Thunderbird (cryptozoology)

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Thunderbird (artistic rendition).jpg
Artistic rendition of a large bird like a thunderbird
Sub groupingFlying animal
First reportedApril 1890
CountryUnited States

Thunderbird is a term used in cryptozoology, a pseudoscience, to describe large, bird-like creatures, generally identified with the Thunderbird of Native American tradition. While the fossil record does show that giant birds (teratorns) with wingspans between 4 and 5 m (13 and 16 ft) were likely contemporary with early man, the creature is generally regarded as a myth.

This article deals with modern sightings (the last 200 years) of such a creature, reported as real, as opposed to mythological accounts. However, believers in the phenomenon often use the Native American legends to support their claims.

The historians Adrienne Mayor and Tom Holland have suggested that stories of the Thunderbird were based on discoveries of pterosaur fossils by Native Americans.[1][2]

Early reports[edit]

On April 26, 1890 the Tombstone Epitaph carried a story about two ranchers having killed a "winged monster" resembling a huge alligator ninety-two feet in length, with an eight foot long head, jaws "thickly set with strong, sharp teeth", a smooth hairless body with a maximum diameter of fifty inches, an immense pair of wings composed of a "thick and nearly transparent membrane" (with an estimated wingspan of 160 feet), two feet just ahead of the wings, and an elongated tail.[3]

According to Mark Hall, the Epitaph did indeed print a story about the capture of a large, unusual winged creature on April 26, 1890.[4] Beyond this single story, however, no one has made historic corroboration that this event ever occurred; it is usually considered an urban legend. Completely fictional tall tales were not an uncommon feature in newspapers during this era.[5]

No one has ever produced a copy of the "Thunderbird" photograph, though numerous people, Ivan T. Sanderson being one of the better known, have made claims to its existence. Sanderson claimed to have once owned a copy of the photo, which vanished after he loaned it to an acquaintance in the 1960s. The television program Freaky Links staged a similar photo, giving new life to the "Thunderbird Photograph" legend.[6]

Jerome Clark speculates that the description of the basic image in question (men standing alongside a winged creature nailed to a barn) is evocative enough to implant a sort of false memory, leading some people to vaguely "remember" seeing the photo at some distant, imprecise time.[7]

20th century[edit]

Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman wrote about a series of thunderbird sightings in the 1940s. On April 10, 1948, three individuals in Overland, Illinois, spotted what they originally thought to be a passing plane, but after seeing a large set of flapping wings, they realized this "plane" was something very different. A few weeks later, in Alton, Illinois, a man and his son saw what they described as an enormous bird-like creature with a body shaped like a naval torpedo. The creature was flying at at least 500 feet (152 m) and cast a shadow the same size as a small passenger airplane.[8]

Similar sightings around the same time in St. Louis, Missouri, prompted residents to write concerned letters to then St. Louis mayor Aloys P. Kaufmann demanding that the city do something about these reportedly huge birds. The mayor instructed an administrative assistant to set a trap to catch one of the creatures, but when blue heron tracks were discovered on an island in the Meramec River, the mystery was considered solved.[8]

21st century[edit]

In 2002, a sighting of a large birdlike creature with an apparent wingspan of around 4 m (14 ft) was reported in Alaska.[9] The Anchorage Daily News reported witnesses describing the creature like something out of the movie Jurassic Park.[10] Scientists suggested the giant bird may have simply been a Steller's sea eagle, which have a wingspan of 180–240 cm (6–8 ft) and had been reported in the area previously.[9] The paranormal reality series Destination Truth traveled to Manokotak in 2009 to search for the creature.

As recently as 2007, sightings have been claimed in the area around San Antonio, Texas.[11]

On January 16, 2018, there were reportedly several sightings of a large black bird the size of a small plane in the Mendenhall Valley area of Juneau, Alaska.[12]


Some cryptozoologists have theorized the ancient Thunderbird myth to be based on sightings of a real animal with a mistaken assessment of its apparent size. 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. John A. Keel claimed to have mapped several Thunderbird sightings and found that they corresponded chronologically and geographically with storms moving across the United States.[citation needed]

Angelo P. Capparella,[7] an ornithologist at Illinois State University, argues that the existence of such undiscovered large birds is highly unlikely, especially in North America. There is not enough food, Capparella says, in many areas where abnormally large birds are reported. Perhaps more important, according to Capparella, is the lack of sightings by "the legions of competent birdwatchers scanning the skies of the U.S. and Canada" who sometimes make "surprising observations" with cameras at the ready (see for example 20th-century sightings of the Eskimo curlew). Were there breeding populations of large, unknown birds, Capparella contends they could not remain unknown very long.

In Mysterious New Mexico, author Ben Radford published the results of his investigation of modern sightings of thunderbirds, ascribing many to sightings of birds such as condors.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Fossil Legends of the First Americans
  2. ^ BBC Four - Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters
  3. ^ Staff writer (April 26, 1890). "Found on the Desert". Tombstone Epitaph. 11 (151). Tombstone, Arizona: Meek & Madero. p. 3 – via
  4. ^ Hall, Mark A.; Rollins, Mark Lee (1 November 2008). Thunderbirds: America's Living Legends of Giant Birds. Cosimo, Inc. pp. 132–139. ISBN 978-1-60520-349-2.
  5. ^ Hanlon, Tina L. (2007-05-07). "Tall Tales and Jack Tales: Literature and Writing Activities". Study Guides. Ferrum College. Retrieved 2007-11-27.
  6. ^ "Museum Announcement and Research Requests". The Cryptozoologist. Retrieved 2010-01-20.
  7. ^ a b Clark, Jerome (1993). Unexplained! 347 Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences, and Puzzling Physical Phenomena. Visible Ink Press.
  8. ^ a b Coleman, Loren (1986). "Curious encounters: Phantom trains, spooky spots and other mysterious wonders"", p. 34-37. Faber and Faber, Inc. ISBN 0-571-12542-5.
  9. ^ a b "Massive bird spotted in Alaska". CNN. Reuters. 2002-10-18. Archived from the original on 2006-02-05.
  10. ^ "Giant-bird sighting in Alaska". Arizona Daily Star. 161 (294). Tucson, Arizona. Tribune Media Services. 2002-10-21. p. A2 – via required)
  11. ^ Joe Conger (2007-07-28). "Sightings of mysterious giant bird continue in San Antonio". My San Antonio News. Archived from the original on 2008-06-28.
  12. ^ Gullufsen, Kevin (2018-02-01). "Impossibly large bird spotted in Mendenhall Valley". Juneau Empire. Retrieved 2019-02-08.
  13. ^ Radford, Ben (2014). "Chapter 7 Thunderbirds: Mysterious Giants in the Sky". Mysterious New Mexico. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press. pp. 131–152. ISBN 978-0-8263-5450-1.