Strike from the Sky

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

Air: Roc and Aepyornis
© AMNH / D. Finnin

What if birds grew to giant size?

Many stories tell of giant birds that swoop down from the sky to seize animals, sometimes even humans. Such stories are not entirely legend. Living birds such as eagles, hawks and falcons dart down to snatch snakes, fish, rabbits, and other mammals. Fossils show that thousands of years ago, large birds preyed on people, and in some remote areas, they remain a threat to small children. Many mythic creatures have supernatural powers, or combine features of different animals into one. But all it really takes to turn a bird into a mythic monster is to make it larger.


Aepyornis model
© AMNH / D. Finnin

The Largest Bird That Ever Lived

Seven hundred years ago, Arab traders told of a bird so huge it could lift elephants into the sky. Sailors said it lived on an island off the southern coast of Africa. In fact, a giant bird called the Aepyornis once lived on the island of Madagascar, off the coast of Africa. Aepyornis is now extinct, but it was the largest bird that ever lived. It was called the elephant bird even though it couldn't really lift an elephant. In fact, it couldn't even fly. But its large eggs helped fuel the legend of the mythical Roc.

  • The extinct Aepyornis lived in Madagascar until about the 1500s and may once have been hunted by people.
  • More than three meters (10 feet) tall and weighed about half a ton.
  • Laid the largest eggs in the world eggs, at more than eight liters (two gallons).

Elephant Bird

The two greatest explorers of the 1200s and 1300s, Marco Polo from Italy, and Ibn Battuta, who was born in what is now Morocco, both wrote that the legendary Roc lived near Madagascar. Bones and eggs have since proved that a half-ton bird called Aepyornis really did live on the island, located off the southern coast of Africa. The nickname "elephant bird" also probably comes from the Roc story. Aepyornis could not have hunted elephants because it was too small and besides, no elephants live on Madagascar.

An Enormous Egg

The largest eggs known to science are found on the island of Madagascar. In 1864, W. Winwood Reade wrote, "The existence of the Roc of Marco Polo and The Arabian Nights is now proved by the discovery of an immense egg in a semi-fossil state in Madagascar." In fact, the eggs belong to the extinct Aepyornis, not the Roc.

Haast's eagle talon
Photo: © AMNH Paleontology

An Extinct Eagle

Aepyornis is not the only giant bird to give rise to legends. The Maori people have long told of a giant eagle that once lived in New Zealand. Evidence such as bones and talons have proved the giant bird, now called Haast's eagle, was more than a myth. And unlike Aepyornis, it could fly. It had a wingspan of nearly three meters (10 feet) and preyed on moas, large flightless birds related to ostriches. Haast's eagle (Harpagornis moorei) lived until about AD 1500.



© AMNH / Denis Finnin

The Roc

  • To feed, "it will seize an elephant in its talons and carry him high into the air, and drop him so that he is smashed to pieces." —Marco Polo (1254-1324)
  • In The Arabian Nights, Sindbad finds a white dome-shaped building with no doors—the dome is a roc's egg, and the entire island its nest.
  • Legs as thick as tree trunks: Trapped in the Roc's island nest, Sindbad ties himself to the Roc's leg to escape.

Intertwined Tales

The Roc is more than a misidentified Aepyornis. Stories of the Roc are based on the Garuda, a birdlike creature found in Hindu stories dating back thousands of years, in which Garudas prey on giant snakes and elephants. The roc is also said to eat both snakes and elephants, suggesting the stories share a common origin.

Rocs with Rocks

In The Arabian Nights, a classic collection of stories from the Middle East, Sindbad's shipmates discover an immense Roc's egg, with a young Roc just emerging. They kill the young Roc and eat it, but soon find themselves attacked by its furious parents. They flee in their ship, but the angry Rocs follow, carrying massive boulders which they drop on the ship, smashing it to splinters.

So They Say

One of the greatest explorers of all time was the Islamic scholar and judge Ibn Battuta, who in the 1300s journeyed 117,000 kilometers (73,000 miles) over the Islamic world-about three times as far as the more famous Marco Polo. In his memoirs, Battuta describes seeing what looked like a mountain floating in mid-air above the sea:

"The sailors were weeping and bidding each other adieu, so I called out, 'What is the matter?' They replied, 'What we took for a mountain is the Rukh. If it sees us, it will send us to destruction.'" They escaped, but "did not see him well enough to take cognizance of his real shape."

A Roc's Feather?

The Italian explorer Marco Polo, who introduced many previously unknown wonders of Asia to Europeans, wrote that the Mongol emporer Kublai Khan was said to own a giant Roc feather: "They brought (as I heard) to the Great Kaan a feather of the said Ruc … a marvellous object! The Great Kaan was delighted with it, and gave great presents to those who brought it." Marco Polo's translator, Sir Henry Yule, later suggested that the Great Khan was conned by a frond of a Raphia palm (left).

Mythic Roc

The ancient story of Sindbad the Sailor, told in The Arabian Nights, describes a giant mythic bird, bigger than any bird that has ever lived. In stories, the Roc is so large it can carry off elephants. No living bird could carry such a heavy load.