witnesses estimated the bird's wingspan at 14 feet. But when confronted with the reports, scientists seemed very skeptical, assuming witnesses severly exaggerated the bird's size. I wonder about the helpfulness of this kind of knee-jerk scientific skepticism. After all, one of the keys to science is observation, and if such a bird were to exist, it really could threaten kids.

Something similar happened recently here in KC, when multiple people reported sighting a big cat (much bigger than a bobcat or lynx) in suburban areas around town. (My mom saw one.) Naturally, people tried to report the sightings to conservation officials for fear of others' safety, but the experts denied the possibility—until somebody hit a big cat up on I-29. Turns out it was a 109-pound cougar.

Events like these make the imagination wander. What else is out there that we don't yet know about? Common species in uncommon places? "Prehistoric" or "extinct" animals of various types? Is there something to the myths about Bigfoot or the various lake monsters? And why are scientists so quick to deny observation, rather than jumping on the potential opportunity to discover something new?

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