Month: February 2019

The Planet of the Birds

Primitive Terror Bird Warrior

This is the journal of speculative reality. What comes next is as speculative as any article that has been written in this journal. I do not know if this is true, I suspect some of it might have happened the way I will relate this. I have long believed that bird intelligence in some ways rivals human intelligence and if birds were the size of humans with a relatively larger brain they would be the dominant life-form on this planet, but I digress because this was once true.

In April of 2018, I read an article in The Atlantic entitled “Was There a Civilization On Earth Before Humans?” In the article, NASA scientist Gavin Schmidt pinpointed the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 56 million years ago as the only time in recent history in which the climate suggests that there may have been another industrial civilization on Earth. He goes on to explain why he doesn’t really believe that there was one at that time, but his comments got me to thinking. Did any animal fit the profile of both big-brained and in the right time period to account for elevated CO2 emissions 56 million years ago? Did a creature that long ago create an industrial society? After some searching I found a family of creatures that fit perfectly in that ecological niche and I proceeded to present my findings and speculations at Liberty Con (a science fiction convention held each year in Chattanooga) in July of 2018. This article will summarize those findings and present to you a possible alternate past for our own Earth.

The age of Dinosaurs had gone out with a blast 10 million years before the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 56 million years ago and a plethora of other animals had evolved to fill the massive gap they had left. One of these creatures had a large brain, an upright posture, and had mysteriously colonized most of the Earth, crossing both oceans and seas. these were the Phorusrhacids better known as the Terror Birds. These birds had a long run in Earth’s history existing from 62 million years ago to just roughly 2 million years ago (some may have existed even longer in isolated pockets). They ranged from 3 foot up to 9 feet tall. They may have had articulated claws on the end of their wing tips (warning this is speculation), and they certainly had large brains. They were a very successful species and dominated the world for millions of years, but because their skeletons do not fossilize well we know much less about them than other species alive at the time.

What we do know is that they were wide-ranging. Probably originating in South America, they crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Africa without the ability to fly or swim great distances. They colonized parts of Europe as well which was at the time separated from Africa by the Tethys Sea and they colonized Antartica (the world was much warmer). North America, Asia, and Northern Europe were already dominated by another slightly smaller cousin to the Terror bird called Gastornithidae. Gastornithidae was similar in size and shape to the Terror Birds of the Southern hemisphere, but seem to have been more likely herbivorous. The Terror Birds however lived up to their name. They were predators and at the top of the food chain. Both species had large heads compared to their body size and were probably highly intelligent.

Terror Bird Scholar


The Case for Intelligence


Does any of this speculation really suggest that the Terror Birds and their cousins were intelligent sapient species much less industrial? It is speculation, but this is what we do know about bird intelligence. A crow with the brain the size of a walnut is considered to have the intellectual capacity of a human seven year old. Crows and other birds can do intellectual feats that we thought only humans could do a few years ago. The Terror Birds had brains close to the size of humans with a similar brain to body ratio. If crows with their tiny brains can rival human children, what then can a bird with a brain twenty times the size be capable of?

55 million years ago the Earth was warm much warmer than today. CO2 had been pumping into the atmosphere from unknown sources. Two species of man-sized birds dominated the Earth. One in the Southern Hemisphere and the other in the Northern Hemisphere. CO2 had been released in two or more pulses lasting around 2000 years causing the PETM. Again, we are speculating, but could this have been the multiple rise and fall of civilizations pumping carbon into the atmosphere and warming the planet? We have two species that are candidates for intelligence dominating the entire globe is it possible they were not always on friendly terms? Could a conflict between two species of birds cause the rise and fall of civilizations. We know that about 33 million years ago the Eocene–Oligocene extinction event occurred. This event is currently considered to have been the result of multiple small asteroid impacts across the Earth resulting in what has been described as a long nuclear type winter and ending the PETM. This event heralded the true rise of the mammals to the top of the food chain. Terror Birds retreated back to South America and never rose again to the position of dominance they had over the entire planet, finally going extinct about 2 million years ago. It was a good run they had been around 20 million years before the Eocene–Oligocene extinction and yes, I am speculating that this was a global nuclear war that finally ended the Planet of the Birds.