Could Herons Hold the Key to Solving Many of the Strange Flying Creature Sightings around Lake Michigan?

 A black crowned night heron. Note its red eyes, sizable crest, and long, thin legs ending in gripping talons.

A black crowned night heron. Note its red eyes, sizable crest, and long, thin legs ending in gripping talons.

Since spring of 2017, dozens of sighting reports of strange flying creatures have come from Chicago and the states bordering Lake Michigan.

The string of flying creature sightings around this area ostensibly began last spring, but historical accounts are being reported as more people become aware of the phenomenon.  Most of the sightings have taken place near the lakefront in Chicago within a few miles of Lake Michigan, although there are reports spreading out deeper into Illinois and every state bordering the great lake. The sightings generally take place in the evening or at night, often in or near a park, and around water.  Witnesses consistently describe a large, bat or bird-like creature, although in a small number of cases the creature was described as insect-like; and humanoid features such as arms and legs are also sometimes reported.  Many of the sightings are of something seen only briefly or are described only as a flying creature with few details, which leaves open the possibility that a large bird or bird-like being could explain some encounters. 

There are two species of heron native to the Lake Michigan area that are likely candidates to explain many sightings; the black-crowned night-heron, and the great blue heron.

Black-crowned night-heron have seen something of a resurgence in the Chicago area, and could explain many of the sightings seen at night in that city. These nocturnal heron are about 2’ in length with a roughly 4’ wingspan, and noticeable crests extending from the back of their head. According to the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute, between 2009 and 2016 the number of paired black-crowned night-herons living in Lincoln Park exploded from only 24 to 300; likely due to the destruction of the wetlands they usually call home, which drove them into the city. Then, in 2017, citizens of Chicagoland suddenly began seeing a large, inexplicable, flying creature at night; something completely outside of their normal experience. It was often described as grey or black, bird-like, thin, with red eyes, and sometimes sporting a crest—all attributes of the night-heron.

 A black-crowned night-heron in flight.

A black-crowned night-heron in flight.

Its cousin, the great blue heron, is even larger at around 4’ long with a wingspan of up to 7’, and is often described as looking like a 'prehistoric flying dinosaur.' A sizable population of these modern dinosaurs can be readily found at the Chicago Botanic Garden just north of the city.

 A great blue heron in flight.

A great blue heron in flight.

Herons are migratory birds, most often found in the states bordering Lake Michigan from spring until fall—which is the time period during which almost all of the sightings since 2017 have taken place. Climate change has affected these birds’ migration patterns, and they are coming north earlier and staying longer as a result of rising temperatures. They can even be found wintering in the Midwest during mild winters—something seen more and more as global temperatures climb.

Herons prefer wetlands, and will most often be found near rivers. Chicago—and the entire Midwest—has its fair share of rivers, and the vast majority of sightings have been in close proximity to them.

For instance, the encounters with large winged creatures in Calumet Park, on the banks of the Little Calumet River, likely represent large bird sightings; in their case—given the size and eerie sound described, and that the encounters were before sundown—sightings of great blue herons.

Most recently, a witness in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood reported what he thought was a ‘bat-like’ creature seen flying overhead as he biked to work in May of 2018. Luckily, he had a GoPro camera attached to his helmet, and was able to capture footage of what he saw. It soon became clear after studying the video and enlarging a few still images of the flying creature, that what he had witnessed was no giant bat, but rather a large bird—likely a heron. The witness was sincere in interviews, and the footage shows others on the street reacting to the enormous bird as it soared overhead. This was no deliberate deception, but instead an excellent example of how human perception can color the experience of seeing something completely unexpected and create a narrative in which the witness believes they’ve seen something quite different than what was actually present. Many such witnesses of ‘bat-like’ creatures in this series of sightings have likely experienced something similar.

 An enlarged image of the bird seen in Pilsen.

An enlarged image of the bird seen in Pilsen.

Not every sighting can be explained by large birds such as herons, but many can. See the tags added to the individual sightings in the Lake Michigan Mothman timeline to find out which reports are likeliest to have come as a result of close encounters with huge herons.

It is possible that this flap of sightings represents two disparate but concurrent phenomena: sightings of herons suddenly more populous in areas inhabited by humans due to the destruction of their habitat combined with climate change, and an older series of historical and ongoing sightings of something that could well be paranormal in nature. Some of the recent sightings, and almost all of the historical ones that have come as a result of this story’s popularity, cannot be easily explained by large birds of any kind. It may be that the onset of this series of misidentified animals has encouraged those experiencing actual paranormal phenomena to come forward and share their stories, which is something of a happy accident for researchers and investigators of the unusual.

All data helps solve the mystery of these sightings, even if it’s a report of a heron or other large bird or something similarly mundane. To report a sighting reach out to us directly at The Singular Fortean Society through our contact page.

Tobias WaylandComment