Strictly defined by the Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, a Thunderbird is… “In North American Indian mythology, a powerful spirit in the form of a bird. By its work, the earth was watered and vegetation grew. Lightning was believed to flash from its beak, and the beating of its wings was thought to represent the rolling of thunder. It was often portrayed with an extra head on its abdomen.” (“Thunderbird”)
The contemporary cryptozoological usage of the term, however, has deviated significantly from this image; shedding most, if not all, of the mythological and spiritual trappings of supernatural powers in favor of a more materialistic phenomenon. To the typical cryptozoologist a Thunderbird is a cryptid (a biological organism, whether extinct or “new”, thought to exist but which remains unconfirmed by the scientific community) and in this case is believed to be a predatory bird, larger and perhaps stronger than known species, indigenous to the North and South American Continents. Modern sightings and eyewitness accounts of Thunderbirds usually liken their morphology to that of an eagle, hawk, or condor; though a minority of them claims instead, a more reptilian appearance which would suggest perhaps some kind of bat or relic pterosaur.
Cryptozoology.com has this to say:
“Modern reports of Thunderbirds arise from various locations in North America, with a large occurrence from Pennsylvania to the Central states. Mark A. Hall, one of the foremost investigators of the Thunderbird story, gives the following description of the avian cryptid drawn from numerous sightings:
“The bird is distinguished by its size and lifting capabilities exceeding those of any known bird living today anywhere in the world. Wingspan estimates are necessarily all guesswork. But observers sometimes have had the benefit of a measurable object for comparison or the benefit of time to observe a resting bird. The results most often provide sizes of 15 to 20 feet. The bird at rest or on the ground appears to be four to eight feet tall. Typically the coloring of the birds overall is dark..”
Remarkably, a bird of 15 feet in size would be the largest bird known in the world today. The largest wingspan known on a living bird is that of the wandering albatross (diomedea exulans) with a wingspan to 12 feet, and while not a predatory bird, it still boasts an impressive span. The Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) and the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) are among the largest predatory birds in the world, with the Andean condor reaching a wingspan of 10.5 feet and the California condor (the largest North American predatory bird) reaches a wingspan of up to 10 feet. These are all truly marvelous birds and respectable in their majesty.
But consider the Thunderbird, reputedly capable of lifting a deer or a person from the ground. The current predatory birds are not equipped with grasping feet that are strong enough to hold much weight, instead, they live primarily as carrion eaters and are only seldom predatory, and then usually on smaller animals. Reports of the Thunderbird, however, describe lifting deer and humans off the ground.” (“Thunderbird”)
IN MYTH AND LEGEND
North American First Nations: The Thunderbird is an entity of no small prominence within the mythos of many indigenous North American tribes, particularly those of the Great Plains, Pacific Northwest Coast, and American Southwest. Artifacts depicting them have been discovered at least as early as the Mississippian religious and cultural period of American prehistory (roughly 900 – 1600 CE) in a region known as the ‘Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. Within this social structure, Thunderbirds were believed to be powerful inhabitants of the realm of order and stability, the upper of three tiers into which the Mississippian cosmology was divided.
To the Comanche people of the Great Plains;
“The thunder often appeared as a great bird, somewhat like an eagle, but much larger. The Thunderbird made the thunder and lightning and storm and rain. It was dark blue, or showing the color of cut lead like a thundercloud, with red zigzag markings extending from its heart to the tail and wing tips. It went south at the approach of winter and returned from the warm country with the Sun, bringing the heat and the rain. In its talons the bird carried arrows with which to strike its enemies; therefore, the Indians believed that the eagle on our coins is a Thunderbird. Its shadow was the thundercloud; it produced lightning by rapidly opening and closing its flashing eyes; thunder was the sound made by the flapping of its enormous wings, and the downpour which followed was from the lake carried on its back.” (The Comanches, Lords of the South Plains, p. 198)
Both the Micmac and the Passamaquoddy nations of the Northeastern Atlantic coast tell stories of a type of Thunderbird which beat its wings to produce a powerful wind to agitate the sea, so as to dissipate the slime that accumulated when it was stagnant. The Passamaquoddy, who believe strongly in magic, even tell of a small village of shape-shifting Thunderbird people far to the north beyond mystical mountains which “…drew apart, back and forth, then closed together very quickly.” (Voices of the Winds, p. 317), squashing those attempting passage who weren’t agile enough.
The Winnebago, or Ho-Chunk, tell a story of an orphaned boy being kidnapped by malevolent Thunderbirds and held captive in the mountain-home of the Thunder Spirits, where they planned to devour him. He was saved from that grisly fate by a pigeon hawk whom he had befriended in his youth.
Numerous First Nations, from the Nuu-chah-nulth, to the Kwakwaka’wakw, Lakoda, Ojibwa and more all tell unique and often exciting tales about this majestic spirit. Regardless of geography and culture however, whether a singular entity or a species, the creature is consistently portrayed as a massive predatory bird which commanded weather and expressed a similar temperament. Cunning, and powerful, it was not to be trifled with.
Wikipedia makes the intriguing claim that “Cryptozoologists also posit that the Thunderbird was associated with storms because they followed the drafts to stay in flight, not unlike the way a modern eagle rides mountain up currents. Noted cryptozoologist John Keel [of Mothman fame] claims to have mapped several Thunderbird sightings and found that they corresponded chronologically and geographically with storms moving across the United States.” It is difficult to find other sources corroborating this statement, but it certainly makes sense when one thinks on it (It should be noted that Forensic Meteorologist Joe Soebel, interviewed on the History Channel program, Monster Quest did confirm that large birds do follow rising currents of air preceding thunderstorms).
Big Names In Big Birds Around The World: Legends of giant birds are not restricted solely to North America of course. In ancient Mesopotamia, for example, there is an Akkadian myth which tells of Anzu, a lesser divinity with the body of a giant bird and the head of a lion who is so large that its wing flaps cause storms and whirlwinds.
More well-known is the legend of the Roc, made famous by the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. That self-same book also describes the Roc twice more in a pair of stories involving Abd al-Rahman. The Roc was reputedly a bird of ridiculous proportions, able to snatch up elephants and eat them or carry boulders large enough to drop on and sink the ships of certain Arabian heroes. Its eggs were so large that Sinbad mistook one for a dome-shaped building.
The Venetian explorer of the 11th and 12th centuries CE, Marco Polo, described Rocs inhabiting Madagascar in his Book of Travels. In one instance he relates the story of the great Kublai Khan receiving a gift of a Roc feather from Madagascarian envoys which allegedly turned out to be the frond (a leaf or leaflike part of a palm, fern, or similar plant) of a Raphia palm.
Also supposedly sighted by the Islamic explorer, scholar, and judge, Ibn Battuta, the mythos of the Roc is likely derived from an earlier legend, that of the Garuda. Hindu stories thousands of years old tell of the solar bird, Garuda carrying off giant snakes and elephants to feast upon, something attributed to the Roc as well, indicating a probable link between the myths.
Though nowhere near as commonplace in the public eye as the clamoring reports of Bigfoot and Champ sightings, there has been a relatively steady flow of eyewitness claims concerning oversized ornithological oddities in North America for just over a century now. Some of the more significant ones are described here.
Written In Stone: The first well-known case of recent times comes from the American Southwest in the late 1800’s; it is also perhaps the most controversial incidence, having almost developed a mythos all its own.
The story is that a pair of cowboys in Arizona shot and killed a large avian creature which is sometimes described as a bird and others as a featherless reptilian thing. The pair hauled the carcass back to the nearest town where they secured it by a nail or lash up to the side of a barn with its wings outstretched. Then six men stood fingertip-to-fingertip in front of it to demonstrate the immensity of the beast’s wingspan and a photograph was taken which, according to anecdote, was published in the local newspaper, the Tombstone Epitaph in1886. Those who have scoured the paper’s archives, however, have seen their hopes of rediscovering this photograph frustrated. The closest nugget turned up has been a story printed by the Epitaph on April 26, 1890, about a 16-foot bird found in the desert by some ranchers. The claim that the Epitaph even printed this photograph is a dubious one in and of itself, having been made in a 1963 article of Saga magazine by Jack Pearl entitled “The Monster Bird That Carries Off Human Beings!”
Regardless, the story of this photograph has piqued the curiosity of many people. Owing to its own phantasmal nature the search for the ‘missing’ picture has almost become as big a mystery as the search for a real Thunderbird. Over the last century, several people have claimed to have seen or held the photograph; the most prominent among them being the late Ivan T. Sanderson, a prolific naturalist and writer who’s detailed studies of exotic animals did much to expand our limited understanding of their behaviors and ecosystems during his time. Sanderson had an especial interest in subjects cryptozoological and claimed to have at one point owned a copy of the Epitaph photo which, upon being loaned to an acquaintance in the 1960’s, never found its way back to him.
In the inaugural years of the new millennium the short-lived television program, Freaky Links staged a similar photograph (featured on the cover of this writing) depicting a group of Civil War soldiers standing triumphantly over the cadaver of what appears to be a prehistoric pterosaur which they shot dead. This promotional fake, meant to galvanize interest in the TV series, was intentionally designed to be reminiscent of the legendary Epitaph photo, leading to a moderate revival of interest in the elusive still-frame.
Researcher, Jerome Clark, has suggested that the description of this photograph is vague and evocative enough to possibly implant a sort of “false memory” in people, which would corroborate the idea that no such picture was ever actually taken. In general, the Tombstone Epitaph photograph is regarded as an urban legend.
Lowe vs. The Thunderbird: Quite possibly the most well-known modern Thunderbird sighting is the story of one of the creatures attempting to abscond with a small boy from Lawndale, Illinois. Cryptozoology.com describes the dramatic event, which to this day the protagonist resolutely swears did happen:
“Perhaps the most controversial inclusion of the Thunderbird capable of lifting a human comes from 1977 in Lawndale, Illinois. It was here that on July 25, 1977, towards 9:00 pm a group of three boys was in the backyard. They saw two large birds coming, and as the birds came in closer they went after the boys. Two of the boys escaped, but the third, Marlon Lowe, did not. One of the birds clamped onto his shoulder with its claws and proceeded to lift the ten-year-old boy about two feet off the ground for a distance of at least 30 yards. With screams of distress calling adults outside and coupled with a series of blows by the 65-pound boy, the bird finally released him. The boy was relatively unharmed, with psychological damage instead of physical.” (“Thunderbird”)
This is the only well-known modern account of a Thunderbird actually attacking a human being, barring some ambiguous piece of testimonial stowed away in the filing cabinets of obscurity. For that reason, as well as the unusual strength attributed to Marlon Lowe’s attacker, this account is unique among tales of a unique creature.
Witnesses to the incident described a bird resembling a Cathartidae, a family of bird comprised of seven species of New World condors and vultures. This is especially strange because vultures and condors do not have grasping feet like those of an eagle or hawk, but rather flat feet for walking, like that of a turkey (i.e. the Turkey Vulture). Various experts interviewed on the mildly sensationalistic History Channel program, Monster Quest agreed that while a large bird of prey is capable of moving relatively large volumes of weight, to actually pick up and carry something as heavy as a 65 lb. boy the bird (with grasping feet) would have to be very large and at least twice as heavy as the object being carried, probably in the 150 lb. range in Lowe’s case (even the Andean Condor does not usually exceed 33 lbs. in weight). Of course, just such a bird is what Marlon Lowe and eyewitnesses described…
Footage; Two of a Feather: During the very same year as the reported attack on Marlon Lowe, just 5 days later and in the same state, another man claimed to have captured a pair of Thunderbirds on film. Chief AJ Huffer had been hearing reports of giant raptors and decided to take his video camera out on the hunt. On the morning of July 30, 1977, while rowing the placid waters of Lake Shelbyville he spotted a nesting pair of exceptionally large birds. Huffer managed to capture a 100-foot roll of color film of the creatures which has since become essentially the less-famous Thunderbird equivalent of the Patterson Bigfoot film. A local TV station aired Huffer’s material too controversial reception, with Department of Conservation officials identifying the animals as Turkey Vultures.
The History Channel’s program, Monster Quest managed to get three different experts to examine the footage. The first, Dr. Mike Wallace of the Zoological Society of San Diego was very convinced that the animals were Turkey Vultures. Dr. David Hancock, historian and eagle biologist at the Hancock Wildlife Research Center, also came to the conclusion that the pair were Turkey Vultures. Dr. Patrick Redding, on the other hand, Director of the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, was presented as being less certain regarding identification. Calling one of the animals “very much larger” then an eagle, Turkey Vulture, or Black Vulture, he could only say that it appeared to him to be closer to the size of a condor.
Illinois had been a relative hotbed of Thunderbird sightings, especially in the ’70s. The footage captured by Chief Huffer is intriguing because it, at the very least, proves the presence within the state of two medium to large sized raptors apparently matching eyewitness descriptions. There were two animals present at the Marlon Lowe incident 5 days earlier, even though only one attacked him. A fully-grown Turkey Vulture or condor would certainly seem massive next to a 10-year old boy.
From the Lone Star to the Land of the Midnight Sun: Since the onset of the new millennium there have been a small handful of noteworthy Thunderbird sightings. Listed chronologically they occurred in Pennsylvania (2001), Alaska (2002), and Texas (2007).
On September 25, 2001, a 19 –year old boy claimed to have seen a raptor with a 10-15 foot wingspan flying over Route 119 in South Greensburg, Pennsylvania. A small handful of other sightings sprang up throughout the state that same year as well.
CNN.com reports a string of sightings in the Alaskan villages of Togiak and Manokotak during 2002. Local pilot, John Bouker claimed that he and his crew while en route to Manokotak saw one of the animals. At an estimated distance of 1,000 feet (300 meters), he called it “huge”, with a wingspan of about 14 feet. Officials of the US Fish and Wildlife Service attributed the sightings to a Russian bird, the Steller’s Sea Eagle, which can weigh up to 20 lbs and have a wingspan up to 8 ft.
Finally, a series of similar sightings were reported in and around San Antonio, Texas during 2007.
HYPOTHESES: WHAT THEY COULD BE
Excluding hoaxes and eyewitness claims made for publicity’s sake, most instances of people legitimately believing to have seen a living Thunderbird could easily have been caused by anything from the power of suggestion, to lack of sleep, to mistaken estimates of the size of real avian animals. History Channel’s Monster Quest actually performed a clever experiment to test that last one out. Creating a kite in the shape of a bird with a wingspan in excess of 20 ft they flew it over a park and asked passersby to observe it and then give them their best guess as to wingspan. Interestingly, not a single participant was able to accurately guess the size. To make matters worse for the Thunderbird mythos the model was flown in a clear line of sight and participants had all the time they needed to observe the thing. Given that some eyewitness accounts are of brief, sometimes frantic glimpses, with the occasional added problem of obscured vision due to tree lines or time of day, this experiment, though hardly conclusive, is a point against the possibility of Thunderbirds.
Certainly, certain circumstances conspire against their chances of reality. In addition to the problems of accurately sizeable sightings, the phenomenon faces another two roadblocks. First, there is the problem of food supply. Angelo P. Capparella, an ornithologist from Illinois State University, contends that there just isn’t a large and plentiful enough trophic base (especially in regions where sightings are common) to support any kind of breeding population of birds that large. She also points out that the legions of competent and enthusiastic bird-watchers in the continental United States would probably have spotted something by now, were these creatures a reality.
Still, working on the assumption that at least some of the sightings are of exactly what they claim; that living, record-breaking raptors are real phenomena, then the most probable explanations are:
Relic Species; the Teratorns: Some cryptozoologists point to the extinct Teratorns as a possible explanation for modern-day Thunderbirds. “Teratorn” refers to an extinct avian family from North and South America called “Teratornithidae”. This family and its three current constituent species are the largest flying birds known to have ever existed. The Teratorns are understood from scattered fossils ranging from the Miocene (23.03 – 5.33 mya) to the Pleistocene (1.8 mya -10,000 ya) epochs. These animals were birds of prey which bore a strong resemblance to modern-day vultures and condors.
The most common and well-understood, Teratornis merriami, known primarily from the Rancho La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, California, stood roughly 0.75 cm (29.5 in) tall, had a wingspan of 3.5 – 3.8 m (11.5 – 12.5 ft), and weighed roughly 15 kg (33 lbs). (Campbell, 1980)
The most awe-inspiring member of this family is Argentavis magnificens, discovered by Dr. Kenneth E. Campbell and Eduardo P. Tonni in 1980. This Argentinean raptor stood roughly 1.5 m (4.9 ft) tall, had a wingspan of 7 – 7.6 m (23 – 24.9 ft), and may have weighed up to 120 kg (264 lbs), though newer estimates seem to place it around 60 – 80 kg (140 – 180 lbs). (Campbell, 1980)
The other species, Aiolornis incredibilis, is poorly understood due to the highly fragmentary nature of current fossil evidence. However, it does appear to have been larger than T. merriami. All of these specimens offer conclusive proof that avian predators at least as large as the stories of Thunderbirds did exist at one point within the planet’s history (relatively recently in geologic terms, too). Here cryptozoologists point to the possibility that some Teratorns, though rare, continue to exist today. The majority of modern sightings describe animals that match the description of a Teratorn very closely.
Relic species (also known as Lazarus taxon), or species that were thought to be extinct but which later have been discovered to be alive and well, are not unheard of. The poster-child for this kind of thing is the famous Coelacanth fish, an Order of lobe-finned fish that first appears in the fossil record roughly 410 mya in the Devonian Period and thought to have gone extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period 65 mya until its rediscovery off the coast of South Africa in 1938. There are other examples of course, but none so dramatic. It is tempting to point the finger at the Coelacanth as proof of the possibility, but it must be remembered that a large fish remaining undiscovered underneath the vastness of the ocean is an entirely different thing than one of the largest birds in all of history remaining undocumented on one or two continents. Still, it is possible, if unlikely.
The most immediately encouraging thing to take from the Teratorns is that they definitively prove that there is no inherent impossibility of raptors growing as large as the Thunderbirds. The argument that birds “just can’t get that big” is not a valid one. The flip-side to this is that for birds to get that big what they feed on probably does too. The epochs in which the Teratorns lived were rife with what are called “megafauna”; animals which grew to absolutely monstrous proportions such as mammoths, giant sloths, dire wolves, and even the Teratorns themselves. As the millennia passed and the majority of Pleistocene megafauna began to dwindle and die out (possibly due to over-hunting by early humans) there would likely have emerged a tremendous selective pressure on these organisms favoring a smaller size corresponding to smaller food. Again we see that the modern Thunderbird phenomenon begs the question: “What do they eat?”
An alternative version of the Relic Species argument occasionally suggested, is that Thunderbird sightings are actually of Relic Pterosaurs (sometimes massive flying reptiles that lived alongside the dinosaurs during the Mesozoic era). This, however, to be frank, seems somewhat less likely than the Teratorns.
Individual Anomalies; Gigantism: Another intriguing possibility is that Thunderbirds are not a separate unique species or genus, but rare individuals from extant and documented species. Variation in size is common among individuals within populations, but occasionally it goes beyond the generally defined parameters. Gigantism is a “condition in which an animal or plant is far greater than normal in size. … among animals, gigantism is usually the result of hereditary and glandular disturbance.” (“Gigantism”, The Columbia Encyclopedia)
Of course this not an exacting examination of the effects of gigantism, but these simple calculations can serve as a compelling illustration of the potential of the condition. The possibility of gigantism as the culprit behind Thunderbird sightings is a tempting one; both because it does not stumble over the problem of food supplies for breeding populations and it could easily explain the generally elusive nature of this phenomenon.
In humans, gigantism can be caused by excessive growth hormone secretion in the anterior pituitary. When this occurs within a growing and developing child it can lead to startling results, such as the case of Robert Wadlow. Born in 1928 he became the tallest man on record; 8 feet 11 inches tall and still growing by the time of his death at age 22. The mean height of U.S. males from 1960-62 (still roughly 20 years after Wadlow’s death) was 69 inches (5.75 ft). (Ogden et al, 2004) Wadlow was 107 inches at the time of his death, fully 64% larger than a fairly representative average.
If we take the average wingspan of a Turkey Vulture, 67-70 inches (5.58-5.83 ft) (Cornell Lab of Ornithology), and increase that by 64% we would have a wingspan of 110-115 inches (9.16-9.58 ft). If we did the same to a California Condor, whose wingspan is already 109 inches (9.1 ft) (Cornell Lab of Ornithology), then the result would be a wingspan of 170 inches (14.1 ft.). That is as large as the extinct T. merriami (as well as some modern Thunderbird sightings).
This composite, it should be pointed out, is only intended to be a cursory overview of the Thunderbird phenomena and does not go into all the excruciating detail that the author perhaps typically prefers. For those who share such enthusiasm for the minutia, the following sources will serve as good springboards.
- Wikipedia. It is not as rigorously reliable as more reputable sources. However, it is always a good idea if you know little to nothing about a subject to give it a quick Wiki so as to break into the topic while at the same time often finding links to good references and source material.
- Thunderbirds: America’s Living Legends of Giant Birds. By Mark A. Hall and affiliated with Loren Coleman, both well-known cryptozoologists, this book should serve as a solid introduction to the phenomenon. Published by Paraview Press (2004).
- Big Bird! Modern Sightings of Flying Monsters. By Ken Gerhard, another recognized name among cryptozoologists, it should provide another solid overview of the phenomenon. Published by cfz (2007).
- Monster Quest: Birdzilla. A 45-minute episode of History Channel’s well-known program, it is actually worth a look. There are instances where it falls back on these kinds of programs’ typical sensationalism and “much ado over nothing”, but overall it is actually a solid installment with genuine experts consulted and a refreshingly objective approach.
- The aerodynamics of Argentavis, the world’s largest flying bird from the Miocene of Argentina. This a very interesting experiment published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2007) in which the Teratorn’s discoverer, Dr. Kenneth E. Campbell, teams up with others to try and determine how exactly this massive bird would have flown. Was it a glider or a flapper? The insight gained could just as easily be applied to possible modes of flight for Thunderbirds.
- Shadow of the Thunderbird (Cryptids Trilogy, Book 1). By Dallas Tanner, this is actually a work of fiction; but it is well-researched and looks to be a ripping good mystery yarn if you’re looking for entertainment. Published by Trilogus Books (2008).
“All About Birds”. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dec. 2008.
Birdzilla. Monster Quest. History Channel. 21 Nov. 2007.
Campbell, Kenneth E., and Tonni, Eduardo P. “A New Genus of Teratorn From the Huayquerian
of Argentina (Aves: Teratornithidae)” Contributions In Science 330 (1980): 59-68.
Edmonds, Margot, and Clark, Ella E. Voices of the Winds: Native American Legends. 1989.
Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2003.
“Gigantism”. The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. NY: Columbia University Press,
Heinselman, Craig. “Thunderbird”. Cryptozoology.com.
Howard, Hildegarde “Fossil Birds” Los Angeles County Museum Science Series No. 17
Paleontology No. 10 (1962): 15-30.
“Massive Bird Spotted in Alaska”. CNN.com. 18 Oct. 2002. Dec. 2008.
“Mythic Creatures: Air: Creatures From the Sky”. American Museum of Natural History.
Ogden, Cynthia L., et al. “Mean Body Weight, Height, and Body Mass Index,
United States1960–2002”. Advance Data: From Vital and Health Statistics. 347 (2004):
Thompson, Stith. Folk Tales of the North American Indians. U.S.A.: JG Press, 1995.
“thunderbird.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 21 Jan. 2009
Wallace, Ernest, and Hoebel, E. Adamson. The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains. 3rd ed.
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Wikipedia. Dec. 2008 – Jan. 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page>.