Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Guest Post: Titanis by Allen W. McDonnell

Allen W. McDonnell imagines a world where these prehistoric birds survived the arrival of First People in the Americans and were still around when the Europeans were seizing territory. This article first appeared on Today In Alternate History.

September 19, 1782: For a national emblem on the Great Seal, Congress selected the Titanis, a giant flightless terror bird with a sprint of fifty miles per hour. The Bald Eagle and Bison were seriously considered national bird and mammal, respectively. However, the land-based predator best symbolized the historic nature of human settlement across North America.


Sometime around 2.8 million years ago, the volcanic Isthmus of Panama rose up from the sea floor and bridged the formerly separated continents. Among the animal life that fled during the Great American Interchange, the giant birds migrated in flocks all the way from Columbia to Florida overland in the face of competition from all the native predatory mammals.

In this new habitat, they survived for millennia until the human Stone Age began. While other megafauna was wiped out, humans worshipped the Titanis as reincarnated spirits, the sacred cow equivalent of North America. This taboo enabled them to avoid extinction alongside species such as the Mammoth, Mastodon, and Wooly Rhinoceros.

Pre-Columbian Era

Although the First Nations would not hunt the giant birds, cultural imperatives did not prevent them from taming them for specific riding purposes. As a consequence of the resulting development of their civilization, First Nations were in a much better place to withstand the arrival of Europeans and the diseases that spread following the first contact. It was during the 1600's that Titan Pox swept Europe, killing 30 percent of the adults who caught it, and slowed colonization efforts.

Rise of a Hybrid America

As the Mississippian Culture slowly recovered from First Contact, the Americas became a patchwork of nations. European-dominated territories were scattered around, surviving alongside First Nations. Aspects of North American development found a parallel with both Australia and South Africa.

Although Europeans had brought horses, they also learnt to ride the giant birds as well. When the colonies rose in revolt during the 1770s, British horse cavalry was overwhelmed by Patriots riding the Titanis. An enduring image of national pride would be General George Washington riding a Titanis into New York following the Treaty of Paris.

Ever-present in the modern-day, a tamed Titanis has played the role of "Big Bird" in episodes of the children's TV show Sesame Street, which premiered way back in 1969.

Author's Note:

In reality, extinction resulted during the period known as the Great American Interchange probably as a result of competition with carnivores that radiated in the same ancient terrestrial ecosystems. In James Robert Smith's best-selling novel The Flock, the Titanis is the predatory bird is found in a remote Florida swamp, having escaped the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs, relying on stealth, cunning, and killer instinct.

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