The following are excerpts from the book Tornado–Nature’s Ultimate Windstorm by Thomas P. Grazulis, published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
Of all the strange oddities, a few are not readily explainable and among these is the ubiquitous plucked chicken. Within the damage descriptions of rural tornadoes, there will likely be mention of a chicken “stripped clean of every feather.” It has been suggested that the feathers explode off the bird in the tornado’s low pressure. That explanation does not hold up because the bird would be blown away long before experiencing the lowest pressure at the center of the tornado. Secondly, the lowest pressure in a tornado is probably not low enough to explode a feather …. if indeed a feather would ever explode. It is curious how the exploding feather theory became accepted by so many people over the years, even though the remains of an exploded feather was never found. But when it come to tornadoes, facts, evidence and accurate descriptions have never bothered amateur tornado theoreticians and much of the news media.
In 1842, Elias Loomis performed an experiment that left much to be desired in the control of experimental variables. It received wide attention at the time. His goal was to gain insight into the wind speed needed to defeather a chicken. An account written a few years later states: “In order to determine the velocity needed to strip feathers, the six-pounder (cannon) was loaded with five ounces of powder, and for a ball a chicken was killed. The gun was pointed upwards and fired. The feathers rose twenty or thirty feet and were scattered by the wind. On examination, they were found to be pulled out clean, the skin seldom adhering to them. The body was torn into small fragments, only a part of which could be found. The velocity was 341 miles per hour.” Loomis speculated that if a live bird was fired at 100 miles per hour, the results would be more successful, but, to my knowledge he never attempted it. He did place dead chickens under a vacuum jar to see if the feathers would explode. They did not. A widely accepted alternative theory in the 19th century was that opposing electric charges during the tornado’s passage stripped feathers from chickens and tore the clothes from people. It was supposed that the highly charged tornado induced an opposite charge in objects as it approached and things would be sent flying. While static electricity is undoubtedly present in a debris filled funnel, this makes no scientific sense whatever. There is simply no mechanism that would produce powerful opposing charges on the bird and on the feather at the same time.
The most likely explanation (Vonnegut, 1965) for the defeathering of a chicken is the protective response called “flight molt.” Chickens are not stripped clean, but in actuality they lose a large percentage of their feathers under stress in this flight molt process. In a predator-chicken chase situation, flight molt would give the predator a mouth full of feathers instead of fresh fowl. In a tornado, the panicked chicken’s feathers simply become loose and are blown off. Stories of chickens found dead, sitting at attention and stripped clean of feathers may be on par with reports of the blowing of a cow’s horn or a two-gallon jug being blown into a quart bottle without cracking.
The Great Bend, Kansas tornado of November 1915 is the tornado which seems to have a greatest number of oddities associated with it. Why? Who knows! It was an unusual time of year for a violent tornado this far west. In fact, it is the latest date in the year that a violent tornado has ever struck the state of Kansas. The funnel began its late-evening journey five miles southwest of Larned, 16 miles southwest of Great Bend. It was visible only occasionally during the flashes of lightning. The oddities began southwest of Pawnee rock where a farm was leveled to the ground and two people were killed. From a short distance away, one could not tell that a farmstead had ever existed there. Five horses were the only uninjured survivors. They were carried from the barn a distance of a quarter-mile. All were unhurt, all were found together, hitched to the same rail.
At the edge of Great Bend, the Charles Hammond house was unroofed. The family was completely unaware of the damage until they came outside to survey the neighbor’s damage. At Grant Jones’ store, the south wall was blown down and scattered, but shelves and canned goods that stood against the wall were unmoved. The Riverside Steam Laundry, built of stone and cement block, was left with only a fragment of upright wall, yet two nearby wooden shacks seemed almost untouched. At the Moses Clay ranch, on the east edge of town, 1000 sheep were killed, the most ever killed by a single tornado. A cancelled check from Graeat Bend was found in a corn field, one mile outside of Palmyra, Nebraska…305 miles to the northeast, the longest known distance that debris has ever been carried. A “rain of debris,” receipts, checks, photographs, ledger sheets, money, clothing, shingles, and fragments of books fell on almost every farm north and wst of Glasco, 80 miles to the northeast.
A necktie rack with 10 ties still attached was carried 40 miles. A four-page letter “from a swain to his fair damsel in which he promised all” was carried 70 miles. A flour sack from the Walnut Creek Mill was found 110 miles to the northeast, perhaps the longest distance ever recorded for an object weighing more than one pound. Up to 45,000 migrating ducks were reported killed at Cheyenne Bottoms. Dead ducks fell from the sky 40 miles northeast of that migratory bird refuge.
In Great Bend, an iron water hydrant was found full of splinters. Mail was lifted from the railroad depot and scattered for miles to the northeast. Some of it was returned to Great Bend, but some of it was sent on from where it was found… one of the earliest forms of air mail! Farmers living two miles from town were unaware of the tragedy and were “dumb-founded” when they visited town the next day and “beheld the tragic spectacle.” Over 20,000 visitors viewed the wreckage the following Sunday.
Fictional oddities were added almost daily to the growing list of stories. An iron jug was blown inside out… a rooster was blown into a jug, with only its head sticking out of the neck of the container.
If the idea of long flights of airborne items intrigues you, now is the time to visit the page of the Tornado Debris Project.