The Thunderbird: Examining the Legend
Posted on Wednesday, December 13, 2006 (CST) by Thoth
Across the globe there are stories of giant birds often called Thunderbirds that we assume exist only in legend. Their presence has been faithfully recorded in the mythology of many cultures for thousands of years in the form of cave art, carvings, pottery and ancient stories.Oddly enough, there are many people who believe that there is more to these stories than mere legends. Records of actual sightings of the strange ‘giant’ also span the world; often mirroring areas where the legend originates.These sightings obviously fuel much debate in the world of cryptozoology, because they suggest that there is a previously undiscovered species of bird that has eluded science despite its immense size. Witnesses’ descriptions further complicate the issue because sightings fall into two distinct categories: giant feathered birds, or giant featherless creatures.This discrepancy has caused some researchers to question if the term Thunderbird is mistakenly used to describe two completely unrelated animals. Investigations into what these mysterious and elusive creatures could be centers on two very different lines of thought: that they are either an unknown species of bird, or a pterosaur (a type of dinosaur that in theory died out several million years ago). There is however a third explanation that in many ways encompasses the other two; that these creatures are an entirely supernatural phenomena. The biggest challenge that faces researchers and investigators today is to understand what kind of creature the Thunderbird is.The Legend of the Thunderbird The Thunderbird’s name originated from the belief that its massive wings were responsible for creating thunder and lightening as it flew through the skies. Even in America, the Thunderbird appears to have been called many different names in different cultural traditions. The native people of modern-day Illinois called it the Piasa while in New England some tribes knew it as the Pmola.The Thunderbird’s reputation is as varied as its names; in the Pacific Northwest Thunderbirds were seen as protectors and its image adorned canoes to protect fishermen from whales. But tribes such as the Cherokee, who called it Tlanuwa, feared the Thunderbird and claimed that it raided the villages, carrying off small dogs and children.Interestingly, the legends of the Algonquin people of New England told how the giant birds rode the wind currents from the southwest all the way up the eastern U.S. to New England. Researchers have noted that this fits with many reported modern day sightings, as the birds seem to follow the prevailing weather systems which start in Mexico and flow to the northeast, through the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys up into the Appalachian Mountains. It comes as no surprise to hear that many modern sightings are in the same places where many of the Thunderbird legends originated. Mistaken IdentityIn the past, many investigators have suggested that what are reported as Thunderbird sightings are actually condors, turkey buzzards or even large eagles. These birds have wingspans of between six and ten feet depending on the species, although this is considerably smaller than the thirty foot wingspan attributed to the Thunderbird. Also, condors, the biggest of the suspects, are not native to many areas where sightings have been reported. Certainly though, some witnesses have stated specifically that the bird they saw strongly resembled a condor, both in size and outline although they are particularly rare today. The famed ornithologist John J. Audubon offered another candidate that might have been mistaken for a thunderbird. Audubon described an unknown species of eagle in the area of the Illinois and Ohio River valleys that he named Washington’s eagle. This particular raptor species was said by Audubon to be over three and a half feet in length with a wingspan exceeding ten feet. Audubon only made five total sightings of this bird, although during one he managed to shoot and examine a specimen. However, not all biologists accept that Washington’s eagle is a separate species, and suggest that Audubon was mistaking large golden eagles or even immature bald eagles for this other bird. Some of the modern reports of unknown giant birds sound as though the witnesses could be describing the type of bird that Audubon had seen, especially as some sightings appeared in the area that the ornithologist described. Modern sightings of giant birdsIn Alton, Illinois, in 1947 there was a rash of sightings in which the witnesses described having seen impossibly large birds. In early April of that year, a farmer named Robert Price reported a ‘monster bird... bigger than an airplane’, and on April 10th another was spotted, this time by Mr. and Mrs. Clyde Smith and Mr. Les Bacon. In that sighting, the witnesses thought they were looking at a small airplane until the bird flapped its wings. The sightings that year continued until early May and then stopped until 1977 when one was sighted again.On July 25th 1977, several residents from Lawndale, Illinois reported seeing two large birds of an unknown species which attacked three boys playing in a yard. One of the boys, ten year old Marlon Lowe, was seized by one of the talons of one of the birds and witnessed claimed he was actually lifted about a foot into the air. The boy weighed about 65 pounds at the time, so any bird capable of lifting another animal of that weight would have been enormous. One witness said the bird had a body the size of a large man and had a white ring around its neck on an otherwise coal-black body. Another witness, the boy’s mother, said the bird resembled a condor. Fortunately the boy was able to struggle free, and was left with only minor wounds. This was not the only report of these large birds from the area in that year; just a few days after the above incident, a man and his wife watching model airplanes fly over their farm reported seeing two birds with estimated ten-foot wingspans. On July 30th in Bloomington, Illinois, a man who was spending the day on a fishing boat with his son managed to film two giant birds after they took flight, shooting about 100 feet of footage of the birds. He estimated their wingspan as being over twelve feet. When the film was shown to local Department of Conservation officials, they stated the birds were merely large turkey vultures, which are native to the area. However, other researchers and wildlife experts disagreed, as turkey vultures do not grow to the size of the birds reported by the many witnesses. There were also several sightings in June to September of 2001 in Pennsylvania. On June 13th, a resident of Greenville, Pennsylvania reported seeing a huge dark grey or black bird with a wingspan of 15 feet flying overhead. One of the witnesses’ neighbors also came forward to say they had seen this huge bird, which was observed for about fifteen minutes before flying away to the south. What appears to be the same bird was seen in July, this time in Erie County and again on September 25th, this time flying over a highway and landing in a tree, where a dead branch nearly broke under its weight. Again, the bird in this sighting had a wingspan of an estimated ten to fifteen feet, and didn’t resemble any of the known local birds. Giants of the PastDuring the past, there were other species of raptors in the skies over the Americas. In fact, during the mega-fauna era of the Pleistocene, there were at least seven species of eagle in North America. Although most died out when the other large animals did, at least one survived into the period when, even by the most conservative estimates, humans were colonizing the Americas. This bird was Teratornis merriami, a bird of enormous proportions who was still alive as recently as 8000 years ago. From the fossil remains, we know it stood about five feet tall and had an awe-inspiring twenty-four foot wingspan, something comparable in size to a single-engine aircraft. Because the remains of Teratornis have been found alongside human artifacts, it is likely that early residents of the North America not only knew of Teratornis but might have hunted it, either as food or because it hunted humans. Fossilized remains of the bird have led researchers to believe that Teratornis was a predator and not merely a scavenger. Given that many of the Thunderbird legends tell of these birds carrying away humans as food it is possible that this amazing creature is actually the origin for the Thunderbird legend. Is it a Bird? Although it existed in the legends of many cultures, at times it seems the stories are describing vastly different animals. In some places the description clearly fits that of a large bird, while in others it takes on distinct reptilian characteristics.Researchers have noted that many of the descriptions of the Thunderbird, including images and petroglyphs, have a more reptilian nature. They suggest that it is possible that the Thunderbird isn’t a bird at all, but what could only be described as a living fossil – a pterosaur.Pterosaurs were a group of flying reptiles that lived along the dinosaurs and died out at the end of the Cretaceous Period. Pterosaurs ranged in size from the tiny Pterodactylus elegans with a wingspan of just under 10 inches to the mighty Quetzelcoatlus, with a wingspan of up to 40 feet. However, no remains of pterosaurs have been found in the fossil record after the so-called “K-T” boundary, which is the time in the geological record when all dinosaur fossils cease to appear.An early visitor to the region of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, the French explorer Jacques Marquette, reported seeing a painting of the Piasa bird painted high on the face of a cliff. Marquette’s description of the painting gives details that sound more reptilian than avian:"On the flat face of a high rock were painted, in red, black, and green, a pair of monsters, each as large as a calf, with horns like a deer, red eyes, a beard like a tiger, and a frightful expression of countenance. The face is something like that of a man, the body covered with scales, and the tail so long that it passes entirely round the body, over the head, and between the legs, ending like that of a fish." Unfortunately, today only a reproduction of that painting remains as no one has been able to pinpoint the exact location that Marquette’s described, leading skeptics to suggest he may have lied about seeing this particular image.As outlandish as it sounds, many researchers have taken the possibility that there could still be living pterosaurs very seriously. There have been recent expeditions to Papua New Guinea to search for a flying creature the locals call the ‘Ropen’ which from descriptions, sounds like a living specimen of a pterosaur called Rhamphorhyncus from the Late Jurassic period. There are other places in the world where cryptozoologists believe that these creatures may still exist; reports of pterosaur-like creatures such as the Kongamoto of the African Congo region continue to intrigue many. The Pterosaur ReturnsIf sightings of feathered giant birds are plentiful, it has to be said that so are sightings of flying reptiles. In 1992, a small plane in Brazil reported a near collision with what everyone claimed was a white pterosaur, which supposedly flew next to the plane. This encounter occurred while a twenty-four passenger plane was flying over a mountainous jungle region. The plane’s flight attendant claimed the creature flew alongside the plane enabling her to see it clearly through the windows, but no estimated size for the creature was given.Over the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, film was shot in the 1970s which reportedly showed a pterosaur in flight. Although the footage appears to have been lost it was mentioned in books on cryptozoology at the time.In 1976, a policeman named Arturo Padilla of San Benito, Texas was on patrol in his vehicle during the early-morning hours when he spotted a huge shape in his headlights which resembled a huge bird. Just a few moments later, another officer in the same town saw the same large creature, which he described as gliding along without flapping its wings. A short time after that report, a man in Brownsville named Alverico Guajardo claimed that around 9:30 in the evening a large creature he described as being ‘like a bird, but not a bird’ crashed into his mobile home. Mr. Guajardo said he witnessed the stunned creature standing in his yard after the crash, and described it as huge and unlike anything he’d ever seen.In January of 1976, a young man in Raymondsville, Texas was reportedly attacked by a creature he claimed stood six feet tall and had a wingspan he estimated at being at least ten feet wide. Although not seriously injured, he was very shaken by this encounter, and said the creature that attacked him had huge red eyes and blackish-brown leathery skin, but no feathers. In February of the same year, three school teachers on their way to work at a local elementary school were startled when they saw a huge creature with a wingspan of at least twelve feet soar over their cars. After arriving at work and researching what they had seen, they found a library book with a similar creature in; according to the book, these three very reliable and intelligent witnesses had seen a pterosaur. A more recent sighting in which the witnesses were convinced they’d seen a living pterosaur came from Perth, Australia in 1997. A couple taking an evening walk observed a creature flying some 300 feet above them, which had wings shaped like an elongated triangle, reddish-tan leathery looking skin with no visible feathers but possibly covered in scales, and a body shaped like a torpedo. The couple watched the creature for several minutes, and they claimed the creature glided without flapping its wings while they watched it fly slowly off to the south along the coastline.Supernatural PossibilitiesSkeptics point out however that there is no physical evidence to support claims that these undiscovered birds or reptiles do actually exist. The most famous ‘photographs’ of pterosaurs allegedly taken during the American civil war are known to have been faked by the media and other ‘big bird’ photographs remain disputed at best.Rather than looking for a creature that lives amongst us, it is possible that we may be looking for a creature that is only visible when conditions are favorable. Whether those conditions relate to a build up of psychic energy, times where the veil that separates our dimension from other dimensions is compromised, occasions when aspects of the past are somehow ‘replayed’, is unknown. There is even the very real possibility that what we are witnessing is off world in nature. There are strong similarities between the phenomena known as the ‘Mothman’ and some images and descriptions of the Thunderbird. Mothman was the name given to a creature sighted several times in the area of Point Pleasant, West Virginia in the 1960s. This creature was a tall, winged being with eyes that were either glowing red orbs or that reflected red light. Like some Thunderbird traditions, the Mothman was a frightening creature and considered to be a bad omen. In Mothman’s case, the sightings ended around the time of the disastrous collapse of the Silver Bridge in 1967, which kiiled forty-seven people. The mothman has of course been attributed to natural causes, with many people suggesting that it was actually a sandhill crane; a grey large bird, with large red spots that could have been mistaken for eyes.ConclusionsThere have been other animals such as the coelecanth and the Laotian rock-rat that were believed to be long-extinct that were found alive and well. But of the habitat of these creatures; dense forests and deep oceans lends itself to their concealment. In contrast, reports of unknown fliers vary from remote and sparsely populated areas of the world such as the Amazon to well-populated places like Illinois and Pennsylvania. It is hard to imagine that we’ve overlooked either a bird the size of Teratornis or a flying reptile of about the same size, yet it is hard to ignore the claims of seemingly reliable witnesses, who sometimes have observed the creatures in question at close range often during daylight. It is clear that a significant number of these sightings could be genuine misidentifications, but what about the rest? There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that there are enigmatic creatures in our skies that we haven’t yet been able to identify exactly what they are and where they come from. To discover more about these strange creatures might require a willingness to consider the impossible, to think outside the box and really look at the legend of the Thunderbird from an entirely fresh perspective. The legend of the Thunderbird may yet become a reality.
This article was written by FyreSpirit.© Thothweb - http://www.thothweb.comAll images copyright © by their respective photographers. This article is copyrighted. No part of this article can be reproduced without the written permission of ThothWeb.